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What Would Jesus Think About Football?

Patrick Sauer

Football chaplains and those affected by the game's violence discuss how Christianity's defining figure would view the sport America has come to love.

"And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and he struck a servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, Put up your sword again into its place; for all who take the sword shall perish with the sword," 

Matthew 26:51-52

On September 16, 1981, 14-year-old Terrence Robinson, an eighth-grader playing on a parish football team for St. Brigid's Roman Catholic Church in Richmond, Virginia, suffered head and spinal injuries while making a tackle during scrimmage. He died three days later.

Afterwards, Bishop Walter F. Sullivan wrote a pastoral letter in tribute to Robinson, whom he had baptized to his Virginia diocese. Sullivan had issued a directive outlawing football at the grade school level two years earlier. In the letter, entitled "Respect Life and Limb," he asked high schools to follow suit. "The constant threat of serious injury and even death far outweighs any justification for such games under Catholic auspice," wrote Sullivan. His cause was picked up by progressive Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy, but did not catch on.

"Bishop Sullivan told me the most controversial, unpopular thing he ever did was eliminating football below high school, and this was a man who told a military crowd in Virginia that working on nuclear weapons was immoral," said Sullivan biographer Phyllis Theroux. "Banning football was messing with the culture in a way that even being against war didn't do."

According to the New York Times, Bishop Sullivan's football ban from two years prior to Robinson's death had technically been followed by Catholic schools under his purview. But parents and parish groups ran the old end-around and kept right on playing the games on their own. Officially, in 2006, after a 25-year absence and with the permission of Bishop Francis DiLorenzo, middle-school level football resumed in conjunction with Benedictine College Prep in Richmond. Going into October, the Middies eighth-grade squad is 4-1.

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The modern era of religion in sports starts in America's bicentennial year. In 1976, born-again Christian Jimmy Carter was elected president, Newsweek declared it the "Year of the Evangelical," and Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford christened the term "Sportianity" to describe the mixing of playing field and pulpit. His three-part series included this prescient examination, "The Bible is to be taken literally. The message is simple, all or nothing; there is no truck with intellectualizing, the appeal is gut. It does not seem surprising that football--authoritarian, even militaristic--is the sport at the heart of the movement." A year later, in an NFL first, Philadelphia Eagles running back Herb Lusk knelt and bowed his head in an end zone prayer.

Now, in a league where 35 to 40 percent of players identify as evangelical, a fan would be hard-pressed to catch a game without public displays of religious faith. The Sunday connection between church and football is as rock solid as Aaron Rogers to Jordy Nelson (both publicly Christian).So wither Father Sullivan and his quest? Not entirely, not just yet.

One in three retired NFL players will suffer long-term cognitive damage. The question of football's morality—or immorality—becomes even more fraught when posed to people who live a life in which the sport and Christianity are intertwined. With that in mind, I asked several football chaplains and other Christians affiliated with the sport a complicated question: What would Jesus think about football?      

Dr. Pat McLeod, 53 

Cru Advisor and Chaplain, Harvard University

Football has been central to Pat McLeod's life since he was old enough to walk around in spikes. His dad was a championship high school coach in Wyoming, his brother was a star defensive back at Montana State University who played on the Packers for two years. Pat followed his brother to Bozeman where he played wide receiver. Football is in his blood.

"Being a football player informed my life in ways that are mostly, if not entirely, good. When I look at America, a country that's plagued by its radical individualism, one of the few things that comes up against that extreme and its inherent dysfunction in our culture are team sports, and there isn't a better team sport than football," said McLeod. "Being exhausted after two-a-days, and then being sweaty and bloody in the locker room after a game, hugging each other... It's about community and connection, and dedication, determination and discipline, virtues you learn in football."

McLeod loved his playing days, but he took something even greater from his collegiate experience. He became a devout Christian, and later began a ministry with Athletes in Action, a subset of Cru (formerly Campus Crusaders for Christ) that uses the platform of sports to achieve its mission of "Christ-followers on every team, in sport, in every nation." Through Athletes in Action, McLeod found his calling and met his wife Tammy, a former high school basketball player from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, who packed up and moved to Montana. Now they work together at Harvard, having moved to Boston in 1999 so Pat could study Religion & Science at Boston University. Sports have been central to the McLeods' entire adult life, so it's not surprising that football means fond memories. But Pat MacLeod also faces the game's harshest consequences every day.

