SEATTLE – When a sideline TV reporter put a microphone in front of Russell Wilson moments after one of the most unlikely comebacks in the history of the NFL, a weeping Seattle Seahawks quarterback gave credit to God.
“God is too good all the time, man. Every time,” he said through tears.
His counterpart, also a professing Christian, the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, seemed to rebut Wilson’s theology in a radio interview several days later. Agreeing with a caller’s comment, Rodgers said, “I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome. He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think he’s a big football fan.”
Nevertheless, the headline writers at the Seattle Times could think of no other word to describe – in “World War II is over” font, no less – what happened at Century Link field the afternoon of Jan. 18 but “Miracle.”
Two weeks later, an incomprehensible catch near the goal line with less than a minute to play by wide receiver Jermaine Kearse that had incomplete written all over it seemed to have the Seahawks on the verge of a Super Bowl victory and Wilson’s theological skeptics smacking their foreheads with shouts of: “Are you kidding me? Did that just happen?”
As Kearse fell to his back, the ball bounced off of both legs before he tipped it back into the air with his right hand then finally gathered it into his chest as he sat on the five-yard line.
It was Kearse, who after failing to catch a pass in regulation time in the NFC Championship – all four of Wilson’s uncustomary interceptions were on passes aimed at him – hauled in the winning touchdown in overtime.
After the conference championship game, Kearse, also a professing Christian, was nearly as emotional as Wilson. It seemed a particularly poignant lesson that his quarterback trusted him with the most important play of the game after an afternoon of failure.
In the Super Bowl, as Kearse lay on his back with the ball, the NBC broadcast focused for a moment on a deflated Tom Brady, who had just led the New England Patriots on a go-ahead touchdown drive and no doubt was beginning to entertain the vision of celebrating a fourth Super Bowl triumph that would secure his place among the legends of the game. A snapshot of the look on the star quarterback’s face easily could have been captioned: “Maybe God is a Seahawks fan after all.”
The next play put the Seahawks within half a yard of the goal line and the lead. With three more downs at their disposal and perhaps the game’s best rusher in the backfield, Seattle and its famously devoted fans could almost taste a rare back-to-back Super Bowl championship.
On second down, Wilson took the snap in a shotgun formation and immediately unleashed a dart as wide receiver Ricardo Lockette slanted toward the goal line. But from seemingly out of nowhere, undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler muscled in front of Lockette and intercepted the pass.
In Wilson’s mind as he released the ball, recalling the moment later, it was “touchdown, game over.” But Smith, who later said he had a “vision” he would make a big play, bolted toward the spot of the interception immediately as the ball was snapped and seemed to be the player with the divine hand on his shoulder.
What a scene it would have been, with Wilson on the podium amid a deluge of streamers, holding up the gleaming Super Bowl trophy with his teammates and giving glory to God.
Instead, Wilson was hit with shock followed by a rush of gut-wrenching pain as reality began to sink in.
So, did Russell Wilson set himself up for even more anguish by believing that God really had an interest in the outcome of a football game?
The Seahawks’ “spiritual coach,” as he describes himself, chaplain Karl Payne, told WND in an interview as team members somberly packed their belongs Wednesday and headed home that he believes God, indeed, is interested in the outcome of sporting events.
It’s just that his purposes are much bigger than wins and losses.
“If God knows that something going one way or another will bring him more glory or honor than another alternative, he has every reason to be involved in such a way that his name will be raised high,” said Payne, the pastor of discipleship at Antioch Bible Church in Kirkland, Washington, which was founded by the late Ken Hutcherson, a well-known public advocate of Christian values and an NFL linebacker in the 1970s, including for the Seahawks.
Payne said a clear biblical principle is that “you don’t tell God what he is obligated to do.”
“He’s creator, you’re creation. He ultimately will do that which brings glory and honor to himself.”
Payne said it’s not always clear what events, developments or outcomes in life will honor God.
“All I know is that you can guarantee, you give God a reason to honor you if you honor him, and you give him a reason not to honor you if you choose not to honor him.”
Payne said he believes that while God isn’t obligated to do anything but be consistent with this character, “there are decisions you can make that make it easier for him to honor you.”
