November 18, 2001 — While you and your family prepare for church today, Atlanta Falcons starting center Todd McClure will likely be somewhere in Lambeau Field readying for a rumble with the Green Bay Packers.
Not much time for worship when you’re worried about blocking 339-pound Gilbert Brown.
But Todd is a religious man, a devout Christian. So are several other Falcons. And they meet each week of the season — typically on Wednesday or Thursday night — and talk about the Bible.
“It helps,” Todd said. “Because on Sundays we don’t have a lot of time to go to church. Just to be able to get with other believers on the team and learn about the word is pretty important.”
Last week’s Bible study was at cornerback Ray Buchanan’s new home at Sugarloaf Country Club in Duluth. The mansion, larger than some churches, had even some of Buchanan’s wealthy teammates gawking.
“This place is unbelievable, man,” Todd said.
These weekly Bible studies are open to the players’ wives and girlfriends, as well. Todd always brings his wife Heidi and their infant son Maverick. Often, it seems there are as many children as adults at these gatherings.
“It allows us the chance to meet with other families on the team,” said Rebecca Feely, wife of place-kicker Jay Feely, “and build relationships on the level that is most important to us, which is based on our faith.”
The wives also meet for prayer at Todd and Heidi’s home in Sugar Hill each Monday, the same day players have a prayer group at the team’s complex in Flowery Branch.
“I tell you, I need my fill whenever I can get it,” said linebacker Keith Brooking, who — out of uniform, wearing glasses and leaning against Buchanan’s kitchen counter — looked more like a grad student than one of the most feared tacklers in the NFL.
“Especially this time of year, because things are moving really fast, it’s pretty easy to forget about the Lord and the things that he has done for you. So it’s a great time to slow everything down and really talk about him and what he’s meant to you and what he’s done for all of us.
“Because obviously he’s blessed us with a lot of talents and a lot of abilities. And we honor him and glorify him for giving us that.”
Nearly a dozen Falcons were on hand at Buchanan’s home on Thursday. The meetings always begin with a meal. This time punter Chris Mohr brought sushi and fullback Bob Christian supplied barbecue — and with this group, the food doesn’t last long.
The atmosphere is relaxed. It’s sweat pants and T-shirts, not suits and ties. And players do their best to check their profession at the front door.
“We’re just getting done with practice,” Todd said, “and no one really wants to talk about football.”
After dinner, the group moved down to Buchanan’s theater. Yes, theater.
It’s got purple walls and three rows of leather recliners. Outside the entrance are illuminated movie posters. Now showing: “Wyatt Earp.” Coming soon: “Maverick.”
Christian and his guitar took center stage for starters. He led the group in song.
“As you guys get the hang of it, please join in and sing — loud,” Christian said before he began. “I have no desire to do any solos here.”
Tight end Reggie Kelly, after some prodding from the crowd, added vocals on the second and final song.
“I am asking you Lord just to bring me through,” Kelly rapped, “all the hurt and the pain that I struggle through.”
Buchanan, seated in the second row, kept the beat on a hand drum. Linebacker Henri Crockett did the same with an egg shaker.
Thursday’s guest speaker, introduced by team chaplain Charles Collins, was Collins’ brother-in-law David Blackney, a pastor from western North Carolina.
Blackney, expanding on passages from the Bible, offered the group a Christian perspective on the pre- and post-Sept. 11 turmoil in the Middle East.
“We’re all looking similarly at the same place and the same geography,” Blackney said, “but we’re all reading off a different script.”
Blackney hoped aloud that God would allow the players’ generation “to rid the world of terrorism.” But to do that, Blackney said, human kind is going to have to “get it right.”
“Jesus is the only way,” Blackney said. “Now, listen guys. We’re not both right. These are mutually exclusive teachings, doctrines and goals. The Jews, the Muslims and Christians. And listen, we’re not all right. Somebody is wrong. At least two of those groups are wrong. One of them is right.”
Blackney closed with a call to action. He told the players to “seize these hours.”
“Your number-one purpose is not to entertain me on Sunday,” Blackney said. “Your purpose is to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and help everybody enlight of the truth that one day God is going to intervene and he’s going to set all wrongs right and he’s going to judge the Earth and everybody is going to be raised. And guess what, some are not prepared for that day.
“Use your influence for him with your neighbors, with your family, with your loved ones, with strangers. Winsomely, gently, with no disrespect, share Christ with them, unapologetically. The day is coming. Mockers can mock, guys, but the day is coming. So we need to get with it. Amen?”
“Amen,” the group responded.
Falcons players have had some kind of prayer group for nearly two decades. For 17 years, Collins — through his affiliation with Athletes in Action, which looks to promote Christ through the influence of sports — has kept up the tradition started in the early 1980s by former quarterback Steve Bartkowski.
Although NFL rosters are constantly in flux, Collins said there has always been a core group of pious Christians on the Falcons.
Christian and Buchanan have been attending the Bible studies since they joined the team in 1997. They’ve seen a lot of faces come and go since then. But, they said, regardless of its ever-changing makeup, the prayer group remains rigid.
“Whenever you get Christians together, of course it’s going to be a tight-knit group,” Buchanan said. “We really have a close-knit team and everybody respects everyone’s religion. So we don’t go out hard-core trying to recruit everybody. We let the Lord work through us and if they actually want to convert, it’s really simple.”
Added Christian, “We’ve got to stand together in the locker room. It’s not so bad, but it can be. There are mockers. It just kind of helps when we have a chance for fellowship together with other believers. It helps you to not waver in your stand for Jesus.”