Faith and Football

Photo credit: St. Paul Pioneer Press

At the center of my Sundays since the mid-90s has been the act of praising and thanking God (for almost fifteen years now, in Eastern Orthodox parishes) for His unshakable good will toward me and all human beings in spite of our great and ongoing failings.  This way of structuring Sundays stands very much in contrast to my experience as a child growing up in a secular Jewish family in a Minneapolis suburb in the ‘70s -- when, from September through January (and I really don’t remember Sundays otherwise), my whole reality rose and fell with the televised fortunes of the Minnesota Vikings, whose yellow-trimmed white and purple uniform and helmet against the wan (home games) or strong (West Coast games) sunlit expanse of a perfect green field touched the deepest chord in me.   From a game’s start to its finish, reality was different, more taut and concentrated, than before or afterward and determined the cast of the rest of the day and, often, the week, for better or worse. 

Usually it was for worse – or so I remember.  The Vikings’ cumulative record from 1970-80 was actually 108-50-1.  And I do have vivid memories of high points.  One was the game against Cleveland that put us into the 1980 playoffs (the closest analogue to an afterlife, in my childhood cosmology) when Tommy Kramer with 14 seconds left from our own 20 and the Vikings trailing 23-22 hit Sammy White who lateraled immediately to Ted Brown who ran to about midfield and out of bounds with 5 seconds on the clock.  Kramer then threw a Hail Mary into the end zone on the game’s final play.  The ball was tipped and somehow scooped up with one hand by Ahmad Rashad for the touchdown.  With the rest of Minnesota, and with the latest (January '77) of four lacerating Super Bowl losses still a raw wound, I was delirious, running and shouting through the house for joy.  But such moments of elation are far overshadowed in my childhood memory by the Super Bowl losses and kindred devastations like the '75 divisional playoff loss to Dallas, when Drew Pearson scored on a Roger Staubach TD pass the refs let stand even though Pearson clearly shoved cornerback Nate Wright on the way to the ball.        

I was baptized in '96.  One of the things about the presence of God when a person is newly touched and exalted by it in even the merest of ways is that it relativizes everything else.  What otherwise would get a person all riled up – slights, disappointments, fears – suddenly doesn’t.  Everything is melted or dissolved in the glow of the divine radiance.  As one millennium gave way to the next the Vikings went on blowing important games as, for example, they did, true to form, in the '98 NFC championship game against Atlanta (placekicker Gary Anderson, otherwise perfect all year, missing a 38-yarder), again in the 2009 championship game against the Saints (Brett Favre throwing needlessly and dangerously across field for an interception) and again in the January '16 Wild Card game against Seattle (Blair Walsh missing an easy 27-yard field goal). 

To what extent any of this could still put me into an emotional tailspin was an interesting question.  From many of my old attachments, whether to people's praise or to creature comforts or various desirable outcomes related to work or family, I had found myself abruptly and completely freed at the moment when God's reality and goodness had first impressed themselves on me, but over time they had returned (surprise!), so that I would have to make a deliberate and often prolonged effort to let go of them through prayer, confession, and other spiritual disciplines.  Bitter Vikings’ defeats were part of this.  I found I could let go (as I couldn’t back in the days when the Vikings were my religion) but if I didn't watch out, still, the whole Vikings football thing could ensnare me again in fruitless feelings of manic worry, despair and self-pity. 

More than once it occurred to me that if I had just opened myself more fearlessly to God's will for me I might have made a different decision altogether by now related to watching professional football:  I might simply have renounced it.  I strongly suspect this to be true, actually.  Yes, athletics meaningfully develop virtues in those who play them and showcase human talent and spirit in edifying ways for spectators.  But I know I'm not alone in having long thought, occasionally with disturbing clarity, that if we Americans collectively could somehow shut off our televisions on Sunday afternoons during NFL season and redirect our hope- and anxiety-laden energies and resources into serving the pressing needs in our local communities, in a short time all our towns and cities would be wondrously transformed, along with our souls.  We are indeed entertaining and distracting ourselves to death in all sorts of ways, not least through professional sports.  Our country and our world are in trouble, drifting along on terrible tides of indifference and despair -- yet I go on allowing myself to get worked up again over the nothing that is on the line when the Vikings play the Packers, the Bills or the Bengals?  "Faces along the bar / Cling to their average day: / The lights must never go out, / The music must always play, / All the conventions conspire / To make this fort assume / The furniture of home; / Lest we should see where we are, / Lost . . ."    

