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Religion and the Ravens: Faith fuels Baltimore's 'mighty men'

Marta Mossburg says a core of Christian values undergirded the Ravens' Super Bowl quest

Marta H. Mossburg

11:53 AM EDT, March 12, 2013

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The media cover Ray Lewis' faith and his role as spiritual leader of the Ravens frequently.

Ray Lewis makes it so. Anyone who has seen him once knows that he understands how to use pageantry to reveal deeper meaning. From taking off his jersey following the post-season win over the Indianapolis Colts to reveal a shirt with "Psalms 91" emblazoned across it to the inimitable way he enunciates each syllable as if he were beseeching God (even when he is talking about what he ate for breakfast), he knows how to capture the cameras.

And it is true that he has been God's most visible spokesman in Baltimore. It's hard to find a sound bite from him that does not reference the Lord in one form or another, and it's made all the more remarkable because he believes what he is saying. But the fuller story yet to be told is how the Christian faith of Baltimore's incarnation of the Minister of Defense and that of many of his teammates and coaches is inextricably linked to their Super Bowl victory this year against the San Francisco 49ers.

Head coach John Harbaugh talked about that in a speech at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes dinner last week at Martin's West. (I wasn't there but saw the video of the event.)

It's not that the team's coaches and players regularly attend weekly Bible studies, which they do. It's not the fact that so many players attend Mass or chapel before Sunday games, which they do. It's not the fact that team members regularly pray for one another. Many players on other teams do those things but don't win a Super Bowl.

It seems to me to be about what Mr. Lewis told team members at half time in the divisional playoff game against the Denver Broncos in January, before they clinched the game in double overtime, 38-35. He said, according to Mr. Harbaugh, to stay together no matter what, and quoted verses from Isaiah 54, including part of verse 17, "no weapon forged against you will prevail."

In context, the "you" in that verse is corporate, not individual. And in the key games, they did the "we" better than anyone else out there because of a worldview that made them see themselves as destined for great things by the creator — even after fumbling midseason and during brutal battles in post-season games when winning would have seemed out of reach to other players, as in Denver.

That is all by design. Mr. Harbaugh, a Catholic, refers to team members as "mighty men," referencing King David's fiercest and best fighters. He and the other coaches made sweat suits and T-shirts with the label, he said, because if David, Israel's greatest king before Christ, had mighty men, "why couldn't our team be mighty men for one another?"

And they routinely motivate one another with stories that put their lives in context of the grand story of the Bible. At a low point in the season, Mr. Harbaugh said he and Anquan Boldin were texting one another verses. Mr. Harbaugh sent Mr. Boldin a verse from Joshua chapter 1 that outlines how Joshua would face huge obstacles leading his people to inherit the land promised to their ancestors. "He knew it right away," said Mr. Harbaugh. "It says, 'Be strong and courageous. … Be very strong and courageous.'" They then decided to share it with the team to inspire them, he said.

It's amazing to see how faith can motivate people to achieve shared goals. Anyone who read "Unbroken," Laura Hillenbrand's riveting tale of the amazing life of Louis Zamperini, a World War II bombardier who floated for 47 days on the Pacific after his plane crashed, knows that faith was key to his survival and that of pilot Russell Phillips. The pair endured shark attacks, dehydration and starvation on the raft.

To see how it worked itself out in the Ravens this year is also a testament to its power, especially when football players are so frequently called out for their hypocrisy rather than their righteousness.

I hope for Baltimore that its mighty men don't fade away as new men enter the team and veterans — including Mr. Boldin — leave. This city needs redemption — spiritually, morally and financially — more than ever and could use a few more examples of how it's done, if only the real story is told in the first place. Thanks, John Harbaugh, for the insight.

Marta H. Mossburg is a Baltimore-area writer whose work appears regularly in The Sun. Her email is marta@martamossburg.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mmossburg.

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