After NFL's First Prayer, Religion Touched Down

By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007

PHILADELPHIA -- The play was 48 Toss, and 30 years later, Dick Vermeil remembers it as if he called it last Sunday. Herb Lusk took a pitch from Ron Jaworski, headed around left end and breezed unscathed 70 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown. Four steps over the goal line at Giants Stadium, the Philadelphia Eagles' running back rewrote the playbook. Alone in the end zone, with a crowd of 48,824 looking on, he celebrated with a gesture in what has since become a watershed moment in American sports.

With little ceremony and no advance warning, Lusk kept his eyes straight, dropped to his left knee and bowed his head in prayer. A few seconds later, he stood back up and returned to the sideline, his legacy sealed.

"Herb Lusk was the first NFL player to kneel in the end zone and pray," said Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films, which has footage of more than 9,000 games played since 1894.

It was Lusk's second touchdown of the day. His first was a one-yard score in the first quarter. He went to one knee on that one as well, but in a pack of celebrating teammates, few noticed what he was doing. His second score, which put the wraps on a 28-10 Eagles win, was a clear public display.

The gestures went unremarked upon, for the most part, that Sunday, Oct. 9, 1977. A couple of reporters asked Lusk about it after the game, but didn't make mention of it in their stories, instead focusing on how Lusk's 117 rushing yards helped the Eagles win. Nobody, not even Lusk himself, thought such a seemingly quiet, personal moment would eventually become apparent today at every level of competitive sports, whether it be a pitcher pointing skyward after a save, a hitter offering thanks to a higher power after a home run, or a basketball team joining for a prayer at midcourt after a game.

While historians have pointed to prayer being fused with spectator sports as far back as the early 20th century, Lusk was the one credited with making on-field prayer a mainstream act 30 years ago, so much so, it earned him the nickname "The Praying Tailback," according to Sabol and Lusk's former Eagles teammates.

"That day is pretty much a blur to me," said Lusk, speaking from his office at People for People, the social service arm of Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia, where he is pastor. Lusk founded People for People in 1993. "I'm very proud of when I look and see guys praying in the end zone or praying after [a game]. I see these guys as my sons. I gave birth to them. I see that as my purpose for playing in the NFL".

Teams and players had long conducted prayer before and after games, but out of the public eye. What historians believe Lusk's act did was show athletes that a highly personal action could be shared publicly.

"I don't know if there was hesitancy to do it back then, but [athletes] weren't as impulsive as they are today," said Vermeil, Lusk's coach at the time, who added that he noticed a huge increase in on-field prayer during his broadcasting career in the 1980s. "He kind of initiated this movement. . . . It freed a lot of people to express themselves."

Richard Lapchick, founder of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University and now the director of the DeVos Sport Business Management program at the University of Central Florida, said Lusk put religion in a new light for athletes.

"It added macho credibility to it," Lapchick said. "Up to that point, it was, 'Is this guy really serious' " about religion?

There was little public reaction to Lusk's prayers, though his teammates were aware of his strong faith.

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