The question -- why keep watching this stuff -- has been all the more sharpened by the increased medical and scientific consensus of recent years about the physiological damage the sport has done to so many players.  As it turns out, one need not be a world-renouncing religious zealot to be moved to keep the TV off on Sunday afternoons, but just a concerned human being.  Yet somehow I’ve kept this concern at arm's length, too.  Exposés like League of Denial on the horrors of concussions in the NFL are abundantly available, and I have managed not to digest any of them in full, thereby giving myself a little more time to remain unsure whether being an NFL fan necessarily goes against the grain of loving one's neighbor as oneself.  When principled people I know say they've weaned themselves from football viewing, I tell myself they evidently never had the kind of genuine devotion to a team that I had to the Vikings, or, if they did, never the baggage of so much chronic and momentous loss.  As with other drastic life-changes I sometimes contemplate making, whenever the thought of this one has arisen I've typically met it in the spirit of Augustine and his prayer, "God, make me holy -- but not yet."  A 13-3 season anyway has not really seemed the right time to start on the straight and narrow in this particular regard.  I'm sure I'll be better prepared, without double-mindedness, to ask God if this sacrifice really is His will for me and (if so) to act on it the day the Vikings have finally won the Super Bowl.

…Which irrepressibly hopeful thought brings me to last Sunday's playoff game against the Saints and the miraculous pass from Case Keenam to Stefon Diggs and the latter's spectacular run into the end zone as time expired.  By then I was watching in the upstairs bedroom of some friends in the neighborhood who, not being into sports, had invited us to a dinner party they had outrageously set for right around game time.  The first half I had watched with my kids at home before joining my wife at the party with the Vikings up 17-0 and a TV upstairs that our friends had said I could go turn on if I felt I needed to, as indeed I did, after engaging in only a little elevated chit-chat over dinner.  The lead had shrunk to 17-14.  It was the start of the fourth quarter.  The Vikings hit a field goal next, but it was no surprise to me when the Saints a few possessions later blocked a punt and marched forty yards into the end zone -- "for the first time all game, the Saints take the lead, with 3:01 to go," intoned one of the announcers -- because everything since I’d sat down had been telling me I had seen this movie; I knew the script.  Nor did the Vikings' subsequent field goal (putting them back up 23-21), however impressive at 53 yards, fool me for a second into thinking anything different, because there was still 1:29 remaining on the clock.  I knew what Drew Brees and his receivers would do in that time to the Vikings' defense (forget its #1 rating in the league) and I was right; I'm always right; all Minnesota fans are always right in these kinds of circumstances.  A few crisp passes got the Saints well into position for the inevitable go-ahead field goal with 25 seconds left. 

Some Viking fans spare themselves further torture at this point.  (--A friend later told me he went downstairs then and there to throw in a load of laundry.)  I stayed watching to the end, perhaps more than anything in sheer awe of the predictability of it all.  From our 25, Keenam completed a pass over the middle that required us to use our last time-out with 17 seconds left; we were at our own 39.  The next play went nowhere; it was one of those complete and total expressions of feeble impotence; it used up another seven seconds.  Then there was the last play.  Whether, seeing it, I was in the body or out of the body I still don't know.  The Vikings' Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes was quoted the next day as saying he watched the replay at home "about a thousand times".  Keenam dropped back and threw toward the right sideline about 25 yards downfield to Diggs who somehow eluded a tackle as he caught it, turned and ran for the score.

