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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.