Faith and football collide on area public high school fields

A tradition started by the late Nick Lynch, Suitland says a prayer before and after each game and practice. (Nathan Bickell for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)
October 14, 2013

Suitland football Coach Ed Shields called his team to the middle of the field after a mid-September practice and told the players the three-hour session was a waste. They would have to be better tomorrow, he screamed. Then he told them to pray, before storming off the field.

Every player took a knee, helmets off, sweat dripping, and each put a hand on another’s shoulder. The boys continued to bicker about football and how angry their coach was, and that’s when senior Steven Rivers came to the front.

“Stop talking!” Rivers shouted. A few players didn’t. Rivers looked at them. “You’re on this team, right?”

Eventually it was silent, and the players bowed their heads and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Rivers, who grew up in nearby Greenbelt, lowered his head, too.

As a Muslim, he’s not supposed to be saying a Christian prayer. But he’s a team leader and, as he sees it, if you play for Suitland, you kneel and pray before and after every practice, before and after every game.


The Suitland football team prays following their game with Potomac (Md.) last month. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

“I’m not even supposed to be saying the prayer. But I do it for my team, because I’m a captain,” said Rivers, 17. “I say my own prayer.”

Shields said the prayer is not mandatory, but reciting it is rooted in the football culture at this public school in the heart of Prince George’s County.

More than 13 years have passed since the Supreme Court banned school-sponsored, student-led prayer at public high school athletic events, although students are still free to voluntarily worship. And they do. Hundreds of football players will pray on football fields across the Washington area this fall, no matter their religious creed. It will be the continuation of a tradition for some athletes, and for others, an introduction to a decision. One that might have more to do with team camaraderie than devotion.

A long-standing tradition

Rivers was confronted with the decision when he arrived on Suitland’s campus in District Heights as a freshman in the summer of 2010. Would he shun prayer on the football field because of his own beliefs? Or would he embrace the practice to be part of the team?

“I didn’t want to do it,” Rivers said. “It’s really a tradition for Suitland to pray. This has been a tradition for years.”

Rivers started to pray that year, he said, only because he was witnessing the tradition starting to crumble. Players cursed at each other before the prayer. Some wore caps. Some didn’t kneel. He thought those gestures resembled a dysfunctional team, and he simply wanted to be different from his insubordinate teammates — even though he was already different.

He’s had to make this choice before, growing up with a father who is Muslim and a mother who is Christian. Tamika Rivers-Floyd said her son was raised in a family where boxing and football were “generational,” and that as a child, Steven was not easily influenced by others outside that sphere.

So when it came time to form his own religious beliefs as a teenager, “he made a decision on his own to carry his practice and pray to Allah,” Rivers-Floyd said. And even though she is Christian, she knew her son would have to make his own decision, as a Muslim, to say the Lord’s Prayer with his teammates.

“To me, it doesn’t bother me, as long as he’s praying for the right things,” she said. “As long as he is praying to God in some kind of way, I’m fine with it.”

Shields could have banned the prayers when he took over Suitland’s football team in 2009, but he has not been interested in muzzling the practice. He has a choice, too. Sometimes he will stick around and pray with the kids. Other times, he will walk away.

But he’s a true believer, at least in intertwining football and spirituality. It’s never been about Christianity, he said. Shields simply believes prayer is one of the few ways the team can come together after playing a violent game, to grab each other’s jersey and accomplish peace.

“I think everybody’s always worried about, you know, ‘You don’t want to cross the line,’ or whatever. But you have certain traditions that are bigger than traditions. And what I mean by that, when we pray, it’s about our life,” Shields said. “I do think it’s about a positive force, and the fact that we do it every day, before every game, before every practice. . . it’s about us bringing that positive force to life for the kids.”

Some players have chosen not to pray in the past, electing instead to walk off the field after practice, and Shields has supported them. About three years ago, he invited the team to attend Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington on a Sunday morning, and about half the team showed up. Shields didn’t keep a head count.

Suitland Principal Nathan Newman said he has not received a complaint about praying among the students, nor has Prince George’s County Schools Athletic Director Earl Hawkins, who is in his 11th year in the position.

“We do try to follow school system policy, where [prayer] should be led by students,” Hawkins said. “I think it’s always been part of the tradition for most schools.”

