In the year 1987, a writer named H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger went to east Texas to write a book about high school football. He titled it Friday Night Lights, telling the story of one year with the Odessa-Permian Panthers and how football in Odessa, Texas was not just a game, but a way of life. Certainly neither Bissinger nor the Permian athletes could have predicted what a phenomenon the book would go on to become. It was made into a feature length Hollywood film starring Billy Bob Thornton as Odessa Head Coach Gary Gaines. Near the end of the film, the Odessa-Permian Panthers are playing in the Texas State High School Championship game against the Carter Cowboys from Dallas. At halftime of that game (at least in the film), Coach Gaines gives the following speech to his players:
Well, it’s real simple. You got two more quarters and that’s it. Now, most of you have been playin’ this game for ten years. And you got two more quarters and after that most of you will never play this game again as long as you live. Now, y’all have known me for a while, and for a long time now you’ve been hearin’ me talk about being perfect. Well, I want you to understand something. To me, being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. It’s about you and your relationship to yourself and your family and your friends. Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down, because you told them the truth. And that truth is that you did everything that you could. There wasn’t one more thing that you could’ve done. Can you live in that moment, as best you can, with clear eyes and love in your heart? With joy in your heart? If you can do that gentlemen, then you’re perfect. I want you to take a moment. And I want you to look each other in the eyes. I want you to put each other in your hearts forever, because forever’s about to happen here in just a few minutes. Boys, my heart is full. My heart’s full.
Now, not everyone will play or has played American football in their lives. Many have. Many love it, where others loathe it. The goal here is not to craft a manifesto defending the game from its detractors, something that has already been done on many occasions by writers and speakers in a much better position to do so than me. No, my goal is to illustrate the connections and similarities football has to both religion and life, and how it can be a source of spiritual inspiration and life guidance for those willing to seek it in what might seem to be the least likely of places. Let’s see where this goes.
So, is football a religion? That may depend on how you define religion. Here are some definitions of the word; let’s see if they fit. RELIGION: 1) The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal god or gods (Okay, this one doesn’t really match up). 2) A particular system of faith and worship (We’re getting warmer). 3) A pursuit of interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance (Yeah. I’d say that one fits). Thousands of athletes pursue it, millions take interest in it, and it can be of supreme importance to those who play and follow it. Absolutely. Several parallels can be drawn between the chief elements of football and religion; let’s explore some of those for a bit just for comparison’s sake to see if we might then be able to make the claim that football itself is a religion too.
Established religions have sacred spaces such as churches, cathedrals, mosques, et cetera; football has stadiums, practice fields, weight rooms, locker rooms, et cetera. There are many different religions; there are many different football teams. Each religion has its congregations and believers; football has its devout fans and supporters. Religion has to face its heretics or non-believers; football has its share of detractors. Religions have one level of leaders such as ministers and priests who work to inspire the followers each week; football has its players, who work to inspire the fans each week. Religion has its higher level of leaders, such as the Pope; football has its hierarchy of higher leaders such as coaches, owners, and general managers. Oh, but there’s more.
Religions have their holy relics, such as the bones of saints; football has the balls, jerseys, and helmets used and worn by its greatest players in its greatest moments. Religions have their saints; football has its Hall of Fame. Religions have their symbols, such as crosses, chalices, et cetera; football has its team logos. Religions have passionate followers; so too with football. Religions have their sacred holidays and festivals; football has its championship games and the Super Bowl. Religions often hold services twice on Sundays, say at 10:00 and 2:00 and at other times during the week; football has two games on Sundays (for the pros, usually at 10:00 and 1:20), Saturday games for colleges, and Friday night games for high schools. We’re still not done.
Religions have special songs and hymns; football teams have fight songs and chants. Many churches within religions have coffee or social hours following services; football has tailgate parties and concession stands. Many churches have choirs who lead their congregations in song; football teams have cheerleaders. Religions have sacred texts as sources of wisdom; football has its playbooks, but also true stories in book and film form that provide wisdom and inspiration such as “Rudy,” “Remember the Titans,” “Invincible,” “We Are Marshall,” and of course, “Friday Night Lights” (a book, movie, and TV show). For many, religions help inspire and provide meaning and purpose in life, and provide people a vehicle to give back to society. And football…I’ll get back to this one soon.
So there we have a list of parallels (granted many will see some false equivalencies here, but we’re having fun so let’s roll with it). Do all these parallels do enough to qualify football as a religion? They do seem to share a lot of elements. Sure, football hasn’t quite endured for centuries and connected with billions of people all around the globe, but hey, give it time. There are games in London now, and that’s a start!
So how are football and our journeys through life, despite our spiritual paths, allegorically similar? Let’s look at that. The summer before a football season begins (this is speaking from my own personal high school experiences, mind you) there is pre-season training, which involves a lot of running, lifting weights at six in the morning, and snapping footballs back between your legs at tires to improve your accuracy (centers and long snappers only). This phase of the football year could be equated to very early childhood. There’s not a lot of intense mental challenge just yet, you’re just trying to get control of your body, make it stronger, and establish some muscle memory patterns. Then, when the fall comes, two-a-day practices begin. Lots of repetitive practice of fundamental skills, closely overseen by coaches, to help you be successful in the season to come; lots of culture and team building. Later childhood and coming of age transitions look like this. You learn the fundamental skills and you build up your stamina in order to take your place as an adult in your society, overseen by parents, teachers, and mentors—you prepare to “take the field” of life.
Then the season starts—you enter adulthood. Your coach now steps to the sideline, still giving advice, but you can change the play if circumstances call for it. Your mentors step back, and you are mostly on your own; it’s up to you to perform now. You have plays, or strategies designed to help you reach your goals. You wear pads and a helmet as protection—representing things you do in your life to stay safe and healthy. You’re ready to play.