Comparing notes with my kids (11, 8, and 5) back home, you’d have thought we’d all made it through the apocalypse, each with our own stories of it to tell.  "I thought we were finished!"  "It was so amazing, Dad!"  "I couldn't believe it!"  "I went running into the kitchen like a maniac!"  My son, the middle child, recounted in more detail what was going through his mind just before the last play.  "I said, 'God, I know this isn't something to pray over, but please...'"  He also mentioned, a little later, that he felt sort of sorry for the Saints afterwards. 

This reminds me of a perennial response of many of my college students to the story of the exodus; the drowning of Pharaoh’s pursuing army bothers them.  Only in their case, it isn’t just a troubling layer in an overall response of awe-struck gladness – as my son felt – at the victory that’s been wrought; it’s virtually the whole response, as if all that’s happened here is only bad.  My attempts to deepen their reading are tricky and often fail since I can easily seem merely to be saying, don’t care so much!  But of course it isn’t that empathetic identification with those suddenly cast down is to be discouraged, in principle.  (And let’s be clear:  without a good dose of healthy moral discomfort about some of Scripture’s violence and destruction, we know what kinds of uses it can be put to.)  The question is how deep the quick identification with the Israelites’ pursuers really goes and whether it has first come to empathetic grips with the suffering of the ones oppressed by them for four centuries and only now gaining a freedom too good to be true.  Matthew, my 8-year-old, didn't suffer through four Viking Super Bowl losses as a child, nor sit and watch the Saints steal the 2009 playoff game right out of the Vikings' grasp.  When you've been through these things (an AP news article on Monday referred to the Vikings as "one of the NFL's most agonized franchises"), it is decidedly secondary how the Saints, who’ve got their Super Bowl title, must feel after Sunday’s loss. 

For some, of course, the defeated opposition’s misery is precisely part of what makes being victorious over them sweet, but that has never been my experience as a Vikings fan.  With respect to whatever team we’re lined up against, it isn’t about beating them, but about beating it – the deeper thing “they” just happen to be representing at the moment.  In fact the pure euphoria of seeing Diggs run into the end zone was far too soaring to be tethered to, or buoyed up any further by, anything so paltry and small as revenge.  The point as I see it, whether in biblical accounts or on the playing field, never is and never was to relish seeing the Goliaths or the Yankees or the Patriots of this world eat dust (Nietzsche was wrong to see ressentiment at the heart of biblical faith – though it does, sadly, seem to characterize many Yankee-haters I know) but to stand amazed simply by the realization that the impossible is possible.   The reason why the great ones, the strong of this world, don’t have all humankind pulling for them is that theirs are the victories no miracle is needed to bring about.  I suppose that perennial winners do have, then, a sort of tough time of it in their own way, since their fans’ devotion to them even at its most fervent must intrinsically lack a certain qualitative depth, the nobility of heartache, the precious hope-beyond-hope that the habit of winning can know nothing of.  But this is just the way it is.  When was the last time, you might ask yourself, a villain was ever the underdog?  Vikings' coach Mike Zimmer hit it on the head:  "A heckuva game, wasn't it?" he said.  "And the good guys won."

Like all good sacraments -- like the Exodus story itself -- the Vikings' win on Sunday moves and exalts us because of its mysterious power to point beyond itself, beyond what one has just seen.  A moment like that can never be experienced again in full, though we may try a thousand times to replay it, because even the first time, it had in it something more than itself that comprised its essential and elusive content.  What is it about?  Its meaning lies in the primordial fact that we're all cooked, up against it, as the Israelites were at the Red Sea with the Egyptian army closing in fast, as the Vikings were with no more time-outs and their long luckless history; we're all running out of time, all feebly impotent to burst through what stands against us.  In the grand cosmic scheme we're luckless losers, each and every one of us, mired and powerless – Yankees and Cubs alike, Patriots and Vikings, Goliaths and Davids, all – powerless to defeat the evil that’s the real and fierce opponent around us and especially within us.  And yet the miracle -- in a game like the one this past weekend in Minneapolis – is shown to be possible, the miracle that snatches us the victory in defiance of everything we thought we knew about the laws of the universe.  Good luck, Vikings, on Sunday. 

Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Scranton and currently serves as President of the Orthodox Theological Society in America