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Faith and Football a Perfect Match for the 'Birds of Pray'

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

Philadelphia has a well-earned reputation as being a city of sports fans who demand excellence from their professional teams. And let's just say that if a club is not performing up to their expectations, things can get rough. This is a city where fans once threw snowballs at Santa Claus during a Philadelphia Eagles game.

It's amazing how a championship can change everything.

In 2017, the Eagles overcame a generation of missteps and ‘maybe next years' to capture the City of Brotherly Love's lone Super Bowl victory. It was the first championship for this franchise since Quarterback Norm Van Brocklin led them to an NFL title in 1960.

Beyond the fact that it had been nearly 60 years since the Eagles had last tasted gridiron glory on football's biggest stage, there was just something a little bit different about this team. For at their core was a special group of players who viewed life in the NFL just a little bit differently.

In his new book, Birds of Pray, Philadelphia sportswriter Rob Maaddi uncovered that certain something and discovered world-class athletes, who, despite their great success were firmly grounded in their faith.

I recently spoke with Maaddi about the new book, how this band of brothers was readily accepted into the team's culture, and the coach who held them all together.

Maaddi, when did you notice the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles were just a little bit different than previous teams? Talent-wise and spiritually?

Spiritually, I knew that this was a special group going back to 2016 when there were five players baptized in a cold tub at the team's practice facility. They were 7-9 that year, but the seeds were being planted and the camaraderie was building. And it all centered on this core group of guys who had this common bond: their love for Christ.

I've covered teams here in Philadelphia for 20 years now and I have never seen a team that was more united than that 2017 Eagles team. Their faith is what created that special brotherhood, and their faith is really what allowed them to persevere and overcome so much adversity and ultimately become champions.

I started this radio show called Faith on the Field in April 2017, and in September we had our first live event. It was at Eastern University, which was the program sponsor for the show; and I had Carson Wentz, Trey Burton and Stefen Wisniewski as my guests. This was four days before the season opener. So, you had the quarterback of the team taking time out of his schedule for an unscheduled appearance. They weren't being paid to do this. They came out because they wanted to speak about their faith in front of a large audience.

Was this group of believers readily accepted into the team's culture or did they struggle to find their identity at times?

I don't know that there's ever been a stronger overall feeling of unity than this locker room and this team that I'm covering. There's such a level of inclusiveness for all the guys. The Christian group of guys, there's like a small group of guys who are always together hold each other accountable; and then there's a bigger group, a larger group, who does Bible study. Then, there's even bigger groups than that, but they're always inclusive of non-believers and the other guys are inclusive of them. You don't see cliques in the locker room. No, they're all friendly. They're all together.

Their view on it isn't to act or pretend to be better than anyone else, because none of us are. We're all imperfect people. And their philosophy on it is to attract people to the Gospel by actually living it out in their life. It's not necessarily always talking about it or being bold, although they are and I love that about them, but it's acting it out. It's being like Christ whether it's with a teammate who's having issues or whoever it is. They're very transparent, because a lot of the guys... we all have issues. We all have our problems, and they're willing to share that with their teammates. They're a very strong culture of inclusiveness in this team.

As we have seen around the NFL there have been many divisive issues in recent memory as related to race, religion, and politics that can easily divide a team. How have the Eagles demonstrated that coming together, despite our differences, can lead everyone to victory?

It's pretty cool to see, because you do have guys on this team who may have differences of opinion when it comes to controversial topics like that. Yet, they all find a way to lift each other up, encourage each other, be there for each other. And I think the bottom line is that in the culture of faith that they have here, it permeates that locker room. Whoever it is no matter what differences you have, I think these guys find a way to make that be the overriding thing they have going for each other, and it's a special thing, because some teams may have division over that. These guys don't, and you saw that when everything went down with the White House visit and how that played out. They decided as a team to be unified, to make a decision and stick by that decision. I think if they didn't have that culture of faith binding them, it may have been a little bit more difficult to happen than the way it did.

Do you think it makes things easier to demonstrate your faith on the team when your head coach (Doug Pedersen) is also a Christian?

I think it does make it easier. But, the interesting thing about the Eagles and Doug Pederson is that many of the players -- and I'm talking about many of the guys even within that core inner circle of believers -- didn't realize how deep of a man of faith he was, because he wasn't as outspoken or as bold as other players. He doesn't have a social media account, so he's not out there posting Bible verses or anything like that.

In fact, at the end of the Super Bowl, when he was on that stage said, "I give the praise and glory to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," Zach Ertz told me in April that there were a lot of guys who didn't hear that because of the noise and the commotion right after winning the Super Bowl. But then, they were on the bus ride back to the hotel after the game, and they were looking on social media and seeing different people saying, "This is what Pederson said," and to him he said that was sort of a way that he felt that Doug was telling them, "Hey, I got your back. I'm in this with you, too. Everything that you have done, everything that you've been doing, it's OK because I'm right there with you. I feel the same way. Christ is number-one in my life, too."

So, it kind of validated that for a lot of those players. But then, there were other guys who already knew. Carson Wentz told me, "I would knock on Doug's door in his office at 5:30 in the morning, because they would both get to practice so early. He would frequently interrupt his devotional time. He would be reading his Bible. He does that from 5:30 to 6 AM every morning. He spends a half hour in the Word to get his day started. So guys like Carson, who had a better relationship or a stronger relationship, because you talk to the coach more as a quarterback... But, the others didn't necessarily know where Doug Pederson was [in his faith] until that moment at the Super Bowl.

What is one thing you would like your readers to take away from reading Birds of Pray? What's your greatest hope for the book?

My greatest hope would be that people really understand that Christianity isn't about a religion. It's not about a ritual. It's not about a tradition. It's not about going to church and worshiping the Lord for 45 minutes or 90 minutes or however long your service is in whatever denomination you belong to. My hope is that people understand that Christianity is living your life like Christ and trying to do that daily. Also, it's about a relationship with the Lord, not about the rules, the traditions, and the rituals, but about that relationship. It's not about the churches and a building; it's taking church and taking the message of Christ outside to everyone, serving people, being a servant to the Lord spreading the message, and being a disciple for the Lord.

I grew up in the Catholic background, and most of my family is still of the Catholic faith. Sometimes, they don't understand where I'm coming from. I try and tell them, "Well, look at me 10 years ago and look at me now. I have a peace in my life, and I've been blessed with a lot of good fortune, but I've had to overcome a lot of difficulty and a lot of things. But no matter what, I've always had a peace, and the peace that comes from Christ is so crucial and so critical. Because no matter what we had... everyone has issues, everyone has chains that are binding them in some way. I always talk about Paul and talk about the chains that he was bound by, yet he was preaching and writing books in the New Testament in those moments of misery and in those moments of pain because he had Jesus.

If you have Christ, and you have that relationship, there is nothing you can't overcome. There is nothing that you can't deal with. There is no adversity and no challenge that you can't conquer, because you have Christ by your side.

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