Men Of Sunday: How Faith Guides The Players, Coaches, And Wives of The NFL, by Curtis Eichelberger
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Booksneeze/Thomas Nelson Publishers in exchange for an honest review.]
Given my interest in the intersection of faith and sports and public culture, it is no surprise that I read this book with some interest. The author claims in the acknowledgements section to have taken six years to collect the stories for this book, and that is easy to believe, given the rich and varied tapestry of stories that deal with everything from the football wives of the Arizona Cardinals holding weekly bible studies and then giving a cold shoulder to the groupies at football parties to the origin of praying after touchdowns (it didn’t start with Tebowing, and Tim Tebow, surprisingly enough, isn’t mentioned until becoming one of the central people, along with Ray Lewis, in the book’s final chapter on leadership). Despite the length of time that this book took to research and write, some elements of it appear a bit sloppy. For example, the last part of the last chapter examines the successful seasons of various professed Christians after the lockout of 2011, and has the Steelers losing twice in the playoffs (once to the Tebow-led Broncos in the wild card round and then again to the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl, which had happened at the end of the previous season), an error that was irksome to me as a Steelers fan   and also a bit disruptive to the author’s credibility in crafting a pro-faith narrative.
That blunder reveals one of the tensions within this book, and that is a tension between the desire to show faith as a positive element in the lives and careers of professed Christians, a group as diverse as Ray Lewis and Mike Singletary and Mark Brunell and many, many others (some famous, some obscure, as this book casts a wide net in looking at the role of faith in football) and the desire to show how Christians have to struggle with the same problems and temptations as everyone else, not always with success. Overall, except in some instances (like the closing of the book), this tension does not harm the book, but rather expresses the sort of tension that is commonly felt by believers between enjoying the blessings that come from belief and having to build strength of character and faith to endure the tribulations that come from life as a person striving to follow God (however we understand His ways) in a clearly fallen and depraved world. There are some very heartbreaking stories in this book, including miscarriages and the death of children, besides the omnipresent reality of injury and abrupt career changes and the financial and emotional problems that often result from the loss of the stability and order of a football career. Likewise, this book also forthrightly comments on the irony of so many professed believers playing a violent game that often leads to serious injuries.
The fact that this narrative is constructed so much around narratives gives it a richness and variety that provides a great deal of insight into the minds and lives of professed Christians, even as the stories bounce off of each other in unexpected ways. Most players admit struggles with the entitlement mentality that comes from being the “big man on campus” with access to parties and easy no-strings-attached-except-child-support-payments-sex (a problem that most of us would struggle with even if we cannot remotely relate to) while also dealing with questions of having to build faith in God’s will when dealing with injuries, trades, being cut from the team, or the inevitability of retirement and the financial problems that often result from a sudden loss of a massive income. While not all of these problems are likely to be relatable to the reading audience of this work (which ought to be wide), the stories do make the “men of Sunday” talked about real life flesh and blood humans rather than the gridiron gladiators that they may seem to be.
As a humane book written well and with an elegant and sympathetic prose style, this book does much to explain the tensions within our culture between sports and religion, even if it does not comment directly on the fact that for many football is a religion on its own in competition with Christianity, as well as the fact that football is a key element in the “circus” element of sports that serves no less vital social functions for our nation as the gladiatorial games played for ancient Rome some two millennia ago when Christians were also a part of the entertainment. Life is full of ironies, and if this book does not explore all of or even the most serious of those ironies, it does show that football players struggle with the same ethical dilemmas of living out their faith that everyone else does, and that task alone makes this a worthwhile and enjoyable read for any fan of American football who also is interested in the public role of Christianity in contemporary American society, and a read that is full of scriptural references given in interviews by football players themselves besides being a treasure trove of deeply personal conversations about faith and football.