Williams says players don’t have the opportunity during the season to go to church, and so a chaplain provides vital spiritual direction that may be temporarily missing (or nonexistent) in a player’s life.
As a former player himself, Williams knows how discouraging the game can be week after week. When he first started playing, Williams says he was focused on pleasing his coach each week, but he soon realized “that was leaving me empty.” A teammate reminded him of a Scripture, Colossians 3:23, which instructs us to work “as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” This changed the way Williams viewed his profession. He started to view his playing as an act of worship. Williams says he got to a place where he didn’t “care what the media has to say, or even my family and friends.” The only thing he cared about when playing was pleasing God.
Some of the things Williams does now as a chaplain he was “already doing” when he was a player. Things like encouraging players to come to chapels and Bible studies and praying before games.
Eric Simpson on the Many Roles a Team Chaplain Fulfills
Speaking to Martha Renaud of The Alliance, pastor Eric Simpson gave some insight into the day-to-day realities of being an NFL chaplain. In addition to being a lead pastor at a church in Indianapolis, Simpson is a volunteer chaplain for the Colts, a position he’s served in for over 20 years now. Simpson explains that during the season, the schedule can be exhausting:
Well, it’s a lot of work. It’s exhausting. I got home at 3:00 a.m. from a Saturday night playoff “road game,” and the alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. for Sunday service. Every team wants to be playing in the Super Bowl in February, but I’m really grateful when we get to the week after the Super Bowl. It feels really good to be at the end of a season, because it’s a long run. There are Bible studies every week to put together. Chapels. Mentoring meetings. And it’s all in the midst of staff meetings and sermon prep and all the local church-life stuff.
You may think an NFL chaplain only serves the players, but in the interview Simpson clarifies that he serves a 250-person organization. In addition to leading a weekly Bible study for the players, Simpson and a local evangelist named Ken Johnson lead a weekly study for the coaches. The two ministers conduct a chapel service on nights before each game, and Simpson attends each game to pray with players upon request. Not only that, but Simpson also received an invitation to minister to the cheerleaders:
The first time I did a cheerleader chapel, I thought there maybe would be five or six gals; I had no idea how many would come. But there were, like, 35 cheerleaders! They’ve all come every time. And recently, one of the cheerleaders, named Ann, was baptized. She had a half dozen of her cheerleader friends around the tank with her.
Simpson sees his chaplaincy position as a mixture of evangelism and discipleship. While some players have “really strong spiritual backgrounds,” Simpson says, others don’t. Trying to be sensitive, Simpson respects the journey the player is on and mostly tries to be available.
Tony Dungy Says Chaplains Are Pivotal to Teams
According to former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy, the role of a chaplain is pivotal to the success of the team. Dungy says chaplains are “so valuable” to the teams they serve and also self-sacrificing. “[Chaplains] volunteer their time, they raise their own support, they’re around to help the athletes.”
When he was coaching an NFL team, Dungy says the players often wouldn’t go to him with their problems, but would go to the chaplain instead. Dungy, who is an outspoken Christian and led the Colts to a Super Bowl victory in 2006, believes the reason his players didn’t come to him with certain issues is because they didn’t want him to think they were distracted from the game or couldn’t fulfill their role on the team. On the other hand, players often see the team’s chaplain as “a safe haven, somebody who can help me,” Dungy explains.