Robert Griffin III falls: For Redskins fans, a dark night of the soul

It was just a week ago that a hush fell over FedEx Field when Robert Griffin III fell for the … Continued

It was just a week ago that a hush fell over FedEx Field when Robert Griffin III fell for the last time. There was a communal holding of breath, of disbelief, of trepidation. The hero had fallen. What did this mean?

At that moment, everyone in the stadium, everyone watching on television, was part of the same congregation. Football was their religion.

Just days later, I attended a three day silent retreat in a Trappist Monastery. I watched as the robed monks led their services, chanted their verses, repeated their prayers, begged for mercy, ate and drank the Eucharist, proclaimed their loyalties and demonstrated their passion.

The symbols, rituals and celebrations are eerily similar to those of a football fan wearing burgundy and gold, watching cheerleaders in costumes, praying for a touchdown, drinking a ceremonious beer, chanting cheers and proclaiming this passion and his fealty. They are part of the pageantry and the event, the show. And every religion must have someone, something to worship. How much better to have an RGIII than to have nobody one can identify with?

And Griffin fits his role: a seemingly perfect young man with a perfect background; a Heisman Trophy winner with sterling grades; a devout Christian who went to a religious school, has a bumper sticker with the name of his church on it, who crosses himself after a touchdown and thanks God at the end of the game. He is kind and gentle, friendly and humble. He does charity work for the poor. His teammates follow him and his fans pray for him. He has all the markings of a savior to a team that hasn’t had a prayer for over 20 years.

In a town as dispirited as Washington, D.C., never has anyone given so many such hope. He was too good to be true. It was too good to be true.

When The Post’s David Sheinin wrote a laudatory profile of RGIII, one reader complained that Sheinin made RGIII sound like the second coming. Well? It was apt, if a little overstated. He was being treated almost as a sacred figure.

What is it about the game of football, particularly in this country, that evokes similarities to religion?

“Spirituality is about ‘me,’” says Tim Shriver, Director of Special Olympics and a religion scholar. “Religion is about ‘we.’ Everyone is looking for the ‘we.’ Even in a monastery where they commit to solitary lives. We live in a lonely world, oriented toward the personal, the digital. We live in a ‘My Space’ world. Sports takes you out of yourself into the ‘we’. People are participating in something bigger than themselves.”

If the quarterback is the Jesus figure (who can forget the near religious hysteria around Tebow as a person and his Tebowing?) then the other players are the disciples.

And what about the saints of old, the Larry Browns and the Sonny Jurgensens, the St. Benedicts and the St.Francises of their field, whom we venerate even today? We seem to want, to need those people in our lives to reassure us of the glories that have been and the glories that will be to come and to serve as an inspiration to us in difficult times.

Everyone in Washington knew that RGIII was going into the game wounded. He had had surgery on his knee when he was at Baylor and he had suffered several blows already this season. But the Redskins were in the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. They’d won seven games in a row including Dallas the week before. The team was ecstatic. The fans were ecstatic. All of Washington was ecstatic. (Religious ecstasy is to stand outside and transcend oneself. It is the experience of one’s relation to or union with the divine.) Could he possibly take the Redskins to the Super Bowl? Nothing was impossible in the eyes of our quarterback, so confident was he in his own abilities and those of his team.

His optimism was contagious and it had carried his team through a victorious season. But as the game wore on, we all knew our leader was in trouble. You could tell he was in pain. When he finally crumpled to the ground, the Redskins season went down with him. The fans knew it. The coach and doctor knew it. He knew it.

Then came surgery a few days later and word that it will be at least six months before he can play and perhaps much longer. Now the fans have turned on the coach, Mike Shanahan, and the team doctor, James Andrews, the famed orthopedic surgeon for allowing him to play.

RGIII, in character, blamed only himself. “You respect authority,” he said, “and I respect Coach Shanahan. But at the same time, you have to step up and be a man sometimes. There was no way I was coming out of that game.”

That was to be expected. At the National Prayer Breakfast last year he spoke to the thousands of people, including the president, assembled for the annual event. He asked them to accept the values of Jesus and to “show the world, not only with our words but with our actions.” He bravely tweeted just before he went under the knife last week, “Thank you for your prayers and support. I love God, my family, my team, the fans, & I love this game. See you guys next season.”

