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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, my life revolved around football. As a kid, I never turned down a neighborhood game. For most of my young life, in a time before internet, cable, or direct TV, I listened breathlessly on fall Saturdays to the radio (KNX and KFWB news stations in LA) awaiting updated scores on the quarter-hour concerning my beloved Baylor Bears. On Sundays, I followed the greatest professional football team in the history of the game, "America's Team," the Dallas Cowboys. I dutifully and happily played football for my school in junior high and high school.

For me, football wasn't everything, it was the only thing. Bob Lilly was my first hero. Sports biographies were the first works of literature that piqued my interest. During my adolescent years, Roger Staubach and Drew Pearson thrilled me, Mike Singletary and Earl Campbell amazed and inspired me, and Tom Landry and Grant Teaff modeled for me impeccable civility and character.

Over time, however, I progressively lost interest in the gridiron. Why? Part of it is fatherhood. My oldest son is eight years-old, and I cannot recount much that has happened in the NFL since 1999. I have been busy with more pressing matters. Part of it goes back much further than that. If truth be told, my alienation with professional sports probably dates back to February 1989, when Jerry Jones fired my boyhood hero, the man in the hat, Tom Landry. The game irrevocably changed for me on that chilly day.

More than any of that, though, I have lost faith with my erstwhile religion.

Why?

1. Football is no longer democratic. The NFL is populated with persons who are completely unlike anyone I know. The NFL is meritocratic, which is good. The best and most resilient athletes make it to and succeed in the League. But the problem is that ball players are not just bigger, faster, and stronger than normal people, they are a race of superhumans.

Fifty years ago, college recruiters were interested in my dad as an offensive guard. He was 5'9" and 180 pounds. This was a period in which almost any kid in America could play football. Size mattered, but not nearly as much as speed, agility, and, most of all, grit.

Today, most kids are not candidates to play college ball. The guys on the field are not like me. Football is not representative, even on the college level. Wasn't there a time when a college football game was supposed to match the best athletes from Baylor versus the best athletes from A&M? Wasn't it implied that these were student athletes? Undoubtedly, this harkens back to a fleeting moment of collegiate athletics that has probably been extinct for 100 years--but, if college athletes are NOT viable students from their respective schools, what is the point of college competition? It is no longer exciting for me to watch the best athletes Baylor can hire play the best athletes UT can hire (and not merely because UT is so much more adept at headhunting).

My silly and naive lament: It is no longer imaginable for some coach to tell some kid from the stands to go under the bleachers and get suited-up. The tradition of the 12th Man is still alive as cherished myth in 2007--but it is empty of any possibility and merely mocks our current age.

2. Even worse: Too many Michael Vicks.

Maybe the dog-fighting charges and the federal case against Mr. Vick will unfold in a way that exonerates the superstar quarterback. Time will tell.

Regardless, I continue to ask:

Why are we paying bad people enormous sums of money to play a sandlot game?

What redeeming cultural value does the NFL embody?

Why do our communities (municipalities, school districts, major universities) continue to devote mammoth resources to aiding and abetting this pastime?

Role models? Character building? Metaphor for life?

I am no longer satisfied by those answers. This is not to say that I am bereft of tenderness for the game. If someone knocked on my door this afternoon and asked me to get out in the street and play ball, I would jump at the chance to squeeze the pigskin one more time.

Moreover, it is likely that at some point this season I will be in the stands at Floyd Casey Stadium yelling "Sic 'em Bears!" at the top of my lungs.

Having said that, to paraphrase Howard Cosell, I am merely a shell of the fan I used to be. More to the point, without a doubt, I am just about finished supporting the lifestyles of the Michael Vicks of the world.

Addendum: We have a lot classic fans in our reading community. The Gardener's comments make me wonder where some of you are on football today. Comments?
Here is a list of the 50 most influential churches in the U.S. "Influence" in this article means influence with other churches and pastors. These are the churches that many, many pastors look to when trying to lead their own congregations.

The top 3:

1. Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, Illinois web site
2. Saddle Back Church, Lake Forest, California web site
3. Fellowship Church, Grapevine, Texas web site

The highest ranking church with a black pastor:
9. The Potter's House, Dallas, Texas web site

Highest ranking mainline church
15. The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, Leawood, Kansas web site

Fifteen of the top 50 are independent congregations. Twelve are Southern Baptist.
I attend an evangelical church (although some of my church brethren might recoil at that characterization, as it is freighted with many connotations).

A note on meaning in re evangelical: I am using a variant of the Bebbington definition of evangelicalism, which includes a belief in the centrality of Christ and his redemptive mission as fulfilled in his crucifixion and resurrection, the necessity of conversion, the centrality of the Bible as God's word for his people and the necessity of activism (bringing the message and work of Christ to the world).

This Sunday the preacher encouraged us to think of our church as a "seminary," although not in the technical sense of an institution devoted to the formal training of professional ministers. Leaning on the Latin origin of the word, literally "seed bed," our pastor quoted Elton Trueblood, who believed "every church ought to be a seminary." That is, churches should always be places of training.

All of us are learning all the time. More significantly, churches are places to which we bring our children to learn. Even more daunting, our children are constantly learning from us. We are modeling behavior for them at all times. Our children will know Christ in large part through the lives we lead. We can tell them much--but we will show them more. We may speak of grace--but our practice will rise above the cacophony of commands and instructions.

Inarguably, one reason Alexis de Tocqueville found America such a seedbed for democracy was the evangelical ethos that was already so pervasive during the 1830s. Americans were activists, so many of them busily attempting to bring about a better world through the power of Christ.

Certainly, I recommend no official religion or denomination for the United States of America. I do not advocate breaking down the separation between secular government and American religious culture, but the preacher's message transcends the realm of the church. I cannot help but believe that the body politic is in need of some old fashioned revival. May we embrace our secular duties as citizens with a bit more fervor, turning our eyes toward the prize of strengthening our institutions and perpetuating our American values through the instruction of our posterity through our own activism. Let us be doers of the American word.