EDITORS’ NOTE: Art Stricklin, an award-winning Christian sportswriter and contributor to Baptist Press, will be reporting from the site of Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston this weekend, providing exclusive coverage from a spiritual perspective.
HOUSTON (BP)—-With NFL players, coaches, fans and officials from across the country pouring into this Texas Super Bowl city by the Gulf of Mexico, the air is thick with talk, hype and predictions about Sunday’s big game between the Carolina Panthers and the New England Patriots.
But there are two men actively involved in preparations for Super Bowl XXXVIII by their respective teams who won’t engage in any proud boasting or pre-game trash talk; they have pledged cooperation, in fact.
“This week, we’re on the same team,” said New England’s Walt Day.
That’s because Day, team chaplain for the AFC Champion Patriots, and his NFC Champion Carolina chaplain counterpart Mike Bunkley are hoping to help their players present the Good News of Jesus Christ to the worldwide media, a much more important mission than how to run a pass pattern or hold a Super Bowl trophy late Sunday evening.
“I’m happy to help players as they talk about their faith in the endless media coverage they have here,” Day said about his team’s daily media sessions before thousands of journalists from around the world.
“People can spot a phony; it has to be real, how their faith has really helped them in practical ways,” Day said. “This is the biggest spotlight many of them will ever see in their career. It’s a tremendous opportunity.”
Bunkley, a former college running back, has been with the Panthers as chaplain since the team started in 1995. Day, a native and longtime resident of New England, has been with the Patriots since 1994 and also works with baseball’s Boston Red Sox.
Both men said this week’s crazy schedule makes it a challenge to perform their weekly functions and provide regular counsel to the players and coaches they have ministered to all year long.
“Two things we have worked on this year as a team is to walk with God privately and glorify Him publicly,” Bunkley said, “and that is our goal and purpose this week in Houston regardless of whatever schedule we have.”
Bunkley, who flew down on the Panthers’ team plane, leaving freezing temperatures, ice and snow, for 70 degree temperatures in Houston, said he plans to hold his weekly team Bible study on Friday and a chapel service either Saturday night or Sunday morning.
“We know the whole world is watching and we just want to be people who can lead others in the Kingdom. It’s a great opportunity.”
Among the Christian team leaders on the Panthers this year, Bunkley said, have been defensive standouts Mike Minter and Mike Rucker, kicker John Kasey and guard Jeno James.
“Those guys are really genuine with their faith and God will use that,” Bunkley said.
Other big supporters of his season-long ministry with the team are Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who in the past has publicly given his Christian testimony, and head coach John Fox.
“The owner and the new coach have been very supportive of our work here and God has really opened some doors,” said Bunkley, who flies with the team to each road game and has gained week-in, week-out access.
“We realize we’re not at home this week. We’re in a different environment, but it’s still time to praise Him. This is a great group of guys to work with and I’m thrilled to be here.”
Day actually gained his opening to working with the Patriots through current Dallas head coach and former Patriots coach Bill Parcells.
“He had a very positive experience with a chaplain when he was with the New York Giants and wanted to have that again when he came to the Patriots,” Day said. “I’m thrilled to work with these guys, because I grew up in New England, attended school in Rhode Island and watched the Patriots when they weren’t nearly as good as they are now.”
Day arrived at the Super Bowl site in time for his usual Thursday Bible study and plans a Friday coaches’ Bible study and regular Saturday night team chapel.
Among the most active Christian leaders on the New England team are defensive linemen Rick Lyle and Anthony Pleasant, linebacker Don Davis, offensive lineman Tim Provost and wide receiver Bethel Johnson. Davis even has told Day that he may consider forming his own ministry when his football career is over.
Other active Patriot ministry leaders include long snapper Brian Kinchen, who was teaching at a Christian high school in Louisiana this fall before being pressed into service because of the Patriots’ injury problems, and team executive Andy Wasynczuk.
Longtime Dallas Cowboys chaplain John Webber, who has participated in several Super Bowls with the Cowboys, said this could be a stressful week for the chaplains and their players.
“Most of the players will have their families with them, which usually doesn’t happen on the road, and many of them will have their parents, so maintaining focus is a big factor.
“I’ve found just looking for time to sit and talk with the players for a few minutes, maybe have a meal with them or their families, can be a real help,” Webber said. “A lot of people are out of their routines, but it still can be a great spot for a testimony for Jesus Christ.”
Day and Bunkley have known each other for 20 years and both work for the sports ministry group Athletes in Action as does Weber. With the many Super Bowl activities planned for this crazy week, they doubted a team chaplain meeting was possible, but Bunkley did have one request of his New England counterpart.
“Since I know Walt won a Super Bowl two years ago with the Patriots, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind the Panthers winning this one, so we both could have a victory apiece. That would only seem fair.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: ABOVE AND BEYOND.