On any given Sunday, praise the Lord and run the play

The Baltimore Sun

TAMPA, Fla. - There was Kurt Warner, addressing the godless - notebook-toting cynics who worship at the altar of the free media buffet. Our saviors are sharp-eyed copy editors, and our gods were the Babe and Unitas and Jordan. Who has time for Jesus talk?

Unfortunately, our subject behind the microphone has nothing more important to talk about.

No, it wasn't surprising that it took Warner just a couple of minutes before his talk turned from football to faith. But - and I suspect this was a news conference first - there were no groans from the assembled flock of hacks.

"It makes all the difference in my life," the Arizona Cardinals quarterback says. "Everything I do and everywhere I go, I'm trying to represent Jesus."

You'll have to forgive sportswriters a tad. Most have seen too many athletes espouse their spiritual side yet indulge their criminal. When an athlete mentions God, eyes roll and tape recorders shut off. When thanking Jesus is considered cliche, you know we have problems.

I was engrossed, though. I'm not sure whether it was the message or the messenger, but as I age and as the world around me becomes increasingly unreliable and unpredictable, it's refreshing to see someone who has every reason to get caught up in a peripheral storm of money, ego, celebrity and excess remain so grounded.

"My faith helps me with everything," Warner says. "The biggest thing about my faith is it helps keep everything in perspective. You understand the highs and lows. You understand what's going on sometimes with the highs and lows when other people don't see them."

I'm no trend spotter, and there's no way to quantify this, but from David Tyree to Tony Dungy to Tim Tebow, it seems as if faith has been enjoying an increasingly prominent role in football in America. If it really helps control temperament, I dare say God might be the best performance enhancer you can use legally.

It's obviously not just the Super Bowl and not just Warner. You notice it in every locker room in the NFL. The league is a workplace where Bibles rest next to cleats, where Scripture is inked permanently on biceps and where winning and losing are explained through the prism of something much bigger than the NFL.

"It's just a matter of understanding that God does care about anything you do, including a football game," Ravens kicker Matt Stover told The Baltimore Sun's Kevin Van Valkenburg not long ago. "Some people feel like he doesn't. Well, he does. Or, they feel like, 'There are so many other problems in the world, why would he worry about football?' Well, because he loves you. You're one of his children."

Ravens center Jason Brown has thought much about the role God plays in football. His conclusion: It's important for players to talk about it, he says, otherwise they risk becoming false idols.

"It's our responsibility as players to put God in football," Brown says. "You can't expect the fans or spectators to do it. That's why every time Stover makes a kick, he points up to heaven. He's 40 years old - he's not supposed to be out there. You know why he is? Because God blessed him with a long career."

Warner is 37. On Sunday, he'll become the third-oldest quarterback to start the Super Bowl. His edge is no secret. And if one of the most important players in the most important game says his most important influence happens to be a spiritual deity, why do we roll our eyes? Why do we uncomfortably stare at the ground, eager to shift the discussion to the Pittsburgh Steelers' blitz packages?

Faith, I suppose, is a private matter. Or not.

"Why do I always bring it up when I'm in interviews or when you're on a stage like the Super Bowl or the NFC championship game? It's the most important thing in my life," Warner says. "Some people get up when they win an award and thank their wife or their kids. As important as those things are in my life, the first thing I always want to do is thank my savior in Jesus. He's the most important thing in my life.

"Some people get tired of hearing it - 'How does that relate to football?' - well, it is who I am, it will always be who I am and it's the most important thing in my life. So more times than not, it's going to be the first thing I talk about."

And when he does talk about it, it's worth a listen. You don't have to believe in his God or attend his church. But it's hard sometimes to find things worth believing in. It's comforting to hear Warner's mix of humility and confidence. And it's oddly reassuring to hear someone in the middle of the hype and the madness that surrounds America's biggest game remind us all that it is, in fact, just a game.

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