Balancing act

Suitland is not the only area public school to allow athletes to openly pray at sporting events. At a game between Gwynn Park and Potomac in Prince George’s County in late September, the teams came together afterward and prayed at midfield, with coaches and some parents joining in.

“You can’t do nothing without the Lord,” Gwynn Park junior safety Stephen Turner said after his team won. “We’re all one big family in P.G.”

In an informal survey conducted by The Post with nearly 60 area football coaches, more than half said they had knowledge of a group of players on their team either praying or meditating in some form before games this fall. That includes at least three teams in Montgomery County, six in Howard County, seven in Fairfax, and nine in the District. Of 16 coaches polled in Prince George’s County, all but three said their teams run student-led prayers.

In the District, Theodore Roosevelt’s basketball team once brought in a pastor to speak. At West Potomac in Fairfax County, the members of the football team held Bible studies at the school this summer.

At Westminster High in northern Maryland, a few members of the lacrosse team wore shirts emblazoned with the phrase “1 Peter 1:6” under their uniforms for a playoff game last spring, the lettering on the lower back visible for every fan to see.

“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials,” the scripture reads.

Westminster drew its own grief from angry parents from the opposing team after the game, and it forced the team’s coach, Steve DeFeo, to ponder the grip that religion had taken on his team. A year ago, DeFeo approached the school and county athletic administrations about starting regular praying sessions led by a former player and assistant coach, Brendan Johnson, who was also the Carroll County Fellowship of Christian Athletes representative.

DeFeo wanted to be careful. He went to FCA meetings, including one in Montgomery County, as an “observer,” and after holding extensive discussions with Johnson and receiving clearance from administrators, he was allowed to introduce a voluntary faith-based program to the team. The team would hold “chapel” on Tuesdays at the school, reading Bible verses under the direction of Johnson, and it became so popular that it eventually expanded to a twice-a-week event. The verse from Peter became a “statement of the team,” leading to an assistant presenting the printed shirts before the playoff game.

“Some people took offense to that, that we were wearing shirts like that. If there was an issue, the refs would’ve said something during the game, or before the game,” DeFeo said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the faith side of it, but I think it became a team bonding thing for the guys. They looked forward to it.”

West Potomac football Coach Jeremiah Davis allowed the FCA to invite his players to an optional Bible study at 6 a.m. before workouts this summer. They would use scripture to talk about football values, such as the concept of treating teammates as family and using effective communication on the field, Davis said.

“It just kind of became part of our program,” Davis said. “It’s definitely around other programs. And I’m sure other coaches might not be as spiritual as some [others], but they include the FCA, or along with any other, you know, religious organization that kids want to be a part of with their sports.”

Pray together, play together

Suitland defensive lineman William Beard has been praying on the football field since his pee-wee playing days in District Heights. He certainly wasn’t out of place in September when the team kneeled after practice and delivered the Lord’s Prayer, all in the shadow of the giant white cross atop the St. Bernardine of Siena Catholic Church that hovers a block away from the Rams’ stadium.

He believes in the leadership of Rivers, a player who has shown Beard how to grip and control the ball on the field, and a player who has sacrificed his own religious standing to be a part of the team’s prayer sessions every day.

“He’s a really good leader. He’s a big help,” Beard said. “I think [praying] can help us in the big game.”

There’s still work to do for Rivers, even though the Rams are 5-0. He was disappointed that some of his teammates were arguing before the prayer at practice last week. He’s convinced that kind of dysfunction could come back to haunt his team on the field.

“Prayer really reflects how we play and practice,” Rivers said.

Shields has no plans to suspend the practice. If he were approached by a player, parent or administrator asking him to shut down the student-led prayers, he said he would handle the request by completely removing himself from the tradition. He is currently operating in a limbo; ordering a player to pray and ordering a player not to pray falls under the same principle.

Which is why, after a game with Laurel High last week, Shields had to make his own choice. He could either choose to walk away from his team’s huddle, or he could celebrate a tradition with his players and stay. He briefly addressed the team’s performance on the football field. He told them to enjoy the 54-7 win that day, at least until Sunday morning.

Then the group went silent. As Rivers and the rest of the team huddled to pray, Shields kneeled in front and joined them.

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