1.8 percent chance
In the NFC Championship game, when the Seahawks were severely outplayed for some 55 of 60 minutes against the Packers in their most important game of the year to date and overcame overwhelming odds to win – a 1.8 percent chance with a little more than five minutes left, according to one calculation – it was hard to deny that something otherworldly had happened.
“So, if somebody said to me, ‘Was it a miraculous ending?’ I would say, ‘Yeah, I truly think it was.'”
Payne made it clear that when he prays with players before a game, they don’t ask God to bless them at the expense of players on the opposing team.
He recalled that on the night before the NFC Championship game, some of the Christian players had been praying that the Seahawks would play “in such a way that people would be challenged to look up and be aware that there is a God in heaven rather than give the credit to the men on the field.”
“So, when that game ended that way it did, I had guys run up to me when I was on my way out to the prayer circle saying, ‘Karl, it was just like we prayed. It was just like we prayed.'”
Payne said: “We had prayed that we would win, but in such a way that people would look up and know that there is a God in heaven instead of giving credit to us.”
He replied to one player: “You’re right, I think your prayer was answered.”
Payne pointed to Wilson’s display of emotion after the game, noting the quarterback was “very aware that we had been praying that God would work in such a way that people would be pointed to him.”
“The first things that came out of his mouth were letting people know this was a God thing.”
It didn’t take theological agreement to see that many, particularly in the Seattle area, were buzzing about the obvious spiritual lessons from the Seahawks’ improbable victory, and many of the themes ended up in Sunday sermons: Never giving up despite the odds, unflappable leadership, believing in each other and ultimately handing over your destiny to God, regardless of the outcome.
It wasn’t hard to recall 2011, when even people with little or no interest in the NFL were talking about “Tim Tebow and the Miracles” week after week. The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective did “A Statistical Analysis of the Miracles of Tim Tebow” after the famously outspoken and much-maligned Christian had led the Denver Broncos to playoff contention after taking over at quarterback when his team was 1-4. The Harvard site “quantified just how much of a miracle Tebow’s success” had been. The miracles just kept coming. Three weeks later — after a fourth straight improbable comeback in the final two minutes capped a typically awful performance by Tebow up to that point, with 3 of 16 passing after three quarters that had his team down 10-0 — Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Farmer wrote of Tebow’s “weekly miracle.” In the playoffs, Tebow threw an 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in what a Wikipedia entry calls the “3:16 Game,” a reference to John 3:16, the Bible verse reference Tebow often wore on his eyeblack as a college player. Tebow passed for 316 yards and averaged 31.6 yards per completed pass. The game was seen by 31.6 percent of households. Pittsburgh’s time of possession was 31:06. and its only interception was thrown on third and 16.
‘God setting it up’
Sports Illustrated reporter Peter King found Wilson after the NFC Championship game and asked him about throwing four interceptions and going from the worst game of his life to the most exhilarating in the span of eight minutes of game time.
“That’s God setting it up, to make it so dramatic, so rewarding, so special,” Wilson said. “I’ve been through a lot in life, and had some ups and downs. It’s what’s led me to this day.”
Mike Florio of NBC Sports, writing in his Pro Football Talk blog, took issue with Wilson.
“Apart from assuming that God cares about who wins a sporting event, Wilson’s theory assumes that God also wants to inflict extra misery on the team that mistakenly thought for more than 55 minutes of game time that God wanted that team, not the other one, to prevail.”
Florio allowed that Wilson “is free to believe whatever he wants.”
“And others are free to believe that God really isn’t the ultimate puppet master, influencing the flight of a ball, the questionable decisions made by coaches and players, and/or the sudden inability of a backup tight end to catch an onside kick heading straight for his face,” Florio said.
“Whatever Wilson or anyone else believes, I respect that. I personally choose to believe that God exists, that He loves the members of both teams equally, and that He has far better things to do than fix NFL games.”
Florio certainly has a point when it comes to priorities. Just how important is a football game to God when ISIS is murdering Christians in the Middle East? And the behavior of many players on and off the field, including some members of the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, and football’s increasingly prominent place in hearts and minds – a form of idolatry some would say – raise questions for followers of Jesus.
But Payne believes the Bible teaches that a God who knows the number of hairs on the head of each person he created cares about the smallest things in life, because he cares about people.
