(KANSAS CITY, Mo.)—And then there were four.
Just a quartet of teams remain for two exciting matchups this weekend that will dictate who goes to Super Bowl LI in Houston on Feb. 5. This Sunday, the Green Bay Packers take on the Atlanta Falcons and the Pittsburgh Steelers visit the New England Patriots in the Conference Championships.
Players from each of these teams have talked to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA, www.fca.org) about their faith and how God guides them both on and off the field.
L.J. Fort | Pittsburgh
Steelers linebacker L.J. Fort grew in his faith—and found love—in the FCA Huddle at the University of Northern Iowa. Today, Fort is a part of the rich history of football in the Steel City, and his wife, Stephanie, is set to begin as an FCA staff member for college women’s ministry in Pittsburgh.
In a story published just this month on FCA.org, the Forts share about their walk with Christ and their journey together.
L.J. accepted Christ during his sophomore year in college and fueled his faith by attending ministry events several evenings a week. He helped Stephanie’s faith take off while they were still friends after meeting through FCA; the two married this past summer and are settling into Pittsburgh. There, L.J. is part of a team Bible study, while Stephanie is steeped in a women’s study with players’ wives, and both attend a couples’ study.
As the Forts continue to feed themselves with scripture and fellowship, they work to extend the same care and cultivation they have received to others. The influence FCA has had on their lives deeply reverberates within them, and their identity in Christ is the glue that holds them together.
“Relationship with Christ is my key,” L.J. said. “It’s about perspective, to bring Him in at the center of everything for His glory. God’s still allowing me my dream, but it’s His [dream] too.”
In a feature story for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Fort also said that God, first and foremost, is his motivation.
“He’s my total inspiration,” Fort said. “The only reason I’m out here is to glorify him. I look at this game of football and he blessed me with these abilities to be above-average in football so I want to use them to worship him.”
Jordy Nelson | Green Bay
Although questionable to play on Sunday after breaking ribs against the New York Giants, Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson has been a presence in Green Bay since he was drafted in 2008, with nearly a hundred receptions for more than 1,200 yards this season alone.
Nelson told his story to FCA Magazine in 2011 and recounted growing up in small-town family that was heavily involved in sports.
“When it came to matters of faith, I grew up going to church with my family on Sundays, but that’s about as deep as my faith went,” Nelson said. “I was a member of our high school’s FCA Huddle, and, while I may not have embraced it at the time, FCA did help me begin to see how faith and sports could be intermixed.”
Nelson added that he turned to God when an injury at Kansas State sidelined him, and that his faith grew through his relationship with his girlfriend, Emily, who is now his wife.
“With her support,” he said, “I began to go deeper in my faith and eventually recommitted my life to Christ. I realized that I was called to be the spiritual leader in our relationship, which would require more of me than just talking the talk.”
Once Jordy and Emily moved to Wisconsin after he was drafted, they found many opportunities to help people in the community and still try to do as much as they can to spread God’s truth through their words and actions.
“On the team, I’m blessed to have a great support system of Christian men who are open about their faith,” Nelson said. “There are all kinds of stumbling blocks at this level, but I’ve surrounded myself with guys who are grounded in Christ. Being able to lean on them and talk openly about our faith has helped strengthen us as individuals and as teammates.”
FCA also asked Nelson why the ministry is important to athletes, especially in high school.
“In high school, it’s tough because there’s so many cliques,” he said, “but I think with FCA, it’s just a way for everyone to get together and do a Bible study—a way to get outside of school and see different sides of different people. (FCA is) a way to expand it and involve other people, and it was just great because friends would invite friends who would invite friends and it just kept growing and maybe opened the door for other people.”
Matthew Slater | New England
Special teams star Matthew Slater is an integral part of the Patriots’ success, and has been a significant part of New England’s dominance in the NFL over the past nine seasons.
Earlier this month, the six-time Pro Bowler thought he was headed to a Monday night Bible study, but found out in front of teammates and coaches that he was voted by his NFL peers to receive the prestigious Athletes in Action/Bart Starr Award, according to ESPN. The award honors the NFL player who “best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community.” Slater’s father, Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater who spent two decades with the Rams, received the same honor in 1996. They are the first father-son team to be recognized with the award.
