A Super Bowl person of faith
The Super Bowl has evolved into a metaphor beyond the Broncos’ massacre at Met Life Stadium in the New Jersey meadowlands. It stands for achieving high goals through excellent effort.
Denver Bronco quarterback Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl achievements transcend the game. Besides making Omaha proud by repeatedly including this city in his audibles at the line of scrimmage, Manning completed the greatest statistical regular season among quarterbacks in the 94-year history of the National Football League.
His athletic achievements reflect a Super Bowl character that a strong Christian faith animates. Peyton’s faith isn’t incidental to his character. It anchors his life.
Christian faith acts like oxygen, which builds lung capacity. We don’t see the air we breathe, yet it surrounds us and flows through us. We can’t live without oxygen.
A similar dynamic applies to Manning’s faith, which empowers on-field athletic achievement. In a book entitled “Manning,” which Peyton co-authored with his dad Archie in 2001, he’s candid about how a hidden faith in Christ shapes his actions.
“Like my dad,” writes Peyton, “I make it a point when I speak to groups to talk about priorities, and when I talk to school kids, I rank those priorities as faith, family and education, then football. For me generally, it has always been the big four: faith, family, friends and football. And I tell all of them that as important as football is to me, it can never be higher than fourth.”
Peyton goes on, using language familiar to his Southern revivalist tradition, to describe his commitment to Christ. It happened in church as a young teenager. This conversion shapes how he acts, talks and thinks today.
“My faith has been No. 1 since I was 13 years old and heard from the pulpit on a Sunday morning in New Orleans a simple question: If you died today, are you 100 percent sure you would go to heaven? … It was a big church and I felt very small, but my heart was pounding. The minister invited those who would like that assurance through Jesus Christ to raise their hands, and I did.”
Using faith for character formation that shapes concrete action, Peyton takes his cue from Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expressed a strange-sounding Hebraic poetic parallelism. He reinforced the first part of his instruction by restating it in fresh language. “Don’t give what’s holy (intensely personal) to dogs, /Neither cast your pearls before swine,” Manning’s spiritual mentor taught (Matthew 7:6).
This ancient poetic symbolism means that Christian faith shouldn’t be bulldozed on people who aren’t ready for it. Sometimes, overly-zealous Christians force listeners to swallow faith, acting like 1950s moms who made their children take cod liver oil. Mothers believed “liquid sunshine” was good for health, whether their youngsters liked it or not.
Manning doesn’t use faith as a sledgehammer. He refrains from strident or sensationalistic religious language. Nor is he comfortable with showy testimony, like making a sign of the cross after passing for a touchdown.
Manning’s faith neither claims all the answers nor assumes superiority over other faith expressions. “I’ve been blessed with having so little go wrong in my life and being given so much,” Manning confesses. “I pray every night — sometimes long prayers — about a lot of things and a lot of people, but don’t talk about it or brag about it because it’s between God and me, and I’m no better than anyone else in God’s sight.”
Bishop William Frey, former Episcopalian leader in Colorado during the 1980s, described a cartoon illustrating menacing faith that contradicts Manning’s style. There’s a “large medieval army, bristling with weapons, drawn up before the gates of the city. With a completely insincere smile. Its leader is saying to the townspeople looking down from the wall: ‘Hello. We’d like to talk with you about Jesus.’”
Manning doesn’t rack up trophies for Jesus through intimidation. He doesn’t trash talk on the field or off, when framing his confidence in Christ. Faith shapes his character, which in turn inspires action. Manning’s faith acts like a catalyst in the experiment of good, honorable living, but you have to look to find it. Faith’s quiet dominance is at the heart of his life.
At the run-up to the Super Bowl, reporters quizzed Peyton about his legacy. At first, he demurred, saying his legacy would come after retirement. Upon further reflection, he told of the imprint he desires to leave behind. “The legacy question keeps popping up, and I guess I had a little more time to think about it. If I had my choice what my legacy would be, it would be I played my butt off for every team I ever played on, I was a really good teammate, and I did everything I could to win. Whatever else comes along in that time is fine with me.”
No stock religious language in this testimony. But when we dig deeper into what propels Peyton’s playing hard, building teamwork and going the second mile on the field, it’s a vital faith in Christ.
If getting to the Super Bowl rotates like a wheel’s rim, then confidence in Christ functions as Manning’s hub, the axle that moves his life forward, on the field and off.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.