NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – The Texas Longhorns will storm onto the Rose Bowl field Thursday and attempt to win their fifth national championship.
But first, they’ll take time to pray.
Jordan Shipley hands teammates like Hunter Lawrence a handwritten bible verse before each practice.
Not just a handful of players or even a large group. If the season-long tradition continues, each and every member of Texas’ team will trot into the end zone and bow their heads a few moments toward kickoff.
“It’s not something that gets talked about a lot,” receiver Jordan Shipley said, “but there are a lot of believers on this team. It’s awesome to be a part of. I really think it’s made a difference in how we’ve played this year.”
Religion in football is certainly nothing new. For years athletes have pointed toward the heavens following a touchdown, knelt in prayer at midfield after the final horn and offered praise during postgame interviews.
What makes the Longhorns unique is the quantity of players who are so open and passionate about their relationship with Christ.
Kicker Hunter Lawrence, for instance, looks forward to the handwritten Bible verse he receives from Shipley before each practice. Offensive lineman Tray Allen, punter John Gold and standout defenders Sam and Emmanuel Acho went on a mission trip to Nigeria last summer, and center Chris Hall is among the many Longhorns players who can quote scriptures as well as their playbook.
Hall – the son of a pastor – was basically holding court during a media session earlier this week as he recalled the summer night in his dorm room when he accepted Christ.
“I cried out to the Lord,” Hall said, “and I told him two things. I told him, ‘Lord, I hate my life. I hate living for myself.’ I felt like ‘self’ characterized everything I did. And then I told him, ‘Lord, I want you to love me, and I want to love you.’
“When I did that, something happened that night, brother, that I’ve never experienced before. It’s changed me for the rest of my life. I haven’t been the same since. The Lord Jesus came to live within my human spirit. Everything has been so much sweeter. The grass is just greener, brother. Knowing the Lord just makes everything so much more enjoyable.”
“Including football,” he said.
No player is suggesting that the Longhorns have won games solely because of their faith. Instead it’s the positive outlook and attitude brought on by their religion that leads to more productive practices – and an inner peace during games.
“It’s unbelievable,” Texas head coach Mack Brown said. “When you’re in a state school you can’t push religion, but we have FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes]. We have chapels. We allow our team to choose whether or not they want to do those things. We don’t push it, but there’s a real strong [religious] influence on this team.
“I think it’s one of the reasons we’re here.”
Indeed, Texas wouldn’t even be playing in Thursday’s championship game against Alabama had Lawrence not booted a 46-yard field goal as time expired against Nebraska. Shortly before he lined up for the kick – which gave Texas a 13-12 victory – Lawrence listened as Shipley, his holder, recited Jeremiah 17:7.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him,” Shipley said.
Lawrence smiled when recalling the story a month later.
“After that moment,” he said, “I knew I was going to make it.”
Lawrence said he had a good relationship with Christ when he enrolled at Texas. But he said it has strengthened significantly because of players such as Shipley, Hall and quarterback Colt McCoy.
“Their faith is very strong,” Lawrence said. “They have a really positive influence on a lot of the guys on the team, especially the younger ones.”
Players said the general public has no idea how big of a part religion plays in many of the Longhorns’ daily routine.
“Some of it is more in a hidden way,” Hall said. “You’d almost have to have an all-access pass to see it. We pray together at a regular time each day. We’ll get together in hotel rooms and talk and get into the words [of the Bible]. Lots of things.”
Not all the Longhorns’ actions go unnoticed.
Hunter Lawrence heard his holder recite a bible verse before kicking the game-winning field goal in the Big 12 title game.
Attendance at Wednesday night FCA meetings can often be overwhelming, players said. And each Friday before home games, a group of Longhorns visit children at a local hospital.
Offensive lineman Adam Ulatoski spent time last summer building a house for a less fortunate family through Habitats for Humanity while McCoy went on a mission trip to Peru for the second straight year.
As often as he can, Shipley speaks to various high school groups and church youth groups in and around Austin. Shipley said his faith went to a new level during his first two years at Texas, when injuries kept him off the field.
“It was tough,” Shipley said, “but it allowed me to figure out who I was away from football. I did a lot of soul searching and developed my faith. Now that’s my motivation for every game. I try to use the pedestal I’ve been given to glorify God.
“With kids, it’s just showing them that you can represent Christ by being successful at what you do and by having an impact on people. I think there’s a reason we’re all here. That’s to Glorify Him. Everything I do, that’s my main purpose.”
The demand for Shipley is high, but Texas officials said no player is as sought after as McCoy, who sometimes receives as many as 10 speaking requests a day. Things got so out of hand a year ago that offensive coordinator Greg Davis called McCoy’s father, Brad.
“It’s becoming too much,” Davis told him. “I need you to help me convince him to slow down a bit.”
McCoy may have scaled things back, but sometimes even the smallest things end up influencing both fans and strangers. Shipley and McCoy, for instance, hardly ever miss a Sunday service at Westover Hills Church of Christ.
A few years ago, Brad McCoy received a call from one of the church’s members. It was the morning after Texas had lost to Kansas State in Manhattan – a game in which McCoy had suffered a pinched nerve in his neck.
“This man called, and he was crying,” Brad McCoy said. “He told me, ‘Coach McCoy, I’ve got to tell you, I’ve never seen anything like your son. I was sitting in church this morning when Colt walked in. He was a little late, but here was there, all beat up.
“I know he couldn’t have gotten home from Kansas before 3 or 4 a.m., but he was there for that 9 a.m. service. My little boy saw that. I just want you to know that that was the biggest impression anyone will ever make on my 10-year-old.’”
Brad McCoy paused.
“You hear that about your son,” he said, “and you can’t help but be proud.”
Win or lose Thursday, a lot of other Longhorns parents should feel the same way.
Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports.