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AFL's growing band of religious players

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Faith and footy

Senior football writer Michael Gleeson explores religion in the AFL and the players who let their faith define who they are, not their football.

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Guy McKenna has finished his final address to the team. Players mill about, some with headphones listening to music, others handballing, some kicking to each other. It’s a standard scene in any change room before any game.

Off to a side Gary Ablett, Zac Smith and Aaron Hall drape arms over each others shoulders. They invite anyone else in – players, coaches – to join them and often at least several more gather in the huddle. They bow their heads and pray. They recite a biblical quote and ask for strength for the game ahead before they run out to play.

“I am a Christian by faith. I am a man of God. I trust in Jesus every day just to help me through,” Smith explained.

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“Gaz, Aaron Hall, myself, we pray together before every single game, we get in there and pray over the game that we are going to get through, play well and win.

“It’s just our group but we invite others in, it’s open to anyone. We have had a few join. It’s probably five minutes before we run out and it lifts me massively. We love it, that’s why we do it. We just love having that relationship with Jesus.”

Smith was raised a Baptist and when the family moved to the Gold Coast he began attending the Christian Outreach Centre, a religious denomination founded by Australian TV evangelist Clark Taylor, who was moved to Christian faith by American evangelist Billy Graham.

Daniel Wells.

Daniel Wells. Photo: Penny Stephens

Smith, Ablett and Hall have formed their own Life Group that meets each week to talk about issues in their lives. Other players come along at times, occasionally a coach. Ablett’s father  has popped in a few times.

“I think it is healthy to talk about life and how you are going and talk about your struggles and that stuff,” Smith said. “It’s just our own group we formed. I go to a church and they do life groups as well but we have done that on our own - the footy boys - to encourage each other in our faith.”

Gary Ablett last year posted a photo on social media of him, Smith and Hall praying ahead of the Western Bulldogs game and accompanied by a quote from 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So whatever you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

It created a shiver of interest as Ablett was not only declaring his faith proudly but because it appeared unusual within an Australian football club for players to do something so apparently American as  praying before a game.

“It's different to what most people would presume is normal before a game I suppose,” said former assistant coach Shaun Hart, who is now at Port Adelaide as coaching director.

The group prayer before a game was not so unusual in football though. At Essendon in the late '90s some of the players, predominantly the Catholics, prayed with the longtime club chaplain Allan Dunn before games.

“It was before every game. It wasn’t altogether because you would fit it in when you could to your warm up and you would just go to a room off to the side with Allan Dunn for a moment,” full-forward Matthew Lloyd said. “It was part of the routine.”   

Australians typically wince when someone publicly mentions God and Ablett made some move a little uneasily in their seats on Brownlow night when he thanked God for his win.

“I want to thank God because without him I wouldn’t be up here tonight,” he said. On his Instagram account Ablett often references Jesus and links to Youtube clips with, for instance, NBA basketballer Kevin Durant talking with his pastor.

Hart can understand and empathise with the reaction to Ablett's reference. The former Brisbane rover was a Lion who was also a Christian. When he won the Norm Smith Medal in the 2001 grand final he also thanked God and spoke openly and proudly of his faith.

The grand final had been played only weeks after the 9/11 terrorist bombings and, in that emotionally heightened period, Hart’s proud declarations about his faith offended some.

“In one of the papers in Melbourne people wrote in anger at the fact someone talked about their faith when something like the horror of 9/11 had happened days earlier. There was that typical response to religion they go to which is divisive and for me it’s far from the truth. My view is I am not in this life to judge, I live my life by a set of beliefs and I don’t impose them on anyone. But it’s a knee-jerk reaction.”

Hart recognises the parallel between faith and team sport. Football preaches an ethos of team first, self second, of worrying for teammates more than yourself. This, he said, sat comfortably with his faith teachings as a Pentecostal Christian about looking our for all and helping the weak.

“We are in this together,” Hart said. “At Port Adelaide it is team first, self second and that is a very similar theme to faith. There is a strong parallel there.”

Hart bridles at the description of being religious. He speaks of himself as someone of faith, not religion. There is a connotation about the word religion, he said, that creates an association with structured church that does not fit well for him.

