NFL Chaplains Bridge Gap Between God and the Game

As Christians know there is a comfort that comes from relying on God and seeking spiritual guidance in the peaks and valleys of life. And that is where men like Ken Johnson and Ken Moyer come in–bridging the sometimes sizable gap between the life God wants us to live and the ferocity of National Football League competition.

Johnson has been the chaplain for the Indianapolis Colts for the past 20 years. During that time he was worked for five head coaches and will be under the direction of a sixth coach in 2009 with associate head coach Jim Caldwell replacing the retired Tony Dungy.

Under Dungy’s leadership the Colts have been one of the most trouble-free teams with relatively few off-the-field issues that capture headlines. Johnson affirmed that the coach’s faith and the leadership skills that flow from it have been critical factors in the Colts’ image.

“His philosophy is the ‘ex’ factor: no excuses, no explanations, high execution, high expectation. There are five strong suggestions he has with his players: Don’t be out after 1:00. Don’t drink and drive. No unlicensed weapons, and if you have a gun, keep it at home, not on yourself or in your car. One woman at a time, preferably your wife. Don’t speed.”

Some of those maxims may seem like common sense, but in a world where constant attention–and in some cases adoration –are common, it affects players’ ability to accurately self-evaluate.

“A lot of these guys don’t want to talk to me until they’re broken or tragedy or travesty happens,” Johnson explained. “The same temptations than can drag the rest of us down are just magnified a hundredfold.

“In particular with the NFL, with fame comes fortune, with fortune comes power, with power comes the capacity to create pleasure. You find guys that are sometimes unreachable when they have people telling them what they want to hear as opposed to what they need to hear.”

Some of the trickiest hurdles players face are linked to their lives prior their NFL careers, according to Cincinnati Bengals chaplain Ken Moyer.

“Most of the problems players face are similar in nature to when I played, but maybe a little more intense because of there now being more money in the game,” Moyer said. “Problems happen when other people try to get stuff off of you, whether it’s money or a name for themselves.

“We always deal with people who may come from not the best backgrounds. It’s difficult for some guys to learn that some of their old friends may not always have their best interests in mind.”

Moyer sees his service to the Bengals as a way to give players a sense of something larger than themselves, particularly once their football careers are over. He has a first-hand perspective on this view having been a guard on the Bengals’ offensive line from 1989 to 1994.

“I will occasionally have people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you look familiar, didn’t you play for the Bengals?’,” Moyer said. “I’ll say yes and maybe we’ll talk a little about football and that’s it. Fame is fleeting. I wanted to do something after football that I knew would last forever.”

Moyer also has a built-in communication advantage as a former player.

“Generally I think it’s a little easier for players to trust me because I’ve been where they are,” Moyer said. “Being able to see things from their perspective probably gives me a little more credibility.”

Both Johnson and Moyer have developed long-term relationships with players they’ve helped disciple into a relationship with Christ. Such evangelism is never an easy task.

“We always have guys on our team who avoid me like the plague,” Johnson said. “We remind them of their sinful lives. They’re cordial and respectful and even honor my position and my platform, but they won’t really engage in a conversation.”

Both men conduct chapel services with players the night before game days during the season and work with players and coaches alike on various Bible studies. Working with players’ families is also a component of the job.

“A lot of times I will have guys come to me just when life happens,” Johnson explained. “There may be a problem where they’ll say their dad has cancer or their baby is sick.”

The part of football most fans see runs from training camps in July to the Super Bowl in February. Just like with the players, the off-the-field aspect of the game is a year-round business for chaplains.

“I always want to be available,” said Moyer, whose wife also works with players’ wives and girlfriends as part of her ministry. “When you have a trusting relationship with the players and you’re close enough with them, it allows them to come to you when trouble arises.”

Both men felt serving the Lord in some manner was a long-term goal before their present positions. Johnson began his personal ministry while a member of the Tulsa Police Department in the 1980s. He was a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and it was through them he eventually became liked with the Colts. Moyer said he knew while he was playing he wanted to tap his faith to guide his life after football.

“I had conversations with front office people about working toward a second career after my playing days were over,” Moyer said. “I knew I wanted to be involved in ministry to some degree. I had a heart for high school and college students. These were things my wife and I had talked about even before we were married.

“I had a pretty sudden end to my career. Six weeks later I called my team chaplain and there was a way for me to work with the team. God did what He wanted me to do.”
Moyer’s faith and communication skills aided his transition to life after football. That is not always the case. Johnson said he has seen numerous players run up huge debts during their careers and then struggle mightily to move on with their lives.

“A lot of these guys are unskilled at anything but football,” Johnson said. “Unless you go into coaching or broadcasting, something related to football, it can be a problem. That’s why it’s important for these guys to be grounded in something else.”

Johnson knows future enjoyment of his position is secure with Caldwell as head coach. Caldwell is Johnson’s accountability partner on the team and is cut from the same cloth of Christian leadership as Dungy. Still there is the reality that long-term NFL employment is based on on-the-field success for coaches and players alike.

“It’s like I’ve died and have gone to chaplains’ heaven,” Johnson said. “Of course, he has to win. They’re football coaches first and ministers second. You have to have the Xs and Os.”

 

 

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