On September 5, 2008, Zack McLeod, the oldest of Pat and Tammy's three sons, joined in on a routine tackle in a preseason game. Three plays earlier, he'd returned a pick-six thirty-five yards for his first varsity touchdown. The 16-year-old junior got up slowly from the tackle, stumbled, and a few moments later, collapsed at his coach's feet. Zack suffered a subdural hematoma, which required an immediate craniotomy and a second major surgery a few days after that to reduce pressure and swelling in his brain. He remained in intensive care for five weeks, where he lost 50 lbs and then spent four months in a rehab hospital re-learning basic functions like standing, swallowing, and walking. Today, Zack barely communicates verbally, has no short-term memory, and poor balance. He requires round-the-clock care.

A couple of days before the scrimmage, Zack had been complaining of a headache. The McLeods, and Zack's doctor, think that his subdural hematoma may have been caused, at least in part, by second impact syndrome, a term (sometimes controversial) for a second blow to the head before an initial concussion heals. Regardless of the exact diagnosis, Zack's body and mind were forever altered on the football field. Fortunately, for the McLeods, the injury didn't change his spirit.

"Zack has pretty serious deficits, but if you met him, you'd be blessed," said Pat. "The emotional and physical energy to keep him safe is like having a toddler, but he just loves people and is more spiritually tuned in than anyone I know."

Neither of Zack's brothers play football, but the game remains a part of the Sunday routine. Doctors suggested video games could help Zack's development, so the McLeods now own a television after years without one. Ironically, Pat watches more football than ever, often taking in Patriots games with Zack. One of Zack's major 2012 highlights was meeting Tim Tebow. After all Pat has been through, including multiple concussions from his playing days, football still holds sway.

"A few nights after Zack's first accident, I had a feeling of consolation, peace, and great comfort kneeling before a crucified God who understands pain and suffering," said Pat. "I hope what Jesus would say about football is that you don't want to do anything really stupid, but there's risks in everyday life... You're making [me] think about things I should really be thinking about. This is my current answer, ask me again in a year."

Adam Burt, 45

Chaplain, New York Jets

Adam Burt spent 14 seasons in the NHL, so he knows what it means to be in the spotlight, but he still wasn't entirely prepared for the audition process to become the New York Jets chaplain. "The Jets did an American Idol for preachers, it was kind of crazy," Burt said. "They brought a bunch of guys in to speak to a committee of players, and it was like a 'text in your vote' thing and I won."

Each season, Burt's responsibilities are relatively straight-forward. He leads Bible study for roughly fifteen players and a half-dozen coaches, holds a chapel service the night before the game, and since he doesn't travel with the Jets, he lines up pastors on the road. He also brings in other ministers to talk about marriage and family; a holistic approach he put in place because he knows the problems hiding behind locker room doors. In six years as chaplain, Burt says he's prayed with numerous Jets after they've gotten hurt, but no player has mentioned any fear of a long-term bodily injury. His guys are all about Christian muscle.

"Yeah, sometimes we get carried away with the warrior mentality, but that often comes out of the misguided idea that Christianity is soft. Jesus was in-your-face, flipping tables in the temple courts. He wasn't the sweet little guy with a lamb around his neck. He was loving, but he hung out with fishermen. You've seen Deadliest Catch, those are tough dudes," Burt said, "I believe God formed and fashioned us in our mothers' womb, so a 6'6", 300 lb. guy? God did that. My prayer with the Jets is to be what God created you to be. Play in a way that brings God glory, and please, God, keep them safe. In Jesus' name, amen. Go get 'em."

Shirl Hoffman, 74

Professor Emeritus of Kinesiology, UNC-Greensboro

The February 2010 cover of Christianity Today magazine featured two green-and-yellow-body-painted Packer fans underneath the bold headline Fanatics: How Christians Have Succumbed to the Culture of Sports. The article, excerpted from the book Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports,touched on all sorts of sporting ills and included this passage: "It's time for the Christian community to rethink its fascination with football. In light of the physical carnage wrought by this popular sport, Christian schools with football programs may be faced with the uncomfortable choice to either modify their athletic offerings...or revise their understanding of the human body as a temple of God."

Shirl Hoffman, the book's author, was hoping to spark a conversation about the role of sports in society, football in particular. And... crickets.

"I didn't receive a lot of criticism, because the Christian community won't even engage about the moral inconsistencies in elite sports. That's what's so frustrating. There is no voice being raised about the systematic destruction of human bodies in an organized way," said Hoffman. "Scientists may be able to reduce the scourge of brain damage, but coaching science develops new methods and strategies to help athletes override God-given instincts to prevent injury to ourselves."

