On Sunday afternoons they pound the turf before thousands of fans in football stadiums and on television. But on Wednesday evenings, members of the Baltimore Ravens football team are at Word of Life Assembly of God, raising their hands, praising God and giving glory where it belongs.
"We have a lot of believers on the team," says linebacker Peter Boulware, who came to the team three years ago from Florida State. "That's one of the special things about the Ravens. These guys are not willing to waver on their faith, and that makes us closer as a team. It's easier to walk out your Christian faith with guys who will come into the locker room and say, 'How's your spiritual walk?'"
Boulware was raised in a Christian home. At FSU he compiled an impressive array of awards and team records. He led the nation with 19 quarterback sacks, was a consensus first-team All-American selection and was named National Defensive Player of the Year by a sports magazine. He was the Ravens' first-round draft pick in 1997 and was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
But for Boulware, having a real relationship with God is first priority.
"Once you say you love the Lord, people are always looking at you," he says. "That's the true test. You can say all you want, but what speaks is how you live, how you carry yourself in the locker room or on the field. When a player or coach says something to you, do you react like the world reacts? Or do you set an example the way Christ would act? My biggest thing is people seeing Christ in me."
That includes what happens during the game.
"The game is like life," Boulware says. "Hardships, injuries. It's all a process. The Lord gives me success on the field for a reason-not just to make me happy, but so I'll learn something. If I get an injury or fall somehow, the Lord may want me to press into Him during the adversity. God is constantly teaching me through the things I do on the field."
Wide receiver Qadry Ismail came to the Ravens after four years with the Minnesota Vikings and brief stints with the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints. Ismail (and brother Raghib, who plays for the Dallas Cowboys) grew up in an orthodox Muslim household in Newark, N.J., until their father passed away when Qadry was 9. The children went to Pennsylvania to live with their grandmother, a devout Christian. Qadry gave his heart to Christ after noticing that when he prayed, nothing happened; but when his grandmother prayed, things happened.
But it took a crisis in his marriage to transform Ismail into a sold-out believer.
"I've been walking with the Lord, both feet in the Kingdom, for four or five years," he says. "I've given it all to Him. It's one thing to be saved, and another to get weaned off the milk and start having spiritual meat and potatoes. Getting married was the significant experience for me. I wanted to be a man of God. I couldn't be a half-hearted husband. I needed Him."
Last season, Ismail's effort in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers earned him a place in the record books. He caught six passes for 258 yards and three-quarter touchdowns. The 258 yards ranks as the 11th-best by a receiver in a single game in NFL history.
Though success is sweet, Ismail says the temptations of money, sex and fame are magnified in the world of professional sports.
"There is the lure of keeping up with the Jones's," he says. "Everyone is making a good deal of money, and it's easy to get caught up in that lifestyle. People need to know that Christian players struggle like anyone else, and it's purely by God's grace that we've been given this position. To put men on a pedestal is foolishness."
Boulware and Ismail say more players are seeing the emptiness of godless fame and fortune and turning to God for real answers.
"There seems to be a big move of the Lord in the NFL like I've never seen before," says Boulware. "God is doing a work. It's an exciting time to be a Christian. A lot of guys are getting saved. There are a lot more outspoken believers now. Before, players would say, 'I'm the only believer so I'm not going to say it out loud.' Now they say, 'I'm not the only one in this thing. I love the Lord, and I can stand with my teammates.'"
"There has been a renewal in the NFL," he says. "A lot of guys are realizing that the things they had in the past aren't giving them that peace. There is a peace that transcends all understanding. It's for real; and if you can understand that God created you for a purpose, you can praise Him whether you're going through a joyous time or a trial."
Both men are pleased to have found a church in Owings Mills, near Baltimore, where they can grow in Christ.
"It's important to be connected to a local church," says Boulware. "You can't be a Christian floating by yourself. You have to be connected to a local body where you can praise and worship and talk to people about problems. Our team trainer told me about the church. I went and it was really down to earth. The Word is really preached. What attracted me was that these guys are serious about the Word. They're not going to water it down. At the same time, the congregation treats you like one of their own."
"One of the biggest things my wife and I look for is people who treat us not like players or celebrities but as fellow men and women of God, where iron sharpens iron," says Ismail. "For me it's about being real about my struggles. If you're there to please everybody else, you've missed the picture. I'm there to worship God. I can't afford to be outside the will of the Lord. That's why I can't go to any old church. Am I being fed? Are the people answering God's Word? I've found a place that has real relationship with the Lord."
When the team is on the road, players hold Bible studies and attend team chapel.
"When you're on the road with believers, you can hang together," says Boulware. "You don't have to go to a club, and you don't have to be isolated."
Back home, Boulware hosts a Thursday night Bible study at his home. And he's "always" on the phone with his mother and father.
"When I get down, I pick up the phone and call Mom for encouragement," he says. "She says, 'Pete, the Lord's teaching you this or that.' That's what keeps believers strong: the realization that you can't do it without a spiritual family."
Ismail, who has two children and one on the way, spends as much time as he can with his family and is excited about how God will continue to use him and others to influence the NFL for Christ.
"God is going to call professional athletes to spread His Word," he says. "People are going to hear and respond.
"Reprinted by permission Pentecostal Evangel".