Johnny Shelton, the Ravens' team chaplain and spiritual advisor, talks about the importance of building relationships with the players and coaches. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)
Every week during the season, The Baltimore Sun will spotlight how a member of the Ravens organization does his or her job.
Moments before every Ravens game, home or away, Johnny Shelton plants himself in the same spot near the mouth of the entrance tunnel. This warm, middle-aged man of God is the last person players see before they emerge for combat.
A few times during Shelton's first season as the team's full-time chaplain, he did not stand at his familiar post. And players asked where he'd been, as if something was wrong.
That struck Shelton as a sure sign he was accomplishing his mission. The Ravens viewed him as a dependable rock in their chaotic world.
Shelton knows some people might find it strange that an NFL team has placed a preacher at the center of its operation. He's heard the surprised tone when he tells new acquaintances what he does. But it's not exactly what you think, he says.
Yes, he's a spiritual leader for the devout Christians on the team, and he'll go as deep as they want in analyzing scripture. But for other players, he's more of a big brother or a trusted uncle. Regardless of what they believe, he wants them to know he'll be there with an encouraging word or a steady hand on the shoulder when they're coping with injuries, career disappointments or family strife.
A "ministry of presence" he calls it.
"I'm in charge of the spiritual culture of the team, in terms of my title," Shelton said. "But man, I wear many hats. The biggest thing I do here is I really, really focus on building relationships, whether the guys are Christians or not. I build a relationship so I can encourage them and … tell them what they need instead of what they want to hear."
The last thing Shelton wants to do, he added, is shove the Bible down anyone's throat.
"I will only go there if they go there," he said. "It doesn't have to be done in a threatening way. Some people think Christianity is an idea of telling somebody they're going to go to hell. But that's not the case. This is about relationships."
Here's a sign of how Shelton is valued by coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome: His office is located along the hallway leading from the team's locker room to the weight room and the indoor practice field. In other words, they've granted the chaplain a prominent storefront on Main Street at the Owings Mills headquarters.
Since he joined the organization in 2013 after seven years as a chaplain at Virginia Tech (he was recommended by the Ravens' previous chaplain, Rod Hairston), he has grown close to Harbaugh, who regularly couches his thoughts about the team in spiritual terms.
"It makes all the difference in the world," Shelton said. "When you know the leader stands for something specific, it frees you up to be who you are. … I don't have to bite my tongue, because Coach is talking about it. He's talking about it in team meetings. But again, it's in a way that's nonthreatening."
With his taut frame and shaved head, the 52-year-old Shelton looks like the former athlete he is. He was a standout safety at Southeast Missouri State and was invited to NFL training camps — one with the Atlanta Falcons and two with the San Francisco 49ers — though he never made a roster.
He grew up in the church at his mother's insistence. But he said it was really football, with its vigorous demands and inevitable setbacks, that showed him his relationship with God was incomplete.
His own experiences are invaluable in helping him tailor his message to Ravens players. He has at least some sense of the pressures, adrenaline thrills and disappointments they face.
For example, as a young man, he struggled to reconcile the violence of the game with the New Testament teachings of peace and love.
"That was one of the hang-ups for me," he said. "But once you grow spiritually, you understand … this is a game and this is the way it was designed. The thing is how we play and what our agenda is. Am I literally trying to hurt a guy to hurt him? Or am I playing the game the best and the hardest I know how to play it? That's the difference."
Jesus was a bold figure, Shelton noted, both in his convictions and his willingness to accept physical pain. Plop the son of God in the modern NFL, Shelton said, and he'd probably be a middle linebacker.
Shelton also understands how many demands the players face on their time, from football duties to family obligations to outside business interests. So he does everything he can to fit his schedule around theirs. He arrives at his office around 6 a.m., so if players want to pop in before they prepare for practice, he's available. End of the day? Same thing. He's there.
He makes house calls on Mondays, when the Ravens are generally off. And if a player and his significant other want to go to Shelton's house for couples counseling, the chaplain and his wife of 28 years, Thlitha, are game for that as well.
Thlitha Shelton leads her own prayer group with the team's wives and girlfriends. She'll even babysit in a pinch.
The flexibility of the week inevitably gives way to the more rigid routine of game day. On a typical Sunday, Shelton begins with an 8:30 a.m. chapel service at the team hotel. He shares 9 a.m. breakfast with a group of players or coaches and then he sets aside time for one-on-one sessions before the bus to the stadium departs.
At the stadium, starting at about 11:15 a.m., he's moving through the locker room, offering upbeat words or prayers to each player he comes across. When the Ravens announce their seven inactive players 90 minutes before game time, Shelton approaches each man, willing to listen to him vent if he's angry about not suiting up.
Just before players exit the locker room for introductions, the Ravens form a large circle and clasp hands. Shelton often asks someone else — he's turned to tight end Benjamin Watson, running back Danny Woodhead and guard James Hurst this season — to lead them in prayer. He doesn't want to be overbearing at that moment. He wants the spiritual message of the day to flow from a member of the group.
He also tends to stand back during the game itself, giving players space to do their work. But if a Raven is injured, as guard Marshal Yanda and linebacker Bam Bradley were Sunday, Shelton follows him into the training room. Once the doctors and trainers have done their work, he's there to listen. Often that's all he does in such moments. The game is cruel, and sometimes, the players need room to express that.
Shelton will usually follow up with texts to the injured guys later in the evening to make sure they're OK.
When the game ends, the team gathers in the locker room to say the Lord's Prayer. The ritual, which will be the same in London this Sunday as it was in Baltimore last, is again complete.