Athletico Et Religio

Dressed in navy athletic shorts and a jersey bearing a Duke No. 10, wet hair tucked behind her ear and sinewy muscles rippling down her arms and legs, Heidi Hollenbeck looks like what she is: a Duke varsity athlete. The sophomore faces challenges every day of her life--and it's not always on the athletic field, where she plays midfield for the women's soccer team. She puts her heart into each practice and game, but she believes her primary mission lies beyond scoring the winning goal--in expressing the love of God and sharing that message with the greater Duke community. Spreading the Word is something she feels she was brought here to do first and foremost, above athletics. Before each game, Hollenbeck wraps athletic tape around her wrist, upon which she scribbles a Biblical verse or a cross. This visible mark serves as a reminder that religion is a part of everything in her life, including soccer.

As Hollenbeck and senior lacrosse player Corinne Broesler immerse themselves in the comfort of hot steamers in a coffee shop on a rainy night, words like heart, faith and love roll off their tongues emphatically--as if something from inside pushes with an extra force. The "heart" that they and many other varsity athletes allude to is less concrete than the red, blood-pumping organ in the body, though just as fundamental to survival. It's not intense emotion out there on the court, or track, or course, or field. This kind of heart is one way of describing the mysterious intangibility of faith. And, "faith," says Hollenbeck, "is something that just takes your whole being over, and transforms your heart and your life and your thoughts and your values."

In a world where religion is not nearly as prominent or dominant as it used to be, faith still plays a large role in the lives of many Duke athletes. Gracie Sorbello, a junior field hockey player, admits that stress in sports occurs because there are so many people an athlete tries to please. Faith in God reminds her that she plays "for an audience of one."

In a simple sense, an athlete's faith provides solace from the everyday pressures of life at a top university where his or her sport must come before academics. "A lot of us [on the volleyball team] use religion as an outlet almost because so much of our schedule is volleyball and school," says Erin Noble, a junior. "It is easy to get so focused on how we're performing in the classroom and on the court that it gives us a balance."

Samantha Fisher, a sophomore, agrees that everyday life is extremely stressful.

"Whenever you can step back and realize that there is so much of a bigger plan for your life, that sports isn't really as big as it seems to be, that's really what keeps you sane," she adds.

Of the handful of volleyball players sitting in the Great Hall for dinner, those who talk all seem to have some belief in religion, though at different levels. On this volleyball team, religion is informal and only comes through on an individual basis. Duke Assistant Athletics Director Chris Kennedy believes that much of a team's religious intensity derives from the coach's style both because a religious coach would likely attract recruits who are also strong believers and would conduct team business with religion in mind.

Kennedy remembers a time when a devout born-again Christian coached the women's volleyball team, and religion was much more visible and team-oriented. But now, explains senior volleyball player Arielle Linderman, religion does not have a part in pre-game rituals for the team as a whole; rather, faith manifests itself differently for each individual.

Most people prefer that religion be an individual decision. "I've never been a proponent of 'What Would Jesus Do' on third and long.... And I'm not sure God cares about the Packers' score in Monday Night Football," jokes Kennedy. He mentions the old phenomenon of team prayer, something that he says was often visible in the South and especially with football teams, but believes religion should be practiced on an individual basis. "I think the proper place for [religion] is as a component of [an athlete's] whole life," Kennedy explains.

Those athletes who do make religion an important component of their lives often join such organizations as Athletes in Action, an athletes-only student-run ministry, or Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which--contrary to its name--is neither exclusively for athletes nor Christians.

FCA's core values--express faith, encounter God, explore truth and enter community--are meant to appeal to the regular students and not just athletes. In fact, says Bobby Castor, a senior on the golf team and an FCA leader, the group's membership consists of probably only 20 percent athletes.

Athletes in Action, on the other hand, is strictly for Duke's varsity athletes. The organization, which currently has neither faculty advisors nor a national staff, is run by about a dozen dedicated athletes, including Hollenbeck and Fisher. "We all had it on our hearts that we wanted an athlete's ministry to unite the athletes on campus, so we took it upon ourselves to get it going," says Fisher.

She and the other athletes who participate in AIA believe it is the similar lifestyles of athletes at Duke that enable them to join together in expressing their faith. Senior volleyball player Katie Gilman puts it simply: "Right off the bat, it's easy to be open with each other." Gilman, like the handful of athletes who meet once a week at AIA, believes that the members of Duke's subculture of athletes can benefit from adding religion as a component to their sports lives.

