Sunday February 3, 2013

The Rev. Gary Dailey, former pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Lee, was invited earlier this year to lead the members of the University of Massachusetts football team in prayer.

"[Head coach] Charley Molnar is a Catholic," said Dailey, who has been a priest for 27 years and currently is the director of vocations for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield. "He formerly coached at Notre Dame. I've gotten to know him and some of his coaches over the past year. So he asked me to come out to Gillette Stadium to lead a prayer before a game."

Dailey said the gist of the prayer service was a plea to God to keep the athletes safe and to help them play to the best of their ability. It was not, he said, a plea for a victory.

"God doesn't care who wins," Dailey said. "All God wants is for the athletes to play their best. If Notre Dame plays USC, God is not going to arrange things so Notre Dame wins. I tell these athletes that everything they have is God-given. And what they do with that ability is their choice."

At least part of the focus in today's Super Bowl matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens will be on religion, largely due to Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis, an emotional, born-again Christian who often credits God after his team wins.

Many Christians have lauded Lewis -- a 17-year veteran who intends to retire after today's game -- along with New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow and former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner for how strongly they express their faith, but the media has long been skeptical of players who thank God or Jesus after a victory.

David Uyrus, an Adams native who starred in high school, college and pro football and now is a regional scout for the Detroit Lions, said he understands why so many NFL players are overtly religious.

"I'm too secular a person to know whether anyone's life is changed by religion," Uyrus said. "But I will say that in the NFL, there are guys whose lives growing up were worse than anything you or I could imagine: Father dead or in jail. Mother on drugs. Guys who had to raise themselves. Certainly some of them look for some guidance. And certainly some of them have found religion. And certainly there are some frauds."

Lewis, 37, has worked to rebuild his image since he and two acquaintances were charged with murder in 2000 after the stabbing death of two men outside an Atlanta nightclub. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charge against Lewis, who wound up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice -- a misdemeanor -- and was placed on 12 months' probation. He also was fined $250,000 by the NFL for violating its conduct policy.

Lewis' acquaintances were acquitted of the murder charges in 2000, and no one else has been arrested in connection with the killings.

Lewis declined to discuss the issue in an interview with USA Today four weeks ago, a stance he has taken since the slayings.

"Really, really. Why would I talk about that?" he asked the newspaper. "That was 13 years ago."

Lewis is only too happy to talk about religion, however.

In a TV interview after Baltimore's double-overtime playoff upset of Denver last month, Lewis said: "God is amazin'! And when you believe in him ... Man believes in the possible; God believes in the impossible!"

Despite Lewis' proclamations, Great Barrington resident Sean Cronin, a New England Patriots fan, said he isn't sure about the linebacker's sincerity.

"To be perfectly honest, I think a lot of it is just for show,' Cronin said.

Uyrus pointed toward veteran Detroit Lions kicker Jason Hanson and other athletes who are deeply religious and unafraid to express it.

"He's a solid guy," Uyrus said of Hanson. "He's a very religious guy, but it's genuine. He walks the walk."

Not every athlete prays for an exalted reason, however.

"For some people, it may just be for luck," the Rev. Dailey said of pregame prayer. "Or superstition. You know, ‘I have to go to Mass before a game, or say a prayer, and I won't get hurt.' Or, ‘It will help me play better.' There's probably some of that. But that afternoon at UMass, as far as I could tell, everyone's head was bowed and they were all praying. It's not for me to say who was serious and who wasn't."

Before his time in Springfield and Lee, Dailey was the athletic director of St. Joseph's High School in Pittsfield from 1987-92. He said religion is a constant at non-secular schools.

"I would lead the team in prayer before a game, and then I would say, ‘Mary Queen of Victory,' and the team would shout: ‘Pray for us!' "

"But I think that was more of a tradition with all Catholic schools," said Gary Bianchi, a football coach at St. Joe's for the past 25 years. "It wasn't really a prayer for victory."

Bianchi remembers, as a Crusaders player in the late 1970s, that the team would assemble to pray in front of the Shrine of St. Joseph at St. Joseph's Church before the game. When the matchup was over, the players would return to the shrine.

"After the game, it was more a contemplative thing," Bianchi said. "And before it, we didn't pray for victory. We prayed to do our best and be healthy."

Bianchi said his prayers in high school were never for victory, and the prayer sessions were more of a bonding experience for the players than a deeply religious one.

"Does it help?" Bianchi said. "Yes, I think it does. It doesn't help a team win. It helps players come together as a team."

Dylan Griswold, a co-founder of Ephs for Christ, a student-run organization at Williams College that focuses on Christianity and Christian ideals, has a slightly different take on pre-game prayers.

"It's not so much asking God to help you win," said Griswold, a sophomore baseball player. "It's more about asking for His help to win or lose with humility."

Dailey said he thinks athletes' prayers do "a lot to put things in perspective."

"Many of these players have been great athletes all their lives," he said. "They are very prideful. Prayer, for many of them, reminds them that their gifts are from God."

To reach Derek Gentile:
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