December 3rd, 2015 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the NFL’s postgame prayer circle. What started as a Monday night game experiment between two team chaplains has resulted in a prayer movement in which players engage following every NFL game today. What prompted the first gathering? One man had a vision of using an NFL rivalry for the glory of God.
Twenty-five years ago the 10-1 New York Giants, led by Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor were to face the 10-1 San Francisco 49ers, led by Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott, in a highly anticipated Monday night game. The broadcast would have the largest Monday night audience up to that point in NFL history.
Pat Ritchie was the 49ers chaplain at the time; knowing that this game would see enormous media coverage, he saw an opportunity for greater impact.
“I saw this as a strategic game,” he remembers, “and I thought, ‘Is there a way to use this in a God-honoring way?’”
Picking up the phone, Pat reached out for a partnership.
“Pat called me,” remembers Dave Bratton, who was then the Giants’ chaplain, “and he asked, ‘What can we do to let people see that these players have a spiritual nature as well as physical and material?’ My response was, ‘We can pray together.’”
Pat’s vision came to him where many great ideas originate—in the shower. Little did he know that Dave had also been searching for an opportunity to bring faith into the bright lights of the football field. Ever since Giants tight-end, Howard Cross first planted a seed in the chaplain’s mind, Dave had been longing to act.
“Howard shared with me about his college years,” says Dave, “playing for Alabama when guys from both teams would come out before the game and pray together.”
With excitement for their shared dream, the two chaplains sought a way to bring it into reality.
“I went and asked my players if they would want to pray,” Pat recalls, “and they said yes. I called Dave and he said ‘Hey, my guys are up for this too!’”
Wanting to take best advantage of the media coverage surrounding the game, they chaplains decided that a post-game prayer would be most effective.
“Pat and I thought, ‘People won’t see it before the game,” Dave, says. “There will be no people in the stadium yet and the cameras won’t catch it. We’ll need to do it after. But where are we gonna do it?”
Pat suggested the 40 yard line, closest to the scoreboard. Dave thought the 50 yard line would be more memorable and less confusing, but he agreed to the 40.
Monday night came. Viewers hoping for all-out war were not disappointed. The game was extremely competitive and close. With a final score of 7-3, the 49ers pulled out a win, to finish what is—still—the lowest-scoring game in Monday Night Football history.
“When the game was over,” Pat remembers, “I watched to see if anybody was actually going to do this. I looked out to see this massive crowd at the 40 yard line; I couldn’t believe how many people were out there!”
What he didn’t realize at first glance was that the crowd was gathered around a fist fight between a Niner and a Giant.
“I thought, ‘This isn’t gonna happen,’” says Pat, reliving his amazement.
But Dave —and the media— saw something else.
“The confrontation was being captured on news cameras at the 40,” Dave recalls, “and then they panned over to see a few players on their knees, praying together.”
On the 50 yard line, there were seven 49ers kneeling down in prayer, despite what was going on 10 yards away.
“At first,” Pat says, “none of the Giants’ guys came. But within 10 seconds, two of the Giants players ran over and join the prayer huddle. That was the first time the post-game prayer huddle ever happened.”
From that game on, the players never stopped praying.
“The next week the Giants did it again,” Pat recalls. “They started to do it after every game.”
“In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will.” – Ephesians 1:11
Each week following, Dave would contact the Giants opposing teams’ chaplains, with the same proposal to pray. Week by week, the chaplains found players that agreed to gather in prayer with their opponents after competing.
“We only missed one game that year since we started,” Dave says, “and that was against Buffalo, on December 15th. Afterwards, I looked at the team and we thought, ‘We may get a chance to rectify that.’ Sure enough, that’s what happened.”
The Giants found themselves facing the Buffalo Bills again at the 1991 Super Bowl where the post-game huddle convened one last time that season, on the 50 yard line.
When Fred Raines, the Bills chaplain at the time, approached his players about the prospect, they jumped on board with enthusiasm.
“It was completely lead by the players,” says Fred. “It was the perfect platform, being after the game and on the field. You can’t edit that.”
But not everyone was as thrilled as these chaplains were about the players’ public display of faith. In February, sports columnist, Rick Reilly, began to rip the Giants for praying, comparing post-game huddles and sideline prayers with German Nazis displaying badges reading, “God is with us.”
“Sure, athletes are entitled to freedom of religion,” Rick wrote, “but let them exercise it on their own time.” He also mentioned “50-yard-line religious sales pitches,” and assumed of every NFL fan, “the only conversions he cares about are extra points.”
But the post-game gathering stood out, revealing a very different intention from what fans were used to seeing.
“The prayer circle is different from the sideline prayer in the moment of a big play,” says Dave. “The prayer huddle has nothing to do with wins and losses. It is about players expressing their thanks to God for their ability to play the game. It’s a time of worship where opponents gather and acknowledge their brotherhood and common faith in Jesus Christ.”
