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On Dec. 3, 1990, the NFL "Monday Night Football" game lived up to its billing — a low-scoring nail-biter between two of the league's top teams.
The tension exploded into a fist-fight at midfield after the San Francisco 49ers defeated the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants, 7-3. But lost in the coverage of the game and the brawl was a smaller gathering of players from both teams.
They took a knee and began what is now a common practice after many professional and even some college football games — a postgame prayer.
The ritual is likely a mystery to many of the millions of fans either filing out of stadiums or watching on-field television interviews with a background of 20-30 players joined in prayer. And yet postgame prayers offer a unique glimpse into a religious undercurrent of the NFL that can appear incongruous with the violent nature of the game and publicized moral missteps of its players.
Well aware of public perceptions, the men familiar with the postgame prayer ritual describe it as a genuine celebration of religious belief and not a public show of penitence.
"(The prayer) is not really about who won and who lost. It's about honoring God and guys who really look at their talents and their abilities and the privilege to play in the NFL as a gift from God," said Buffalo Bills chaplain Fred Raines. "It's a chance just to give thanks."
First Quarter: A history lesson
Weeks before the big game Dec. 3, 49ers chaplain Pat Richie recognized that the match-up could be more than just an opportunity to improve his team's playoff possibilities.
"It was clear that there would be a lot of media coverage. I asked myself, 'Is there anything we can do to be honoring to God and the Christians on these teams?'" he said.
By the 1990 season, religion had moved beyond its relative obscurity during the NFL's early years. Players like All-Pros Mike Singletary and Reggie White had shown teammates and opponents that there was nothing weak about believing in God.
Richie hoped to capitalize on faith's growing popularity among players under the bright lights of the season's biggest "Monday Night Football" game. He called Giants chaplain Dave Bratton to brainstorm ideas.
After talking with their players and getting permission from their respective front offices, the two men settled on a plan. At the end of the game, Christians from each team would meet on the field to pray together.
Watching from his seat in the stands, Richie was amazed by the size of the crowd gathered at the 50-yard line at the end of the game. However, he soon realized that the featured event was a fist-fight, not prayer.
From his team's coaching booth above the field, Bratton looked down on the unfolding chaos. He saw his Christian players standing around, unsure of where to go.
Eventually, a small group formed away from the fray and the players shared a short prayer. Twenty-four seasons later, there is still a note of disbelief in the chaplains' voices when they tell the story.
"It's pretty phenomenal that this thing that goes back now over 20 years almost didn't happen because of a fight between two football players," Richie said.
The first postgame prayer received little attention from the press. However, at least for team chaplains, the event marked the beginning of a new era for religious expression in the NFL.
"It just caught on," Bratton said. "For the rest of the season, we prayed with every team except one."
Bratton's Giants brought the postgame prayer all the way to Super Bowl XXV, circling up with Buffalo Bills players after winning 20-19.
Second Quarter: Inside the circle
The Bills and the Giants have met once already this season in the Aug. 3 preseason Hall of Fame Game.
That night, Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara was nervous, but it wasn't the opposing team's receivers who worried him. It was the postgame prayer, and the fact that he'd agreed to lead it for the very first time.
Amukamara, who attends Hillsong Church in New York City and Citylight Church in Omaha, Nebraska, where he played in college, was encouraged to be voice by one of his Christian teammates. Faithful players often form a tight-knit group on each team, gathering several times a week for Bible studies and chapel services.
Team chaplains facilitate these meetings. The Giants are now served by George McGovern, who said encouraging players to take part in the postgame prayer is one of the easiest parts of his job.
"I wish I could take credit for keeping it going, but it's so ingrained in the culture of the NFL now," McGovern said. "Guys just know (to head to the 50-yard line) and the rookies learn."
McGovern, Bills chaplain Fred Raines and Amukamara agree that there's a natural order to the prayer circle. Just as there are players renowned across the league for their stand-out skills on the field, there are men known for their beliefs, filling the role as informal spiritual leaders on each team.
The standard practice is for a religious leader on the home team to lead the prayer, thanking God for the game of football and each players' health: "There's (also) a degree of thankfulness that the violence of the game is over, and that, hopefully, there were no serious injuries," McGovern said.
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