When the games begin, you face opponents. In life, our opponents are mostly ourselves, but also the obstacles that stand between us and our goals. We “tackle” the pursuit of our goals one goal at a time. Sometimes football players suffer injuries (things we can’t control) or are charged with penalties (conscious mental mistakes we make); in life, we have setbacks like those that postpone our goals, if only temporarily.
During those games or the pursuit of those goals, we work incrementally toward their fulfillment. In a football game, we have first downs, little mini-goals that give us additional opportunities to continue reaching toward the larger goal. Football teams score touchdowns, representative of success in a phase of our larger goal. Some games we win—some goals we reach. Some games we lose—some goals we abandon, but we learn from the process. When a game is lost, players have a choice: they can quit the team, or they can regroup, watch the film, analyze where improvements are needed, and get back to work. When we fail to achieve our goals, we can give up on them or learn from what brought that failure about and try again. Each game is a new goal we face as we learn and grow throughout our lives.
Eventually, the season ends—a life phase has come to a close, and it is time to transition to a new one. Football players then have a chance to heal, reflect, and prepare for what’s next. Each phase of life brings new challenges; a new season begins, with new opponents and new goals.
Then, one day, the football player’s career ends. I remember that vividly. Though I had only played the game for five years, it was hard for me to accept that my career was over after losing a playoff game when I was a senior in high school. We had a long, three- hour bus ride back home, and I didn’t take my helmet or shoulder pads off the entire time, knowing that once I did, I would never put them on again. In life, there comes a day when we realize that we have achieved most of what we set out to do, and the time has come to step aside and retire. We can then leave the field with dignity, making room for younger dreamers to step onto the field and pursue their goals, perhaps mentoring them and sharing our experiences with them to help them experience success and navigate defeat when it comes.
Yes, football mirrors life. Now, I want to come back to the question left hanging earlier when we were comparing football to religion, acknowledging that for many people, religions inspire and give purpose and meaning to life, as well as providing people with vehicles and opportunities to help others and give back to the community. Does football do this? Can it inspire, provide meaning, and serve as a means for helping the greater community? Absolutely.
Let’s take a look at what football can teach us. It can help us make a “game plan” for life; it can teach us how to work hard to achieve a goal under unpleasant and challenging circumstances. Sometimes the way a football game goes doesn’t seem fair. Life is much the same. Football teaches us lessons about teamwork and brotherhood. All throughout life we have to learn to go from being a leader to being a member of a team and working with others. The group that can organize, cohere, and work together has a distinct advantage over the one that can’t, and football teaches that lesson. Angus Reid, a former professional football player in the Canadian Football League, gave a TEDX Talk in Vancouver, B.C. in 2016, and here is what he said regarding the lessons that football can offer:
Because of football, I can stand before people and speak to them. I can look people in the eye. I can speak about things that matter. I can commit to something and stick with it. I know how to work hard for goals I set for myself. I know how to be a good teammate. I can work with multiple changing personalities on an ongoing basis. I know how to lose, and how to move forward. I can function under pressure and keep clarity of mind. I also know that football can make kids want to go to college who otherwise wouldn’t want to even try. Football doesn’t just shape lives—it saves them (Angus Reid).
So yes. Football can be as powerful as a religion can be. Where in many religions adherents are inspired by words and actions ascribed to supernatural beings, the inspiration offered by the actions of football players is even more powerful, as they are living, real human beings demonstrating what remarkable feats of which we mere mortals are capable. We can actually aspire to be great ourselves, because we see through the great players that greatness is actually achievable by the living—by real people who dedicate themselves to their goals and ideals and are willing to work tirelessly for them. They aren’t gods with other-worldly powers that are beyond our comprehension. They are people who strive to test themselves against all odds and obstacles, and in the act of doing so accomplish some of the most awe-inspiring feats of athleticism in the world.
Hamlet perhaps said it best: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene II). Young boys see these “paragons” out on the field, achieving greatness and glory, and they dream of one day being just like them. But as Coach Gaines said in the speech that opened this writing, it isn’t about the scoreboard or about winning. It isn’t about the rings and trophies. In the real world, no one cares about those. It’s the lessons that one takes away from playing the game, the lessons of teamwork, brotherhood, belonging, character building, cooperation, and yes, altruism. The Walter Payton Man of the Year Award is given annually to an NFL player who has not only excelled on the field, but has given back in extraordinary ways to his community. Players donate millions of dollars a year to charities, start foundations, organize fundraisers for specific causes, visit hospitals, and give back to the communities that support them in countless other ways.
I’d like to close with some quotes about the game for your contemplation, hoping that the next time you have a chance to watch a football game, perhaps visiting a local high school on Friday night, you can just to soak in the atmosphere and feel the energy and raw emotion that permeates the field. Let it wash over you—cheer, cry…and dream. You don’t have to play, to have ever played, to open your soul to football’s spirituality. It is as real as any other human endeavor that inspires the mind, invigorates the heart, and ignites the spirit.
“I rejoice at every dangerous sport which I see pursued…in this snug, over-safe corner of the world we need it, that we may realize that our comfortable routine is no eternal necessity of things, but merely a little space of calm in the midst of tempestuous untamed streaming of the world, and in order that we may be ready for danger.”
–Oliver Wendell Holmes
“The most competitive games draw the most competitive men…and in truth I’ve never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline. There is something in good men that really yearns for discipline.”
“The person who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in a gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
If the church of football is open, I can only respond with the words that greet visitors to the homepage of the Seattle Seahawks: “I’m In.”
Now go be perfect.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Why We Need High School Football | Angus Reid | TEDxWestVancouverED, 2016. You Tube
“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare