In meeting rooms across the CFL each week, groups of players gather for study, but this session doesn’t involve game film, white boards or play books.
Each team in the CFL has a chaplain who leads Bible studies for players interested in scripture, discussion and prayer, among many of his duties. It’s not about praying for a victory; players make that very clear. Many look to team chaplains for perspective, and unconditional support in a world of pro sports that constantly asks, what have you done for me lately?
Some Toronto Argonauts gathered to study with chaplain Herbie Kuhn, many with knees or shoulders wrapped in ice packs, a piece of pizza in one hand, a small Bible in the other. Some sat quietly and listened while others read passages to the group that applied to them personally, speaking of families, relationships and fears.
The players preferred the content of their deeply personal Bible study discussion go unpublished. Players and coaches around the league – religious or not – share many confidential moments with their team chaplains every day, from a phone call in the middle of the night to a quick word on the sideline or a prayer in the face of injury or personal tragedy.
“Players can look us in the eye and know we’re there to serve them, and we can be trusted with whatever they tell us,” said Kuhn, who is also the Toronto Raptors’ chaplain.
The eight CFL chaplains are all affiliated with the faith-based group Athletes in Action, which guides athletes in many sports. They also lead community work and hold game-day chapels for home and visiting teams. Some chaplains are on the sideline during games to advise players or lead the on-field postgame prayer.
“I’m not just here for the guys who show up to Bible study,” Calgary Stampeders chaplain Rodd Sawatzky said. “Sometimes a player needs relationship or marriage counselling, and he’s not looking to read from the Bible, he’s looking for some guidance, so you have to know what each person needs.”
When Winnipeg Blue Bombers assistant coach Richard Harris died suddenly at 63 this season, chaplains helped.
“We dealt with that tragedy around the league – so many of our chaplains were needed to help support coaches, players, office staff, and administrators who knew him and were mourning that tragedy,” said B.C. Lions chaplain Dave Klassen, who co-ordinates the league’s chaplains.
While the chaplains have a Christian background, they help players and coaches of all religions and often work as a team of chaplains across team lines, especially at events such as the Grey Cup.
“My first year in the league, I had Canadian Thanksgiving at our chaplain’s house which meant so much to me, because I just wanted to feel welcome in the league,” Lions quarterback Travis Lulay said. “This is a close-knit eight-team league, and I can clear my mind with chaplains wherever we go, because pregame chapels are about fellowship.”
Religion and football coexist comfortably, and many CFL players speak freely about faith and its role in their preparation.
“We want to get things off our chest and not be judged as weak, and confiding helps us play freer,” Argos defensive end Ricky Foley said. “I pray for strength and guidance. ”
Sports, so conditional in nature, often tie an athlete’s self worth to his performance, and chaplains help an athlete find perspective.
“If we’ve got a defensive issue on the field, we go into a meeting room to talk about it, and Bible study is the same thing,” Argonauts safety Willie Pile said. “It allows us a forum to let our guard down and talk comfortably about our lives.”