Hoffman's first foray as an anti-sports prophet came in 1961. He was playing basketball for King's College in a game against Gordon College when a fistfight broke out on the court and escalated into boorish behavior by everyone in the gym. Embarrassed by what he witnessed, Hoffman wrote a three-page letter and stuck it on the student bulletin board, his own Martin Luther moment. "Even back then, I could see where this was heading," he said.

Hoffman would go on to become a physical education teacher, college basketball coach, and ultimately a professor of kinesiology, but he never stopped his quest to address the problems in sport from a Christian perspective. He found allies in the 1960s and 70s, but they tended to apply a Marxist worldview, which didn't help his cause. Still, he continues to battle the hypocrisies he sees, which are most prevalent in football. One all-too-frequent example he points out is when a player goes down, appearing to suffer a serious spinal cord injury, and the other players drop to a knee to pray for the player's safety.

"I wonder what they think might be in the mind of God that he'd be looking down reassuringly on them to go right back out and do the thing that got the player injured in the first place. It defies logic," he said. "It's hard to imagine Jesus would've been found anywhere near a football stadium. I think he would have been other places healing the sick and not encouraging the pointless spectacle that creates so many infirm."

Bob Timberlake, 70

New York Giant, Retired

Bob Timberlake had a remarkable college football career—he was a 1964 All-American quarterback who led the University of Michigan to a Rose Bowl title—and an equally remarkable professional career, if for the opposite reason. Drafted by the Giants, Timberlake became the team's kicker and went 1-15 on field goals. He was ranked the second worst player in league history by Deadspin. Timberlake was unique in other ways as well: he was outspoken about his Christian faith at a time when that wasn't the norm, and was known to sign Bible citations along with his autograph. Asked in 1965 about reconciling the barbarity of football with his value system, he provided one of the better quips in NFL lore. "There's nothing wrong with good clean violence," he said.

Now his views have changed.

"The preponderance of brain damage among professional football players has become so widespread that I wouldn't make that statement again," said Timberlake. "However, I wouldn't ask whether football, or any sport, is consistent with Christian values. It's a little like asking if the internet or automobiles are in line with the teachings of Jesus. I wouldn't evaluate college or pro football that way, I would use different parameters."

Timberlake has spent the last decade teaching a Decent and Affordable Housing course at Marquette University. Following the Jesuitical dictum to be a "contemplative in action," Timberlake and his students have built numerous homes for impoverished families in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity. He's been an independent thinker his whole life, so it may be a bit surprising that, even being fully aware of the concussion epidemic and the NFL's obfuscation of said epidemic, Timberlake trusts the league to do the right thing.

"The league is running scared because participation is plummeting, but football can be played more, or less, violently with more, or less, danger for the participants. We were taught to tackle with our shoulders at the waist, not to use our bodies like torpedoes or to go for somebody's head. What's been learned can be unlearned, and the NFL is trying to do that now," said Timberlake. "It'll be difficult because there's a part of the game in which you know you're going to watch a train wreck, to be fascinated and repelled by it at the same time. It's hard for me because I know what it's like to be in those collisions, to watch a teammate break a leg, blow out an ACL, or take a severe blow to the head."

Jarrod Cochran, 34

Priest, Progressive Episcopal Church

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus decreed, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." The beatitudes inform Rev. Jarrod Cochran's Christianity in a profound way; he believes anyone who takes the words of the Sermon on the Mount seriously has to be a pacifist. He practices non-violence, which is a tough sell anywhere, but particularly where he founded his Church in the Wild: Canton, Georgia, a small town 90 miles north of Atlanta.

That's not the only thing that sets Cochran apart. He left evangelical Christianity and became an ordained priest in the Progressive Episcopal Church; the place of worship he runs is totally inclusive—they celebrated the Transgender Day of Remembrance last year—and it meets outside because doors keep people from joining the community. "It's definitely a conservative mindset around here, which would probably be problematic if anyone was interested in us," Cochran said with a laugh.

"We've got way more people who can name the last twelve University of Georgia quarterbacks, and can't come up with even six of the apostles. And they root for big-time college football, where there's the mentality during games of 'we have to decimate the other team.' The opposition is no longer made up of humans worthy of dignity," said Cochran. "The only football I've seen this season was incidental at a restaurant, but I've never made it a focal point because football is religion down here, for sure. I can hear my brother arguing football's importance right now."