"There is a huge, huge bond between athletes because we know what it's like to be out there. We know what it takes. We chose Duke for our respective sport, over academics even," says Hollenbeck. "[We know] what it takes to feel that pain of going that extra mile and knowing that Jesus Christ did the same exact thing for us."

But the goal of AIA is not just to bond with athletes, adds Broesler. Instead, the members want to expand and let their teammates feel the power of faith: "We all know that God put it on our heart that we're supposed to be keeping with Athletes in Action, really trying to let God's love shine through us to our teammates," she says.

Athletes can find religious liturgies not just in devotions to Christ, Yahweh, or Allah, but in the very rituals of athletic competition.

Texas Christian University professor Julie Byrne, who studied religion as an undergraduate and graduate student at Duke and will be returning in the fall as an assistant professor of religion, says athletic rituals are similar to religious rituals. "[As an undergraduate student] I would watch how my friends and I watched Duke basketball or the Chicago Bulls and notice more-than-passing similarities to religion--the community of K-ville, the ritual grease-painting, the ethic of the 'Duke' way or the 'Bulls' way of playing hoops, even sometimes the belief that the teams' wins and losses had cosmic significance," Byrne writes in an email.

Byrne's interest in the interplay of sports and religion led her to write a book, O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs, which discusses the intertwining nature of athletics and religion in a national champion women's basketball team from a small Catholic college in the 1970s. Byrne believes that athletes can use religion in many different ways, or, not at all. One thing she warns against, however, is using God in light of a win or loss. "It's problematic just to say 'God wanted us to win.' Did God not want the other side to win?" she asks.

"The worst you can do is try to use God to help you. If it is in God's will for you to be successful, then obviously you're going to be successful," says Shavlik Randolph, a sophomore men's basketball player. Instead, adds Randolph, he uses his celebrity to reach out to people, start conversations, develop relationships and hopefully spread the meaning of Christianity.

At the moment though, it's not always easy to make people understand one's strong beliefs--religion especially--if they aren't as receptive or don't want to confront it. Expressing religion, postulates Randolph, is not always easy, particularly for people who have recently discovered their faith. "God is a touchy subject with a lot of people," he says. "Some people may be embarrassed by it--I wouldn't say ashamed--but it's 'not cool' or whatever, so they might keep it to themselves."

Can this sort of attitude change? Can people learn to discuss and accept religion more freely? Absolutely, say the athletes who are already believers. Hollenbeck's guess is that 65 percent of Duke athletes believe there is a God; of that, 20 percent apply their faith in some way or participate in some way, and maybe just 5 to 10 percent are really involved.

And it's up to that small percentage to start making a difference.

One way of doing so is spending time with teammates. "I try to show that I care about [my teammates], and one of the ways is socially," says Castor. The golf team's small size allows for a higher level of intimacy; sometimes it is harder for larger teams to accept one person's faith.

Hollenbeck, whose semi-pro team from the past two summers was a completely Christian team, says she is alone in her devout faith on the Duke soccer team and sometimes gets lonely, but that she's glad to be tested in her devotion to God. "That takes going out and doing the things [my teammates] do, yet standing out and being different in those situations. Maybe it sparks a curiosity," she says.

Back in the coffee shop, where the darkness outside the window encloses the warm light and pungent aromas swirling in the air, Hollenbeck and Broesler have taken what is inside them and brought it out in their conversation. A silence falls over the table. Broesler pushes back the curls that cover her shy eyes and looks back at Hollenbeck, who mindlessly rubs a scratch on her leg. They probe further, trying to come up with more words to create that spark.

They, like Randolph, Castor, Sorbello and the other so-called 'religious athletes', have many similar traits, and an aura about them that is difficult to describe. Cheerful? No. Kind and generous? Seems too cliché. Soft-spoken yet enthusiastic, friendly yet secluded? Yes, but that doesn't seem to be enough. For teammates, peers and outsiders, it's easier to describe this unique collection of Duke athletes as "different," or "religious,"--a word they speak softly with eyebrows arched. Religion, these outsiders believe, means no sinning, no drinking, no partying. Religion, they assume, is an extra set of rules in a world that already has too many.

"I feel like a lot of people think it's all about rules and regulations," says Broesler. To those like her who have this deep faith, though, it's not about rules or repressed desire. Instead, explains Randolph, "God takes away the desire to do things that separate you from him, and you don't have that desire to do [those things] anymore." The desire in these athletes' lives is to "be vessels... that's where our capacity to love comes from... it's like God fills you up," Broesler says as her eyes brighten with the discovery of words.

"Yeah," says Hollenbeck, with the light reflecting in her eyes. That's "the heart's desire."


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