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Curry and Purdy: In God's Hands

The star athletes in whose hands we trust the ball with the game on the line see themselves as in God’s hands. That’s worth pondering.

The San Francisco Bay Area, although named after a Christian figure (St. Francis of Assisi), often tops the list of the least Christian areas in America. Going to church on Sundays is rare, and one of the common alternatives is enjoying the Bay Area’s great sports teams. Given this trend, it’s ironic that two stars on our beloved teams, Stephen Curry of the Warriors and Brock Purdy of the 49ers, are devout Christians. The guys in whose hands we trust the ball with the game on the line see themselves as in God’s hands, and that’s worth pondering.

Stephen Curry’s faith has been a centerpiece of his career. Everyone knows it. Tattooed on the golden right wrist that launches moonshots from half court and flips up miracles in traffic are four Hebrew words ahava l’olam lo nikhshelet: “love never fails.” They come from the New Testament (which was originally written in Greek) and are found at 1 Corinthians 13:8. The biblical text speaks of a love that is not abstract and general, but very specific: the love of God in Jesus Christ. This is the love that literally underwrites each of Curry’s jump shots. No wonder so many of them do not fail to go in.

We’ve all seen Curry point skyward after making yet another one. And we’ve all seen his lovely wife Ayesha, whom Steph met as a teenager in a church youth group. The man, his family, and his faith overlap in many ways. When he drapes his white towel over his head on the sideline, staring into the distance with his bright green eyes, he looks like the Messiah he loves. As Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal once wrote, rooting against Curry is like rooting against sunshine.

Much of this seems to be true of the newest icon in the Bay Area’s sports pantheon, 49er quarterback Brock Purdy. When he became engaged over the summer to longtime girlfriend Jenna Brandt he posted on Instagram: “My Jenna girl forever. I can’t wait to be your husband and grow together in Christ.” This isn’t mushy religious stuff. In the analysis of 49er great Steve Young, the Christ to whom he appeals is the secret behind Purdy’s jedi-like ability to channel “The Force” when the pressure is on.

Faith gives Purdy emotional freedom when football drama is at its highest, because if he fails, oh well. There’s more to life than football. This wider perspective functions like a pressure-escape valve for a 23-year old quarterback calling audibles for a storied NFL franchise. Yet what Young seems not to have considered is that Purdy’s religion is valuable not only because it works wonders in the huddle, but because it is true. Maybe, just maybe, it points to something fundamental about the world in which we find ourselves.

As a pastor I’m inclined to see a link between, on the one hand, Curry and Purdy’s game-day prowess and off-camera integrity, and on the other hand their shared Christian faith. Why? Because the presence of God stabilizes inherently unstable human beings, allowing for joy, creativity, and wise decisions when all the psychic and social pressure flows the other way. Whether or not this is true in the deepest philosophical sense, as one observer notes, it’s true in practice. “Many coaches see faith as a steadying influence in a profession where careers, friendships, marriages, and self-identity can be destroyed by injury or poor performance, which is one reason why every NFL team has a chaplain.”

More than preventing negative outcomes, faith promotes the positive flourishing of athletes and the organizations to which they belong. “Many owners, coaches, and league executives are delighted by the large numbers of Christians in the NFL ranks because they generally act morally, have strong marriages, are a positive influence on their teammates, [and] are more active in community service.”

As the sports industry becomes increasingly aware of the effects of mental health both on and off the court, it seems one solution is ready at hand. Look to God. This is less about theology and more about data. When an athlete puts healthy nutrients in their body, we know what that does. When an athlete puts faith and faithfulness in their soul, we also know what that does. Perhaps youngsters who dream of rising into the ranks of professional athletes would do well to get down on their knees once in a while. And don’t think you can con the Almighty. You actually have to mean it.

Realistically, as touchdowns and three-pointers continue to rain down in Levi Stadium and Chase Center it’s not very likely that adoring fans will embrace the worldview of the unusual men throwing the pass and shooting the ball. The results are just so doggone exciting that it’s hard to meditate on the spiritual energy beneath them. Yet in Stephen Curry and Brock Purdy, one star about to set and another on the rise in the firmament of Bay Area sports, if we look hard enough we catch a glimpse of a light infinitely brighter than stadium lights.


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