How Traditional Values Shape the NFL
On the long Thanksgiving weekend, five regular starting NFL quarterbacks of at least partial African descent took the field for their respective teams. Beyond their obvious talent, all five share a common background, one that is now rare in the African American community and becoming anomalous in American society writ large: each grew up in a Christian home with a mother and a father. More so than foot speed or even arm strength, this is the variable that elevates them above their peers.
What caused me to pursue this line of inquiry was the fact that I know one of the fathers in question, Ron Freeman, father of Tampa Bay's Josh. I got to know Ron in 1994 when I did the media for his congressional campaign, and we have remained friends since. Ron, a former college football star, was running as a conservative Republican in Missouri's heavily Democratic 5th Congressional District. He won the primary, and although he fell short in the general, he made the best Republican showing in a half-century.
Ron grew up without a father in a seriously dysfunctional home in Boonville, Missouri. He attributes his own turn around to the love of his wife Teresa, who is white, and to his faith in Jesus Christ. Josh, like his siblings, was home schooled in a seriously Christian household.
Robert Griffin III, the Redskins' star rookie, was born in Okinawa to Robert Jr. and Jacqueline, who were then both sergeants in the U.S. Army. The family finally settled in Copperas Cove, Texas, outside Ft. Hood. At Baylor, Griffin managed to graduate in three years with a 3.67 GPA and a degree in political science. During his final year at Baylor, he was studying for a Master's degree in communication. "I was heavily influenced by my parents to learn discipline," says Griffin, a professing Christian who has been in the church since age seven. "But my relationship with God was my most important influence."
Seattle rookie Russell Wilson was born in Richmond, Virginia, to the late Harrison Benjamin Wilson III, a lawyer, and Tammy T. Wilson, a legal nurse consultant. His grandfather, Harrison B. Wilson Jr., was once president of Norfolk State University. Wilson, who married his long-time sweetheart, takes his Christian faith seriously. He does not hesitate to mention it in post-game interviews and posts Bible verses regularly on his Twitter Feed. After Sunday's tough loss to the Dolphins, Wilson posted the following: "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." (James 4:6 NKJV) Wilson openly declares that his faith in God is the foundation for his life and family.
Carolina's Cam Newton, last season's rookie of the year, is the son of Jackie and Cecil Newton, the latter a Pentecostal bishop who oversees five Georgia churches. Although both Cam Newton and his father have been involved in minor controversies, no one doubts the father's devotion to his son or his son's to the father. "I love him with all my heart," said Cam of his father. After winning the national college football championship two years ago, Newton said, "I thank God every single day. I'm just his instrument and He's using me on a consistent daily basis."
The most surprising member on this list is San Francisco's new starting quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. Although his parents -- one black, one white -- were not married, his birth mother made a culture-defying decision in 1987: she chose not to have an abortion. Having watched two newborn sons die of heart defects, Teresa and Rick Kaepernick decided to adopt, and Colin was the baby who came their way. Colin would grow up in a white household in largely white communities, but color was no more the determining value in his upbringing than it was for Freeman or Griffin or Wilson.
"We took our kids to church," says Teresa of Colin and her two other living children in attempting to explain their success as adults. "They were brought up with our values and morals." Colin agrees. "I think it's something where God has really led me to where I'm at today. He put me in a position to be successful throughout my life."
Although sportscasters have the unfortunate habit of stressing the presumed physical differences between black and white quarterbacks, they tend to overlook the cultural similarities. Jets QB Tim Tebow is not the outlier he is made out to be. A disproportionate share of quarterbacks, especially elite quarterbacks, share the background of the five just mentioned.
Peyton and Eli Manning grew up in what Peyton calls "a good Christian home." Adds Peyton, "I always felt it was very important to have a good relationship with the Lord. He always has to be your number one priority."
"I like the saying from St. Francis of Assisi," says Green Bay's Aaron Rogers, "'Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words.'" Like the others, Rogers learned his values at home: "I grew up knowing what a stable relationship was by my parents' example and how it centered on Christ."
"I accepted Jesus Christ into my heart on my 17th birthday," says the Saints Drew Brees, another of the NFL's elite quarterbacks. "I remember my pastor talking about God 'looking for a few good men.' All of a sudden the light bulb went [on] in my head and I was like, 'Hey, that's me; I can be one of those few good men!'"
The Chargers' two-time pro bowler Philip Rivers grew up in a devout Catholic family, and his father was also his football coach. Married at nineteen, he and his wife Tiffany now have six children. His role, as he sees it, is "teaching the kids the faith, having family prayer, going to Mass together and then football."
Even prodigals like the Steelers Ben Roethlisberger and the Eagles Michael Vick, both of whom hurt their careers through atrocious behavior, grew up with fathers and with Christ in their lives. After yielding to the games' many temptations, Roethlisberger has married and made his way back to Christianity as a regular churchgoer. One senses that this is more than a PR gesture.
Vick, who did not start this past weekend because of a concussion, likewise seems moved by something deeper than image protection. "I was so self-centered, I forgot about the Lord," Vick admitted of his public fall from grace. "Pre-incarceration it was all about me. When I got to prison, I realized I couldn't do it anymore. The one thing I could rely on was my faith in God." Helping Vick find his way back was the deeply Christian Tony Dungy, himself an African American and the Indianapolis Colts head coach during their glory years.
Given the impact of faith and family on the NFL, one can imagine how an emphasis on the same could re-shape America. It is too bad the party in power has a perverse disdain for both.