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.

"I don't remember it as shocking or anything like that," Jaworski said. "We just took it as, 'That's Herb.' We knew he was a religious man, and this is who he was. Very few people paid much attention to it."

Said Vince Papale, Lusk's teammate, whose career was portrayed in the 2006 movie "Invincible": "Religion was such a hot-button issue that no one wanted to touch it. . . . What I liked about it, it was a private, sensitive moment for him. It wasn't like, 'Hey, hey, look at me,' like a lot of the celebrations have become these days. It wasn't demonstrative."

According to Sabol, Kansas City's Elmo Wright conducted the first end-zone celebration in 1973, when he ran in place after catching a touchdown pass, so there was sort of a precedent for Lusk's display. Still, Lusk recalled being warned after the game by Carl Peterson, then the Eagles' director of player personnel, that praying could earn the Eagles a delay of game penalty.

"I wasn't trying to draw attention to myself," Lusk said. "This was just a moment between me and God."

Lusk actually began praying after touchdowns while playing at Long Beach State. As a junior, he suffered a knee injury that threatened his career.

"I prayed and asked God to come back and play football," Lusk said. "He not only answered my prayer, but did it over and above. I decided I would thank and praise God after each touchdown I scored."

In 1975, his senior season, Lusk was second in the nation with 145 rushing yards per game, and scored 16 touchdowns. Many, however, didn't understand his end-zone prayer. He likes to tell the story about scoring while playing in the East-West Shrine Game after that season. Teammate Chuck Muncie stood over a kneeling Lusk, and held up his hand waiting for a high-five. Lusk never delivered it.

"That [moment] explains how people responded," Lusk said. "They weren't ready for it."

Before the Eagles selected him in the 10th round of the NFL draft, Lusk made a promise to himself: He would play only three seasons in the NFL, then enter the ministry. Still, he reported for training camp for a fourth season in 1979.

"It was so much of a lure, so much of a temptation," Lusk said of playing a fourth season.

On July 12, after one day of camp, Lusk said he woke up in his dorm room at the Eagles' training facility at Widener University and, "I can't say I heard a voice, but I got on my knees like I did when I was in the end zone, and I knew that was it."

Lusk went back to school to complete his degree. In 1982, he was named pastor at Greater Exodus, whose membership had dwindled to less than two dozen, with a dilapidated facility. Today, the congregation numbers more than 1,500, and People for People has filled an adjacent eight-story building that used to house the Philadelphia Traffic Court, with a charter school, day-care center, a youth mentoring program and banquet hall. It is located one mile down Broad Street from City Hall.

Lusk, who gave the invocation at the 2000 Republican National Convention, serves as an adviser to President Bush, who has made two appearances at Greater Exodus and has given People for People more than $1 million in grants as part of the administration's program to support faith-based initiatives.

A year after retiring, Lusk said he saw Wendell Tyler of the Los Angeles Rams copy his end-zone routine.

"I saw that and said, 'That's why I played,' " Lusk said. "I felt accomplishment. I felt vindication. People always asked me [after retiring] why did I even bother to play, and then I pointed to that."

Eventually, stars such as future Hall of Famer Reggie White displayed their faith on the field, giving it additional credence.

"When superstars who are so powerful and influential can make a gesture like that, then others are going to follow," said Joseph Price, professor of religious studies at Whittier College, who has written extensively about the relationship between sports and religion.

Lusk doesn't need any further affirmation. He knows what place 48 Toss has given him in the 30 years since that run. Never mind that he scored only one other touchdown in his career.

"All I wanted to do more than anything else in life was to make a difference and be a changing force," Lusk said, "At the time, I wasn't thinking about what I started, but now, I look back and say to myself, 'Yes, I've given birth to something.' "

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company