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In a tough sports town, baptisms and Bible studies fuel many of the Eagles’ stars

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz throws before the NFL Super Bowl 52 football game against the New England Patriots Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Carson Wentz, quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, wants you to tune in on Super Bowl Sunday.

Before that, he’d like to visit your church.

“If you are a pastor anywhere in the world who’s looking to impact the people in your community, please consider inviting me and other NFL players into your church this Super Bowl weekend,” Wentz says in a promotional video for Football Sunday, a national faith-based outreach effort. “I promise it will be something God uses to transform the people you are called to serve. And I believe for all eternity.”

Wentz, Nick Foles and several members of the Eagles are among a number of NFL players appearing in the video. It is scheduled to be shown in thousands in churches on Sunday, the day the Eagles face the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

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It’s the latest step of faith for the Eagles, who have won over one of the toughest sports towns in the United States.

Philadelphia is a place where fans are known for not being forgiving. Or easily impressed, says Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania and an avid Eagles fan.

“We booed Santa Claus,” Butler said.

But the injured star Wentz and his backup, Foles, have breathed life into a franchise that had been down on its luck after a pair of losing seasons and a tumultuous divorce from former coach Chip Kelly.

“No sane person thought the Eagles would be in the Super Bowl at the beginning of the year,” Butler said.

The team — whose coach, Doug Pederson, a former NFL quarterback, started his post-playing days with a Baptist high school team — has made believers out of fans. So if they want to use their success to spread the gospel, that’s okay with local fans.

For Tom Brady, football has become religion. No, really.

In fact, earnestness seems to be part of the team’s charm. Eagles defensive end Chris Long, for example, is donating his salary this season to educational causes.

“They seem like a really decent group of people,” Butler said.

The team produced a video — separate from the one being shown on Super Bowl Sunday — highlighting faith as a binding force in the team locker room.

Eagles players even held baptisms in the team’s cold tub and at a hotel pool. About 30,000 people have viewed a Bible study that features the Eagles and other NFL players. Frank Reich, the offensive coordinator for the Eagles, spent time in the ministry after his NFL career was over — serving as a pastor and seminary professor before becoming a coach.

The team’s quarterbacks are spiritual leaders off the field. Wentz, who was an MVP candidate before his season was cut short by a knee injury, is known for his “Audience of One” (AO1) foundation and off-season preaching gigs.

Foles, whose Twitter bio describes him as a “Believer in Jesus Christ, husband, father, son, brother,” almost quit football after losing his job as the Eagles’ quarterback in 2016 and being released by the St. Louis Rams a year later.

“I wanted to retire from the NFL, and I really struggled,” he said in a devotional for YouVersion, the popular Bible study app. “I couldn’t pick up a football for about eight months. I had no love for the game, and it was tough.”

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A Bible verse reminded him that God was still working in his life, even in failure, he said. That verse, 2 Corinthians 12:9, includes the phrase, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Derwin Gray, a former NFL player-turned-pastor, said he has been impressed that the Eagles players are outspoken about their faith, even when times are bad.

“That speaks volumes,” said Gray, who became a Christian in the 1990s, after a fellow player on the Indianapolis Colts evangelized to him.

Gray said conversations about faith take place throughout NFL locker rooms. Sometimes star players do the talking. Other times, it’s role players, like Matthew Slater, the special teams maven for the New England Patriots.

Either way, if a player doesn’t work hard or do his job, his message may not be heard by players and fans.

“If I am not working with integrity, if my words don’t match my action, and if my life doesn’t show fundamental kindness, no one will care,” said Gray, pastor of Transformation Church in Indian Land, S.C.

Steve Stenstrom, a former NFL quarterback, who runs Pro Athletes Outreach, which sponsors Football Sunday and the Increase, a website where pro athletes talk about faith, has been impressed by the way players on both Super Bowl teams live out their faith.

Footage of interviews this week with members of both teams will be shown at churches on Sunday. In the video, Wentz also talks about how faith helped him cope with his season-ending injury.

“There’s disappointment,” Stenstrom said. “But he’s a guy who is always looking at the bigger picture and the more important things in life.”

Still, if a player or the team isn’t winning, coaches may have less tolerance talking about religion.

“If we lose, they’ll say — stop praying and start playing,” Gray said.

For now, all is good with the Eagles, said the Rev. Leslie Callahan, Eagles fan and pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

“Right now, Carson Wentz and Nick Foles can do no wrong in the city of Philadelphia,” she said.

And the vibe around the Eagles is different, she said, than that around the New England Patriots.

The Patriots have a diverse faith mix: some outspoken Christians, a pastor-turned-character coach, a number of Jewish players and then Tom Brady, who promotes a controversial health/lifestyle/spiritual brand known as the TB12 method.

Brady is featured in a Super Bowl week video titled “Tom vs. Time.”

Callahan jokes that spiritual forces of a different kind may be at work among the Patriots, who are gunning for their sixth Super Bowl title. Something crazy always seems to happen in their games, she said. And, like the tuck rule, a remarkable comeback in last year’s Super Bowl or a game-saving interception by an undrafted rookie in 2015, those crazy plays have helped the Patriots.

“It feels like there is some kind of ‘angels in the outfield’ working for them,” she joked. “Except that it doesn’t feel like angels.”