IT IS JANUARY 20 IN THE FAIR CITY of San Francisco, and the New York Giants, who play in New Jersey and do not, for the most part, live in New York, are playing the San Francisco 49ers. It's the playoff preceding the Super Bowl and three days after the United States has gone to war. At almost the very last minute, I tune in the game and think I cannot be seeing what I am seeing. Several of the Giants are down on their knees, praying for a field goal.
Far off in the Persian Gulf, a record number of sorties is being flown. Scuds and other missiles fill the sky. In the air and on the ground, people are being killed. Yet, in a stadium in San Francisco, a bunch of New York Giants seem to be imploring an otherwise occupied God to send the ball through the uprights. She gets the message.
The next day, I skimmed the newspapers for a mention of the Giants at prayer. Possibly I had misconstrued what they were doing. After all, I am neither a religious person nor a football fan since, I think, both religion and football entail a tolerance for the repetition of inanities, the yapping of either players or clergymen. But I am an American, familiar with both religion and football, and I have seen enough of the latter to remember when the Washington Redskins were led in a pre-game prayer by Walter Washington, then the city's mayor. I do not quite understand, but I accept. If you can get New Yorkers to think that a New Jersey team is their own, anything can follow.
Seeing no mention of the Giants at prayer, I consulted with an editor in The Post's Sports section: Did I indeed see what I thought I saw? Yes, I did. Shoulders were shrugged; nothing more was made of it. I am well known as a non-sports fan, which is to say weird, which is precisely how I feel when everyone around me feels passionately about something I think is downright silly.
The next week, God's own team, the Giants, were in the Super Bowl. This game too was fought down to the final moments. I am not immune to the drama of a good game, and this game was better than good -- it was great. As a result, when informed of the score, I bounded from the restaurant where I was eating and went to a bar next door. Just in time. Buffalo, behind by one point, was attempting a field goal.
A timeout was called, and, once again, certain Giants felt the powerful pull of religion. Down on one knee they went. This time I was even more stupefied than the week before. Then, at least, the Giants were praying for good fortune. Now they seemed to be praying for bad fortune: They wanted the Buffalo kicker to miss. I thought it unsporting and hoped (I was about to say "prayed") that God would agree. She did not. The ball missed by a country mile.
Once again, the most amazing event of the game went unmentioned in the next day's papers. It had not been commented upon by any of the three TV announcers either. Not a movement on the field eludes these guys, but they seemed not to notice that several players were deep in prayer a moment before a Buffalo foot hit the ball. In any event, they said nothing, presumably because they thought the kick was beyond the kicker's capabilities. Yes, but until he had to, Moses had never parted the Red Sea either.
It is about here, or maybe even earlier, that countless readers will have reached for countless pens to denounce me for trivializing religion -- or (worse yet?) football. But how could religion be trivialized more than by those prayers for and against a field goal? How self-obsessed can football players be that in the middle of a war it has not occurred to them that what they're doing doesn't matter. I know that the Super Bowl is Americana (blah, blah, blah), but whatever it is, it's neither war nor open heart surgery on an infant. It's entertainment.
I am familiar with the religious doctrine that holds that nothing but nothing escapes God's notice and that, furthermore, praying is evidence of humility. Barbara Bush said something like that when it was revealed that the Rev. Billy Graham had been an overnight guest at the White House right before the war started. Even the president recognized his limitations, which is another way of saying that even the highest secular authority recognizes a still higher authority. Nothing wrong there.
But it's hard to distinguish, particularly in the case of the praying Giants, between humility and raging self- importance, between recognizing personal insignificance and asserting an awesome significance for what, in the case of a football game, is a trivial event. In that case, prayer seemed to signify an incredible loss of perspective that was hardly offset by the wearing of yellow ribbons or other acknowledgment that a war was raging elsewhere. At that very moment, I envisioned a pilot over Iraq praying to get back to base safely. It was a jarring exercise of the imagination.
Religion, while not my cup of tea, is not something for which I have disdain. Yet this is only the latest example of its being demeaned by its own practitioners. It has been marshaled in the name of this or that political cause and advanced by a president (Ronald Reagan) who almost never went to church. What we seem to have in this country is a kind of sappy religion, something out of a feel-good TV commercial in which everything, including patriotism, is exploited to sell product. Those kneeling Giants were in that tradition, praying first for the ball to go through the uprights and then for it to miss. In somewhat archaic English, it prompted me to utter an oath: Pray, grow up.