Our Father?

The words of an ordained Episcopalian minister boom out over Lamar Hunt Family Stadium before each football game. In some schools, that would be illegal. But here, it’s tradition.

Members of the football team pray together before every game, but some players do so again just before the Lions take the field for the opening kickoff.

The locker room falls silent. Dozens of football players, decked out in full pads, take a knee.

Less than an hour earlier, the walls and lockers rattled as speakers blared their pre-game playlist. But now, anyone could hear a pin drop.

They take off their helmets.

Just a few minutes before, they were outside, getting ready for the game. But now, warm-ups are done. It’s time to play.

Everyone reaches up and grabs the shoulder pads of the players in front of them in a Friday Night Lights-like display of team unity.

In less than ten minutes, they’ll sprint out of the tunnel, greeted by the roar of the crowd and the raucous band.

But now, silence. They all bow their heads. Head coach Bart Epperson starts to speak.

Lord, we ask that You...

•••

Before the beginning of every football game, Epperson leads the football team in a prayer. But to him, the prayer is less about the religious aspect and more about bringing the team together and asking for a safe bill of health.

“I just talk to the team about a few reminders we have and then I ask the team to take a knee, put your arm around your teammate, and I say a quick prayer,” Epperson said. “It’s more of a generalization, if you will. It’s mainly me giving thanks. Let us have fun, and keep us healthy. That’s the basis of any pre-game prayer.”

But other schools may not enjoy the freedom that Epperson and the football team enjoy.

In 2015, a high school football coach in Washington was placed on paid leave after he refused to stop praying on the 50-yard-line after each game concluded. He said the school had violated his First Amendment rights of free speech, and the case made it all the way to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Last month, the court handed down its decision, saying he was speaking as a public employee, and therefore did not have the same rights as a private citizen. The judge went as far as to say the coach had crossed a line when it came to imposing his religious beliefs on athletes, students and fans.

At 10600 Preston Rd., faculty, staff and students alike are given the opportunity to practice their faith across campus, from the chapel to the football field. Athletic Director Mark Sullivan believes this facet of school life is important because of how intertwined various aspects of our community have become.

“If this was a school of separate components, we wouldn’t truly be developing healthy young men,” Sullivan said. “You need to have all of the components of the campus blended in a way because you can’t escape who you are whether that’s athletic, academic, spiritual or a combination.”

Athletics, according to Sullivan, help to fulfill just a portion of the school’s goal of educating the whole boy, so the other pillars are necessary in order to achieve that goal.

“There are so many components of this whole ‘Path to Manhood’ thing,” Sullivan said. “There’s the academic piece and clearly the spiritual piece. Then there’s this, the athletic piece or the physical piece. I think athletics on the surface, as the simple answer, fills that component. But it goes beyond that in so many ways.”

Despite the school’s Episcopalian root’s, which dictate the school must keep an Episcopalian minister as a member of the faculty and that students must attend chapel during the week, students manage to blend academic and athletic endeavors with numerous distinct spiritual backgrounds, which Epperson feels is reflected in how the team carries out the pre-kickoff prayer.

“I would venture to say that everyone in that locker room when I’m speaking would all be in agreement to have the kids come out healthy and safe,” Epperson said. “I can guess you can call it a prayer if somebody wants to call it that. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just me putting the team together one last time and having one quiet moment.”

Senior football player Avery Pearson prays again on the sidelines after the team heads  out onto the field. In his eyes, the school has done a good job of showing the community expression of religion is both welcomed and encouraged.

“I really think I should be able to pray to my God or anyone should be able to pray to his God or to God in general,” Pearson said. “Whatever your religion is, if you want to express that – if you want to pray – I feel like you should be able to reflect your religion and how you want to practice it on the football field.”

Epperson shares much of the same sentiment as Pearson, and believes that is one part of the school’s culture that differentiates itself from other institutions.

“I think what’s great is that we respect each individual’s differences,” Epperson said. “Whether it be individual or religious background or ethnicity, we’re a big family and we respect everyone. I think that’s what I really love. That we do that here and we don’t try to push one particular idea on everybody, that’s pretty cool.”

•••

Amen.

Coaches, trainers and players lift their heads. They stand, cluster near the glass doors facing the field, ready for another home game.

Still quiet, save the snaps of chinstraps clicking into place and cleats clacking against the locker room’s concrete floor.

The clock turns to 6:53 p.m. Seven minutes to kickoff.

The doors swing open. A wave of roars filled with hints of cowbell and indiscriminate screaming rushes over the team. The blue-jerseyed guys at the front take their first steps out.

The new era has arrived. But some of those long-time Friday night traditions – the cheerleaders, the band, and, yes, even that pre-game prayer – those will never go away.