2 NFL Chaplains: Spiritual Trainers for Professional Athletes and Coaches

2 Athletes in Action staff members talk about working in the NFL

Interviews Greg Stoughton

We interviewed 2 veterans of Athletes in Action's pro ministry:

  • Doug Gilcrease of Tampa Bay (17 years with the Buccaneers)
  • George McGovern of New York (13 years with the Giants and Yankees)

As relationships develop, those in the ministry seek to help coaches and players with life issues and the communication of their faith in Christ. Those who come to receive Christ are then trained and equipped to use their platform of influence to help reach others.

Athletes in Action provides chaplaincy to 11 of the 32 NFL teams.

Question: How are the issues of professional athletes and coaches similar and different to those of most people?

Doug: A lot of their issues are more similar to ours than you would think -- be it family or personal struggles. But because of who they are they have a tendency to try to mask things more because they want to appear to have it all together and they have the resources to sometimes be able to do it.

George: They have the same insecurities, the same fears, the same temptations of pride, greed, envy or lust. It is just that when they blow it in one of these areas it is usually behind a microphone or exposed in the media in a way that multiplies the embarrassment or, if successful, the accolades.

And both are harder to live with than if kept in private.

Question: So how do you build a relational comfort that would seem needed for guys to open up?

Doug: The ministry is all about relationships. So there is a lot of standing and hanging around at practices and time spent in the training room. Those are the kinds of things you have to do to earn the trust of those you are trying to reach.

George: I seek to constantly examine my motives, making sure they are pure as I walk into the locker room and encounter or engage a guy in conversation.

I want to serve him -- be an encouragement, an inspiration -- rather than a parasite that is trying to ego-feed off the fact that I talked with so and so or asked for tickets, a favor or something that would benefit my life. To do so will short circuit the relationship.

Doug: God has always told me to go slow -- to let them get to know me as a person.

When former Tampa Bay coach, Tony Dungy, started taking me on the road, guys would see me on the plane, the bus, in the hotel, and I was just a normal guy. As we talk about sports and issues of life, they got to know me and they would see me as a safe person to be around.

I don't ever want them to get the impression that I swooped in and did something great. It is not the way it is.

Earlier this season, our kicker Matt Bryant lost his 3-month old son, Tryson. Those things are just really hard. By God's grace, my wife (Stephanie) and I were able to just be there -- cry with them and provide hugs.

I listen. I am there. And if they want me to help, then I do. From there, I look for opportunities to talk about my faith.

Question: How do you approach players or coaches who appear unresponsive?

George: I just keep showing up and keep initiating even though there is often initial resistance.

If you continue initiating through the ups and downs of a pro-career, there is often a time when an athlete is hungry or open to talk -- a time when I can come and the window is open.

Question: With free agency and trades, guys are often on the move from one team to another. How does this affect the ability to do your work?

George: It is a two-edged sword. Some people can be with the organization 5 years, 8 years or more. In some instances, we only have a training camp or a season or two with a guy.

So sometimes ministry is like an assembly line where I might influence an athlete -- provide a couple of pieces of the puzzle -- and another team chaplain adds another piece toward receiving the prize of the Gospel.

Doug: I was the beneficiary of that when we got a solid believer from Denver this season -- Brian Clark. Brian is from Tampa Bay, went to high school here, and has a real heart for ministry.

Brian and his teammate, Will Allen of the Buccaneers, are now partnering with the Athletes in Action staff member, Asif Shaikh at the University of South Florida to lead a Bible study with its football team.

Question: That sounds like seeds of a spiritual movement are being planted?

Doug: It is a great example of seeing God develop others in a way to multiply their faith.

George: It is sometimes hard to get your arms around what a spiritual movement would look like on a football team. But there are indications with the Giants that God is doing something.

I asked 2 different players to take my place and lead those sessions when family responsibilities took me away from leading 2 team studies this season. Both players reported having great experiences -- good chemistry and a sense that players were opening up with some of their feelings.

Both guys took some great steps of growth and leadership in ministry with the team.

And the same thing has happened in our coaches' study, with a greater shared enthusiasm for using their platform in the community for the Gospel. It sometimes happens best apart from my presence.

Question: It sounds pretty exciting. I suspect some would have the perception that your role is full of glitz and glamour?

George: With guys generally hesitant to allow you into their lives, rubbing shoulders with celebrities is sometimes more akin to being a fly in the face.

It is not like we're buddy-buddy with most of these guys and they invite us over for dinner or take us to special places.

The few guys that allow us into their lives are generally guys less known -- the back-up center or the guy on the practice squad who understands the tenderness of life -- its ups and downs -- and is open to talking about character issues, truth and the Gospel.

Doug: It has its occasional perks -- if that is glitz or glamour -- but at the same time it is a tough ministry as these guys have so many distractions that others don't.

But James 2:1-13 reminds us that God has no favorites. He has just chosen to use me to reach out to a group of people that the world values highly in an effort to help them use their platform to reach everyone.

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