Cochran may not have spoken out on the sport's carnage from his backyard pulpit, but he's seen the damage firsthand in his other job as an EMT. At a high school practice a few years back, a young man was paralyzed on the field and Cochran provided comfort. The incident has informed the evolution of his thoughts on football.

"I was sitting there telling the kid, 'We're doing everything we can, you're gonna' be fine,' when in my own head I'm thinking, 'That boy will never walk again.'"

Owen Strachan, 33

Theology Professor, Boyce College

The Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood (CBMW) is a Louisville-based evangelical organization established in 1987 to "defend against the accommodation of secular feminism." Its stated mission is to follow Biblical teachings on the complementary differences between men and women, which are "essential for obedience to Scripture and for the health of the family and the church." One of CBMW's core beliefs is that there is "uncertainty and confusion in our culture," in distinguishing "masculinity and femininity."

The loss of manhood in modern society is a big theme in contemporary evangelical literature, which is one of the reasons why football is frequently held up as a paragon of Christian virtues. Take this passage from Is Football Too Violent For Christians? co-authored by pastors David E. Prince and Jimmy Scroggins:

"Football represents one of the only major American institutions still standing that is exclusively for males and speaks unashamedly about manliness and toughness. Boys are drawn to demanding physical competition against other boys, assertive male leadership, and a cause that demands sacrifice and calculated risk. These are good things that ought to be cultivated on a pathway from boyhood to Christian manhood."

This essay was posted on the website of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission on September 25, 2013 in response to a piece entitled "Our Shaken Faith in Football" that ran in Christianity Today. Prince and Scroggins specifically address their "friend and colleague" Owen Strachan, who asked, "Should Christian fans step away from such a physically devastating, violent sport?" People responded and Strachan, the executive director at CBMW, was taken aback by what he heard.

"The pushback I received from the evangelical community was greater than anything I've critiqued, including from the mainstream when I've been out there on abortion or homosexuality," said Strachan, author of Risky Gospel. "We teach worldview thinking, a God-centric belief system that doesn't allow us to compartmentalize parts of the Bible. Genesis 1:26-27 says God made mankind in his own image, 'Imago Dei.' I started writing about the game because with all the information that's come out about CTE, it seems like there is ethical issues we should at least think about, but there's a blind spot for football."

Strachan found himself isolated on the football question even though he agrees with many of his critics on the game's values. Having strong male role models, understanding discipline, toughness, courage, sacrificing for the greater good—all of these tenants resonate with Strachan, who is, after all, executive director at CBMW. But he would still prefer his son learns these attributes in a way that doesn't throttle their teenage gray matter.

Perhaps, Strachan theorized, the reason he's butted heads with others in his community over football is because he didn't come to the issue through evangelical channels. He's a fanatic going back to his days in coastal Maine, playing multiple sports in high school and always reading Sports Illustrated ("Even the golf articles," he confesses.) He became aware of the brain trauma NFL players face thanks to Malcolm Gladwell's 2009 New Yorker article "Offensive Play," and has become more skeptical of the game's inherent morality with each new report.

Strachan has never called for a full-fledged abandonment of football by evangelical fans, but he is asking them to seriously consider the reality of their rooting interest. He believes it's possible football's popularity could wane if mindsets change, noting that Christian participation in the anti-dueling movement of the 19th century ended the barbaric pastime. So when asked "What would Jesus do about football?" Strachan responded point-blank, "That is some major clickbait right there."

He laughed and continued, "In all seriousness, Jesus believed in doing hard things. He was a hardworking carpenter who died in agony for our sins, so I think he would appreciate the physical challenges, the many virtues and risks that are all part of football, but point of fact, Jesus did not endorse aggression. He actively worked against needless violence. I'm not sure what he would think of football, but he did command us to put the sword away."

Father Thomas Curran, 59

President, Rockhurst University

For all of the "Sportianity" displayed in a garden variety NFL game, it would stand to reason that chaplains and priests would be valued members of the organization. For the first six years Father Thomas Curran served the Kansas City Chiefs, that was the case.

In 2006, he took over the presidency of Rockhurst University. An alumni who worked for the Chiefs invited him to say mass for the team. Curran agreed, with two stipulations: he would be allowed to bring two students a week to mass to pray with the team (he wanted them to get of sense of community) who would then get his comp tickets, and the stipend the Chiefs provided for his time would be given to Rockhurst. During the Herm Edwards era, the relationship was great. The head coach would always attend the weekly mass, talk to his students, and even took notes in case Curran said something he could use.

