Gwynn Park football player Johnathan Wilkes, pointing, stands in agreement during a sermon at Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton. (Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST)

When Danny Hayes started coaching the Gywnn Park Yellow Jackets football team 14 years ago, he occasionally invited players to join him at his church on Sunday mornings. It was a very informal invitation. A way to keep some kids involved, a common bond with others. Then, on a run to the state championship in 2005, a player named Rashad Carmichael — now a defensive back with the Houston Texans in the NFL — approached Hayes. The players who had gone with him the week before wanted to go again because they felt that the sermon the weekend before had helped them play better.

Soon, the whole team started going and a new tradition was born.

“That’s what took us through the state championship that year,” Hayes said, “because there were a lot of obstacles in our way.”

Early on in the week, during a team meeting, Hayes asks for volunteers. More than one player often raises his hand, wanting to invite the team to his own church the following Sunday. Hayes is quick to say that participation is voluntary.

“I know kids are other religions, and I respect that,” he said. But the majority of his players see going to church with their teammates as a way to bond and get closer.

“I feel it’s important to get different aspects of God,” junior safety Johnathan Wilkes said. “I think it’s good to go to different churches and see how everyone preaches, but any church is the same.”

Still, Wilkes loves his church, Mt. Ennon Baptist in Clinton, and so he gladly raised his hand last week. He knew the church was going to be celebrating youth day, with the sermons directed at young adults. By the end of the rousing sermon about standing up to cultural pressures, the entire team was clapping and several players were on their feet. “It’s important that we stay together as a team and keep our faith in God,” Wilkes said.

For Hayes, it isn’t about trying to turn anyone toward Christianity, or any other religion, for that matter.

“I can’t force anyone to come,” he said. “The bottom line is me teaching them something that they can take forward. They get a message out of it, and if they take one or two messages back with them, that’s what’s important. That football is going to grow flat one day and they know that. What are you going to do after football? Church might be the only thing that you can hold on to.

“If they want to take that walk I’m behind them. But wherever they decide to take that walk, I’m behind them.”

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