When the 1990-1991 season came to a close, the conversation about the players’ public prayer continued. In March, the NFL imposed the non-fraternization rule. According to this policy, players on opposing teams were not allowed to give a hug or shake the hand of another player after the game. Such an act would result in fines up to $25,000 for those involved.
“We knew this was a targeted at the post-game prayer,” remembers Pat with apparent incredulity. “I thought to myself, ‘With all the problems in the NFL, if they fine these guys for praying after the game, they’re nuts!’”
As the first game of the 1991-1992 season approached, many wondered, in light of the NFL’s apparent opposition, if the post-game prayer would resurface. On September 2, 1991, the Giants faced the 49ers to open the season. This game too was a very close, competitive one, ending with the Giants squeaking out another win.
“After the game, a group of six Giants and two 49ers gathered at the 50,” remembers Pat fondly, “I looked over and saw Steve Wallace (linebacker for the 49ers), who started to walk towards the locker room, then he zigged toward the huddle, and then zagged toward the locker room, then again towards the huddle… he went over to pray.”
The players were watched closely. Many waited to see if the players’ desire to live out their faith would outweigh the threat of the fine.
“I walked up to Steve afterwards,” says Pat, “and I said, ‘Steve, I’m really proud of you.’ He put his arm around me, looked at me with a smile and said, ‘If they fine me, you’re in big trouble.’”
Neither the players nor chaplains knew what would be the result of their stand against the non-fraternization rule, but they acted in faith. Faith organizations and ministries contacted Pat in support, offering to defend him all the way to court if need be, but no fine was ever levied.
“I was a little nervous for them,” admits Pat. “But one of the great things about working with athletes is that they are incredibly courageous. They will take a bullet for their faith.”
The prayer circle has carried on ever since. The movement spread, and not only throughout the NFL: Two years after the first NFL post-game huddle, about 90 college players gathered at the 50 yard line at the end of the Rose Bowl game.
“Seeing that,” Pat remembers, “I thought, ‘Wow, look at what these guys started!”
Soon Pat began to receive emails and letters from teams of all sports from around the world who were gathering to pray at the end of their games. Dave also received messages from youth coaches in his hometown, who had adopted the tradition in their leagues, saying, “If the pros can do it, why can’t we?”
“To see the impact that these huddles made completely humbled me,” says Dave. “To know that my hometown had been touched by what the Giants were doing was inspiring. . . . All the glory goes to God.”
Fred, the Bills chaplain for a total of 30 years, saw the great impact that the prayer circle movement continued to have in the players lives as well. He recalls a specific life that was changed through this movement.
“Jerry Ostroski, an offensive lineman on the Bills,” Fred recalls, “was not going to any of the chapels or Bible studies, and didn’t even believe in God. But he started going to the 50 yard line after the games. When he heard the testimonies and prayers of other players, he gave his life to Christ. After that, he was a regular the Bible studies and chapels.”
The prayer circle created a platform, not only for the players, but also for the fans to share the Gospel.
“The prayer circle gave the fans more boldness in their faith,” says Fred. “It allowed them to have conversations with other fans about what the players were doing on the field after the game and why. I heard a few fans saying that they were able to point to the circle and say, ‘look at these guys who we kind of worship as athletes; they worship Christ.’”
It all started with a calling put on the hearts of two people, whom God positioned to be instrumental in the lives of NFL players. As they answered that call, God went to work.
This was just God touching a man’s life through a ‘shower moment,’” affirms Dave,smiling. “That guy picked up the phone to call another guy who had a similar dream to see players gather to pray. Who knew that God would use this Monday night game as an opportunity to start all this?”
Christian NFL players continue to take the opportunity after each game to prayer with their brothers on the field.
“The prayer circle began a movement among the players,” Fred remembers. “They could meet and see who the other believers were throughout the league. It expanded their vision to see not only what God was doing on their own team but on the other teams as well.”
And this community continues to grow within the NFL. George McGovern, current Giants chaplain, carries on the tradition at MetLife stadium, making sure that a Giant player is ready to lead the prayer circle at every home game.
“I wish I could take credit for keeping it going, but it’s so ingrained in the culture of the NFL now,” McGovern says. “Guys just know (to head to the 50-yard line), and the rookies learn.”
Justin Forsett, Pro Bowl running back on the Baltimore Ravens, ends each game with a walk to the 50-yard line to pray with his brothers.
“Even though we’re out there to win games,” says Justin, “and we’re on different teams, we’re all playing for the audience of One. It’s about going out there and saying, ‘God use me to shed light on You today in this game.’ Even though we go out there and try to knock each other out, it’s all for one purpose: to glorify God.”
“Who will not fear You, Lord, and bring glory to Your name? For You alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before You, for Your righteous acts have been revealed.” – Psalm 115:1