However, after Edwards left, things changed. Coaches and players were no longer allowed to attend services together, students were banished, the donations ceased, and players were held after practice so all they had time to do was ask Curran for a "quick blessing." The Catholic Chiefs players were rarely able to pray and receive communion in a proper mass.

"My homilies were always two-to-four minutes long, but it didn't matter, something changed with the new regime and clearly it came from the top. Some weeks they wouldn't tell me what hotel the team was staying in until the last minute, so I'm doing backflips just to provide a pastoral presence, for which there was a need," said Curran. "They told me I would still get the tickets, as if that was the thing. What I cherish is the mass. It was weird. I guess it's paranoia. In 2012, I shook hands and wished them well."

Whatever reasons the Chiefs had for altering Curran's role remain trapped in the hermetically sealed NFL team bubble. But it's not like Father Curran was beating the drum of non-violent passive resistance.

"Football is more dangerous than other sports, but I don't see it as some type of modern Circus Maximus, that wouldn't excite me. I hope at its heart, football is still about strategy and skill as opposed to brutalization. Jesus asked us to see our fellow brothers as good," he said. "Anything that upholds human dignity should be celebrated, anything that reduces it should be challenged. I think it's bigger than football, so I'm not sure he would have anything specific about the game."

Father Curran wasn't with the Chiefs when linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend, drove to the team facility, and committed suicide in the parking lot. The aftershocks of the tragedy are still being felt throughout the league. If it's proven that on-the-field activity causes off-the-field violence, Curran admits he may view football differently. "Was this a freak isolated incident? If there's further evidence that we're putting people in harm's way, then clearly something has to change," he said. A few days later, a report was released that stated Jovan Belcher's brain showed signs of CTE.

George McGovern, 59

Chaplain, New York Giants

Since 1996, George McGovern has enjoyed serving as the New York Giants (and Yankees) team chaplain, but there are two days in particular that stand out. "I was in the coach's box for the last three Super Bowls," he said. "The two upset victories over the Patriots... Knowing some of the guys, watching the guys in the locker room rejoicing, seeing the tremendous satisfaction they had, it was euphoric."

McGovern's duties are similar to those of Jets chaplain Adam Burt, but he also travels with the team and serves as a liaison between churches, men's groups, etc. who want someone from the team to speak to their organization. It might not seem like regular Christian folks and professional football players would have similar issues, but they do. All the off-the-field stuff.

"It could be a lawyer, plumber, or a sanitation worker, it's the same fear of failure, loss of pride, questions of self-sufficiency, or marriage difficulties, common problems. Any injury concerns were processed long before they made the NFL, we don't really talk about stuff like that," said McGovern. "Most of these guys have a Superman invincibility feeling about themselves, so they wouldn't verbalize any fears they have inside, even to me. Optimism runs pretty high in the NFL. The only serious heart-to-heart talks I've ever had are with players whose careers are coming to an end because of age or terrible injury."

What can get lost in the big picture question of football's morality is that the role of a team chaplain or priest is to serve the players and coaches who wear the team colors. It would be counterproductive, and not within their job's purview, to get football players questioning the way they make a living. Besides, it's not like professionals haven't considered the costs, including McGovern.

"I have no trouble with football whatsoever. It's a legitimate sport and if it's taught properly, it can minimize some of the risk. I have four daughters, but I'd be fine with my grandsons playing the game," he said. "Life is violent. Football is representative of that violent dimension. Other sports like golf reflect a peaceful dimension, but I think Jesus would be bored bowling. I think he'd want to play middle linebacker."

Father Bob Bonnot, 73

Head Pastor, Christ Our Savior Parish

Father Bob Bonnot doesn't play. In 2013, he published a letter in the Catholic Exponent that included the sentence, "Child Protection involves more than preventing sexual abuse." Last August, he upped the ante and wrote a letter to the Vindicator, the local paper in football-mad Youngstown, Ohio that said football "requires moral judgment." And at a September board meeting, he introduced the idea of banning the sport in lower grades. "My desire and hope is to sever football from elementary school (K-8 in our Lumen Christi system) sponsorship," he said. "The school wouldn't encourage it, making it entirely a matter of parental decision whether to expose their children to the hazards of the game."

This isn't the first time Bonnot has railed against the brutality of sports, either. Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini's chaplain was a former classmate of Bonnot's. After Mancini killed Kim Duk-koo in the ring, Bonnot foreswore boxing, stating publicly that he believed being a spectator was akin to being a participant. Bonnot never watched a fight again. Prior to the Ravens-49ers Super Bowl, he followed suit with football.