He’s not the “clockmaker” of deism, Payne contended, who wound up the universe and let the affairs of mankind play out with no intervention on his part.
Christians historically have held to the “mystery” of a God who, in creating men and women in his image, gave them a free will yet is sovereign,”working all things according to his will.” All things, as many see it, means that even things as seemingly trivial as parking spaces and football games can have divine purposes.
What does America believe?
A Public Religion Research Institute poll just before the Super Bowl found that 53 percent of Americans and 56 percent of sports fans believe God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success.
Interestingly, the poll also asked sports fans whether or not they believe God has a hand in the outcome of sporting events.
One quarter of them, 26 percent, said yes.
Protestants who are considered ethnic or racial minorities, the poll found, are more likely than any other religious group to believe that God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event (45 percent). Among white evangelical Protestants, 32 percent hold that belief and 31 percent of Catholics share it. Only 19 percent of white mainline Protestants and 9 percent of the religiously unaffiliated believe God has a hand in the outcome of sporting events.
Some skeptics, regardless of their demographic, might have been tempted in the waning moments of the Super Bowl, at least for a moment, to believe.
“I guarantee you,” Payne said, “when Kearse caught that pass with 30 seconds left on the five yard line, there were people on both sides of the ball that were making comments like, ‘They’re supposed to win.’
“It was written all over. They’re not oblivious to the fact that we won some games in some very remarkable ways.”
But were Seahawk prayers answered?
Payne said one of the starters walked up to him after the Super Bowl.
“He said, ‘Karl, we honored God after the game, just like we said we were going to, win or lose.'”
“Yeah, you did,” Payne replied.
“So it wasn’t, if we win we will honor God, but if we don’t win we won’t honor God. It was like, we want to win, obviously, but our job is to honor him. And if we can honor him as a winner, we will honor him. But if we lose we will still honor him,” Payne explained.
“We don’t turn our faith on or off.”
Of course, he said, they wanted to win, “but my faith transcends wins or losses: I can learn from winning, which we did last year; I can learn from losing, which we did this year.”
Payne said the cynic will say after the Super Bowl loss: “Just watch these guys. Now you’re going to see them bail out and waffle. As long as it goes like they want, praise Jesus, hallelujah, but as soon as something goes wrong, they’re going to bail out on God just like everybody else does.”
Sometimes, he said, “the way we handle losses, failures and defeats can sing just as loud to a person watching as when we win.”
And sometimes the message after a loss is even louder, he said, because it’s not expected
“It sends a message my faith is for real.”
A different vibe
Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone described the anguish and grief players were still trying to process when they packed up their belongings at the Seahawks’ practice facility Wednesday. One called the defeat “devastating,” saying he hadn’t been able to sleep since the game.
When Wilson walked into the locker room, Stone said, “the vibe was different.”
“It’s not quite accurate to say Wilson was upbeat, but he expressed few visible signs that he was less than 48 hours removed from the most agonizing defeat of his life,” Stone wrote.
Stone cited Wilson saying he would grow from the trauma of throwing an interception from the 1-yard-line with the Seahawks on the verge of a victory and another title.
“I can use this for life, or I can use it for another game,’’ Wilson said.
The morning of the Super Bowl, Wilson tweeted: “It’s about Jesus today!”
After the loss it was: “Thank You God for the opportunity. We’ll be back… I will never waiver on who He has called me to be… Thanks 12s #GoHawks.”
And later: “I will love You, O LORD, my strength. (Psalms 18:1 NKJV)”
Stone noted Wilson didn’t let the Super Bowl loss keep him from his customary Tuesday visit to Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Early in the season, when the Seahawks were struggling and some wondered if the defending Super Bowl champions would even make the playoffs, they suffered a gut-punching, last-minute loss to the Rams.
Instead of dashing to the locker room, Payne, along with Wilson and other Christians on the team, joined with fellow Christians on the Rams at the center of the field, held hands in a circle, bowed their heads and prayed.
Payne said there is a “circle of men who lock arms every single day on this team who are committed to walking with Jesus whether it is convenient or inconvenient.”
“The statement they have made is that we are Christians who happened to play football rather than football players who happen to be Christians,” Payne said.
He said these men “believe that God has given them this platform to see Jesus Christ raised high through them.”
“And since he is God, he can choose any way he wants to do that.”