Wild blue phlox and Virginia bluebells carpet the banks of the Roanoke this evening, the air intoxicating with phlox perfume and rushing water.
[A version of this article was published at The Friendly Atheist.]
On a sweltering August afternoon at a Virginia public high school’s football practice, the coach calls his hot, thirsty players to attention. A guest, he announces, has brought them ice-cold watermelon—and a message. As the grateful young teens in uniform drop to the grass to savor their treat, the coach steps back and nods to his guest. The visitor is a preacher, and he’s there to bring the boys around to Coach’s particular brand of faith.
Coach figures all his boys and assistant coaches are Christian, because that’s what good Virginians are. And if they aren’t, they should be. He tells himself it’s part of his job because it’s good for the team. A boy without Jesus isn’t as respectful, strong or reliable—you know, Christian traits.
The preacher reads “The Competitor’s Creed” from the back of the book he holds, God’s Game Plan: The Athlete’s Bible:
I am a member of Team Jesus Christ… I do not trust in myself… or believe in my own strength. I rely solely on the power of God… I submit to God’s authority and those he has put over me. I respect my coaches… My body is the temple of Jesus Christ… Nothing enters my body that does not honor the Living God… My sweat is an offering to my Master. My soreness is a sacrifice to my Savior.
Many of the boys have their own deeply held beliefs that are not those of the Coach and this preacher. Perhaps they’re Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, Buddhist, or atheist. But the situation is intimidating and they remain still. It’s a rare child who could find the courage to stand up first, alone, in front of his teammates, to walk away from them and the stern coaches with folded arms who control his athletic fate.
So they obediently bow their heads in prayer to Jesus, in a scene that’s replaying quietly at public high schools throughout southwestern Virginia, and has been for about a decade.