Bonnot's soul-searching wasn't triggered just by what he saw on television. His stance against the country's most popular sport also came about because of the coffins in his church. Twice he performed funeral masses for men from the parish who died young. One service was for a man in his fifties who died suddenly. Bonnot would not share the man's name because he suspects he committed suicide. Right before his death, the man released his beloved dog.

"He was a star in high school, college, and played some pro ball. He was a popular player. At his funeral everyone called him the 'battering ram.' Whenever the team needed it, he'd hit the line and pick up a couple of tough yards," Bonnot said. "Between his death and the other young parishioner who overdosed on drugs, I just put two-and-two together. It' s not just Dave Duerson and Junior Seau dying. It's anyone who's had their head and body blasted apart for ten years. The damage is not accidental."

Bonnot says he will continue to fight the football industrial complex, but he wishes he wasn't out there alone.

"If you're a team chaplain, I suppose you'd be a traitor to speak out against football, but I was hoping to get some positive feedback from my fellow priests. I haven't... To me it's simple, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'"

Tammy McLeod, 54

Cru Advisor and Chaplain, Harvard University

An "ambiguous loss ceremony" is an event held to bring some sense of closure for unresolved grief, be it a missing person, or someone who is still physically alive but suffering from an illness such as Alzheimer's disease. It's a ritual to say goodbye, to provide comfort for those who have lost a loved one as they knew them before.

A few weeks back, the McLeods hosted an ambiguous loss ceremony, followed by an old-fashioned party they called "A Time to Mourn, A Time to Dance: A Tribute to Zachary McLeod." At the first event (which Zack didn't attend) Tammy, Pat, and their three other children shared, hugged, cried, and watched a slideshow of their son and brother before that fateful scrimmage six years ago.

"It was awesome," said Tammy. "All of the anger, guilt, and shame just went away. I feel so refreshed and renewed, it was just so light and free, like the grief was lifted off of all of us. We didn't know how much we needed this."

McLeod says her family believes in miraculous intervention, but she's realistic about the extremely limited progress Zack will probably make going forward. A little over a year ago, he had a terrible fall, and now he has to wear a gait belt and can only eat pureed foods. Landing on the side of his head where his brain had already deteriorated probably saved his life.

Tammy's faith in God has never wavered and she's elated that "Zack's soul is strong even if his body is trashed." It's also a relief that he has 24/7 help in a Brookline adult care facility covered by the state, which has eased the family's financial burden. (Before he turned 22, Zack had to have an I.Q. under 70 to qualify for a special school. Tammy joked, "It's the only time I ever wanted one of my kids to fail a test." He scored a 68.) Zack will never get married, have kids, or live alone, but he keeps himself plenty busy, including back at his old high school, where he assists the football coaches.

"I was on a retreat once and they asked us what our guilty pleasures were. I said 'Eating five chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven and hard hits in football.' Something about the physicality of it, I loved football," Tammy said. "I can't watch anymore. I think we are the people sitting in the Coliseum cheering on the gladiators. I wonder what players would think if they knew the next play would be the one that will destroy their mind, would they take that risk?"

Although he is not the official team chaplain, Pat does have ties to the Harvard football team, so Tammy joins him at games long enough to say hello to friends, and then leaves. After a Harvard professor refused to give a football player time off, she became an advocate for concussed players, fighting for a deeper understanding of what head injuries entail. She's also counseled a Harvard grad, a lineman who was going to try out for the NFL, to make sure he understood what was going on underneath his helmet.

"I wish people would take brain trauma more seriously, but nobody really listens to me. I know there's no way to fight the NFL and its zillions of dollars, but if anybody stood up to football, it should be the Ivy League. They're supposed to be the smartest people around, so why not eliminate it?" she asks. And as for her husband? "Pat's inside of football culture. I'm not sure anyone on the inside can see things clearly. At the very least, I'd prefer he didn't watch football with Zack, but I'm not his boss. Last time they were watching the Patriots, he had his laptop open and I sent him an article on CTE during the game.... God loves our brains, he didn't create them to be scrambled."

There is no answer to what Jesus would think of football; there is only what we think of football, a game that has killed three high school boys in recent weeks. When Tammy McLeod thinks about Zack and what the sport has done to her son, she always goes to Psalms 34:17-19:

"The righteous cry, and the Lord hears

And delivers them out of all their troubles.

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted

And saves those who are crushed in spirit.

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,

But the Lord delivers him out of them all."