EDITORS’ NOTE: Sportswriter Art Stricklin, in his third year of BP coverage of the spiritual side of the Super Bowl, will be reporting this week from the site of Super Bowl XL in Detroit.
DETROIT (BP)–Jay Wilson grew up in Cincinnati, where he was a Bengals fan as a kid. Now, even though he’s in his 11th year as chaplain for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he admits he doesn’t even own a Terrible Towel, which will be waved by the thousands during Sunday’s Super Bowl XL match up with the Seattle Seahawks.
Wilson, rather, is a fan of the many players who are followers of Christ on this year’s team, which is making its first Super Bowl appearance in a decade.
“I’m not as much a fan of the team but of the many great individuals on the team,” Wilson said. “I’ve had a chance to see some players gain a real maturity level on this team and that’s what’s most exciting to me.”
Wilson, 45, came to the Steel City in 1989 to help out with Athletes in Action ministries, working first with major league baseball and colleges before joining up with the Black and Gold.
He doesn’t claim to be of any special help with wins or losses, having been in Phoenix when the Steelers lost to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.
But in looking forward to this weekend’s game, he noted, “We have some guys who want to speak a word for the Lord. We have some new Christians, but [also] guys who want to speak out.”
A normal week for Wilson includes a Bible study for any interested players, usually 10-20, on Fridays after practice. His wife holds a Bible study for the wives of coaches and players during the week, and on Sunday mornings, Wilson leads a chapel service for the players. Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher, sometimes a fiery presence on the sideline, never misses a chapel service. “It’s a great release for me,” Cowher told a Pittsburgh newspaper this summer.
On the road, players often gather in center Jeff Harting’s room for prayer on Saturday nights as a way of staying close in their shared faith.
Wilson said one of the highlights of his years with the Steelers has been the opportunity to set up summer clinics with the players in city neighborhoods and to take players on overseas mission trips.
Two years ago, Wilson took Harting on a mission trip to Nicaragua, where the center picked up the nickname of “Christian Giant” for his big frame and bigger heart in handing out sports gear along with his personal testimony of faith in Jesus Christ.
“While Jeff made the Pro Bowl for the first time last year, he told me he’s glad he came back for this season because he has his priorities right and he’s playing with the right focus on his faith,” Wilson said. “He’s one of the most teachable players I’ve ever been around. A real joy to work with.”
Among other players active in Wilson’s ministry among the Steelers are wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, strong safety Troy Polamalu, fullback Dan Kreider, defensive end Travis Kirschke, backup quarterback Tommy Maddox, tight end Heath Miller, cornerback Willie Williams, offensive lineman Barrett Brooks and tackle Max Starke.
“When we have our Bible studies we talk about the Lord and how he wants us to spread His Word,” Wilson said. Each team he has worked with, he said, has faced all the hurts and pains, joy and laughter like a large family.
Much of his ministry with the Steelers comes by bumping into players around the practice facility or praying with them over the phone. Unlike many team chaplains, Wilson doesn’t have regular access to the locker rooms or the practice field and usually doesn’t travel with the team on the road. Until a few days ago, he was still unsure if he would be in the stadium for Sunday’s game with Seattle.
When the Steelers lost three regular season games in a row during the season and it appeared to many they wouldn’t make the playoffs, he spoke to the weekly chapel service about Elijah and how to deal with pressure, knowing that’s what many of the players were feeling at the time.
Since then, the Steelers have won seven straight games to give Wilson and the believers on the Steelers squad a chance to speak on the biggest stage of all before thousands of journalists and an estimated 1 billion fans worldwide watching Sunday’s Super Bowl action.
Before both teams arrived here in Detroit this week, Wilson called Seattle chaplain Karl Payne to talk about the week and share their common bond of ministry.
“I’m happy when they [Steelers] win, but I’m more involved in sharing and telling people the Good News every week, no matter who wins,” Wilson said.