In last winter’s FCA Magazine, Slater talked about growing up in a family of believers in Orange, Calif., with parents who supported him and his brother in all things daily.
“My love and passion for Christ and the game of football came from my dad, so for me to be able to follow in his footsteps in both of those areas has been the biggest thrill of my personal journey,” Slater told FCA. “My dad first shared Christ with me when I was 7. It was with him that I prayed to accept Jesus into my life. My parents poured the Word of God into my life daily, and that was reinforced through Calvary Church of Santa Ana, where my family has attended for more than 30 years. I’m so thankful for the children’s ministry there, because they had—and continue to have—great youth pastors and Sunday School teachers who display the love of Christ.”
Slater attended Christian school and was active in church, but wasn’t forced to make tough decisions about his faith until he enrolled at UCLA.
“At a big school with a lot of kids from different walks of life,” he said, “I was inspired to personalize my faith and dig deeper in the Word, seeking truth so I could stand for what I believed. It wasn’t an easy time, but looking back I thank God for His grace and for providing friends who continued to pour into my life. I was able to grow as a man, learn more about myself and the Lord, and really make my faith my own.”
Even though he never started a game at UCLA and dealt with many injuries as a Bruin, New England saw his potential and drafted him in 2008.
“For my family and me, being drafted was much like the miracle of Lazarus coming out of the tomb,” he said. “You just don’t see kids who never started a game in college get drafted. Getting the call from the Patriots was a very emotional moment. It was hard evidence for us that God is real. He is alive and active and working. The eight years since then have been an unbelievable journey, no question.
“My faith has been very, very vital in me sticking around the NFL for this long,” Slater continued. “In this sport, there’s so much uncertainty, so many unknowns. Through it all, I’ve had to put my whole trust in the Lord and know that He is in control. My purpose in the NFL is to bring Him glory and make His name more famous. It’s really been fun to see how He’s opened doors and allowed certain conversations of faith to come up over the years—in ways I never could have imagined.”
FCA also asked Slater why sports ministries like FCA are important for athletes today.
“In this sports world, athletes and student-athletes are faced with a lot of different challenges,” Slater said. “There’s a lot of demands that are placed on us as athletes. I think that when you’re able to come together with other people that are experiencing and going through the same things you’re experiencing, put that in perspective as a relation to the Gospel and as it relates to what Christ is doing in our lives, it really helps you navigate through some of those stressful times and being an athlete.”
Watch Matthew Slater in an FCA video from the Super Bowl XLIX Media Day in 2015.
Jacob Tamme | Atlanta
Tight end Jacob Tamme is on the injured/reserve list for the Falcons after being hurt in November, but has been a staunch supporter of his teammates and football brothers during Atlanta’s playoff run.
In nine years in the NFL, Tamme has also played with the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos, and was a standout with the University of Kentucky, when he was honored by FCA with the 2007 Bobby Bowden Student Athlete of the Year Award.
In 2013, while playing with the Broncos, Tamme shared more about faith and football in FCA Magazine’s “6 Questions” feature:
One of my favorite Bible verses is: “Romans 8:28. It is an incredible promise and healthy to refer to and meditate on during times when we don’t feel like things are going our way.”
The people who have had the greatest impact on me spiritually are: “My parents, my wife and Indianapolis Colts’ chaplain Eric Simpson. God has put them and many other folks in my life who have been great influences on me and my walk.”
I intentionally bring Jesus into my game by: “Praying that I would play in the fullness of His Spirit and with the goal of bringing Him glory.”
Something most people do not know about playing in the NFL is: “It’s very hard to get involved with a local church because we work every Sunday. Teams I’ve played for have been great about finding ways for guys to worship.”
One piece of athletic advice I’d share with kids is: “Perseverance and hard work are musts. You won’t make it without both. If you do everything in your power to be the best player you can be and to help your team win, that is all that matters.”
One piece of spiritual advice I’d share with kids is: “Get to know Jesus, our Savior. He loves us so much He died for us and now desires to have a relationship with us.”