This is the Redskins dark night of the soul. How do the fans, the religious community of football lovers, survive? When things go terribly wrong, one has to always look forward to a brighter day, to next year, to continue to be joined to something bigger than life.

Tim Shriver, a devout Redskins fan, likens this to the poetry of St. John the Divine who found meaning in “the dark night of the soul.”

“O lamps of fire!

In whose splendors

the deep caverns of feeling,

Once obscure and blind,

Now give forth so rarely, so exquisitely,

Both warms and light to their beloved.”

Keep the faith Redskins fans. Out of darkness comes the light.

About

Sally Quinn Sally Quinn is the founding editor of OnFaith.
  • Michael Dresslar

    Sally,

    In the breadth of this monumentally asinine article, this quote really stands out (and that is really saying something).

    “If the quarterback is the Jesus figure (who can forget the near religious hysteria around Tebow as a person and his Tebowing?) then the other players are the disciples.”

    Have you EVER heard any serious person even intimate that the quarterback of a football team is seen as a “Jesus figure”, and if so, please cite.

    It is true that hysteria is the calling card of the hyper-religious, but would anyone of sound mind take that comparison seriously even if it had been said (and I’m not conceding that it ever was.)

    And, “… the other players are the disciples.” The arrogance of this is so typical of hyper-religious people like yourself (apparently.) I played football at a pretty high level and I can tell you that I NEVER thought of my quarterback as some sort of religious icon to be revered in awe, as any “Jesus figure” would be. The entire though process that led you to that comparison is beyond ignorant.

    Religion – generally speaking – is ONLY prominently mentioned in sports when you’re playing well, or you get hurt, or you die. When you’re just a bad or marginal player, or you’re playing poorly, people like you are never on the God bandwagon.

    And, of course, there is no “Glory to God”, or “Thank you to Jesus Christ as my personal savior”, when someone loses. No one ever points to the sky after a strikeout or dropping a pass.

    Why is that do you think? It seems to me, that based on what I know about religion – which is quite a bit having grown up in a Catholic house – that that would be the point at which I might acknowledge that I needed God’s guidance. An “on the field” mention that, despite my failings, I accept and acknowledge His place in my life. Does that make sense to you?

    Religion does not belong on the field or in the locker room. It does nothing but cheapen its meaning. As do you with this risible tripe.

  • exwashingtonian still attached

    Well, I thought it was a very heart-felt, moving and enlightened article. I would imagine that there aren’t a whole lot of religious leaders out there that support or condone this nation’s love of the game of football. Good for her for being open-minded. She wasn’t intimating that RG or any other QB is Jesus. The idea is that she’s trying to give hope to those of us who are worried and saddened about last week’s events. Nice article.

  • Michael Dresslar

    Sally writes:

    “If the quarterback is the Jesus figure (who can forget the near religious hysteria around Tebow as a person and his Tebowing?) then the other players are the disciples.”

    And, you write:

    “She wasn’t intimating that RG or any other QB is Jesus.”

    True enough. She wrote, quite clearly, as I wrote quite clearly, that he was seen as a “Jesus figure.” Period. And that, I find not only shallow, but sickening.

    He is a phenomenal football player and, by all accounts, a good man. Whether he believes or is a radical atheist has absolutely no bearing on either of those things.

    Let me say one other thing about this issue. He made a grave mistake when he insisted on staying in that game. Hard to attach motive to these things, but that a, arrogance borne of some savior complex could have played a part seems to me a reasonable assumption.

    An intelligent person would have known that he was hurting his team’s chances of winning that game by being on the field (surely that was obvious even to you Sally.) That his backup had won 2 games in his absence and shown his ability to lead the team. And, that his employer had mortgaged his team’s future on his own long-term health.

    His was a selfish decision in every significant context.

Read More Articles

shutterstock_53190298
Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

shutterstock_185995553
How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

HIFR
Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

shutterstock_186364295
This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

noplaceonearth
An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

shutterstock_148333673
Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

SONY DSC
Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.