Andrew Swallow at North Melbourne is the same.  Swallow is a man of faith. His faith too is a Christian. He attends the Planetshakers, which is a young Pentecostal church that is a youth-focused movement that blends Christian rock music into the service. Former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian was previously a singer in the Planetshakers band.

“It is very similar in nature to Hillsong,'' Swallow said. ''They make it a service and still all the same themes but try to present it in a modern way, a lot of music. In a way it is like a concert I suppose and for a lot of these boys it would be quite a shock to go along because they would think they would be asleep in the first 30 seconds but we are all up and about jumping about having fun.

“People are so passionate about football, why can’t we be passionate about our God? So I think it is great. Our church is 10 or 11 years old now - it has had some amazing growth.

“Yes, I am religious but I don’t like the term religious because of connotations it has. I am a spiritual person. Christians believe Jesus died for my sins.

“For me it gives me great grounding and a sense of purpose and destiny and that allows me to go and do what I do. All the guys know I go to church and do all that but I don’t stand around bashing them with it. Hopefully they see it through me and they are drawn to it within me and the boys are always asking questions. 

“They are like a lot of society - they grow up knowing only one or two churches where it is in a big old chapel with your priests, but if you ever came along to our church it is completely different to that.”

Revealing yourself as a churchgoer in the most secular of environments in a secular society - within the unreconstructed world of a football club locker room - is a confronting moment for people of faith, whether they are Christian, Muslim or Jew. The game has known and embraced players of varying levels of devotion from all religious backgrounds. Bachar Houli, a practising Muslim, plays for Richmond while Todd Goldstein, North Melbourne’s ruckman, has a Jewish background.

Swallow said players learnt gradually of his churchgoing.

“When I first came over guys find out about you. I wasn’t overt, and I am still not. Like all young guys you are trying to find your feet and I suppose you want to fit in,” he said.

“It took a couple of years to find where I felt comfortable in who I was and what I believed in. There were times when you get carried away with the crowd and what all the boys are doing but as time has gone on I have found it easier and easier to be true to who I am and not be as influenced by what they do but hopefully be an influence on them.”

Swallow is now North Melbourne captain, which is the clearest indication that his choice of church and regularity in attending was of no mind to his teammates.

“Most people at the club think I am Catholic and you go through the process trying to explain to them that no I am Christian and I go to another church. Like most people they get their head around it in the end. Most people have not heard of it, but one of my good mates now is a guy who is no longer at the club, Benny Warren, and he was great in my first couple of years. He goes with me to Planetshakers now still and he and I are really close now.”

Swallow married his high school girlfriend from the Christian college he attended in WA. They both attend Planetshakers. His brother David, who plays for the Gold Coast, is not a churchgoer.

The encroachment of sport on religion is something that annoys Swallow when the annual topic of Good Friday football arises.

“Do we need football then? Are people that bored in their lives that they have to have football every day of the year? We still come in and train but I think it is a great time even if you don’t have that faith or belief so just spend the day with your family. Surely you can occupy yourself for one day.

Jonathan Giles at Greater Western Sydney is the son and grandson of Uniting Church ministers. His father would conduct four services at churches throughout the Barossa Valley each weekend and his mother, whose father was also a minister, would go along and play guitar. The boys would attend at least once. 

Giles remains a devout Christian and attends Hillsong in western Sydney occasionally as well as a small Presbyterian church near his home.

“Hillsong is very different to what I grew up with hearing my Dad in church,” Giles said.

“Dad is very supportive. He thinks that going to church - whether it is Uniting, Methodist or Hillsong - they are all very similar teachings, it’s all from the bible. He says whatever church you can get to just get to a church.”

Consequently he never misses. Even when playing interstate over Easter and he was forced to improvise.

“I downloaded a couple of Easter services to my laptop and watched them on the plane and in my hotel room,” he said.

Giles was a shy boy at Port Adelaide and quiet about his views but as an older player now at the Giants he is confident of own his beliefs. He makes no effort to hide his faith, nor impose it on others.

He has prayed with former teammates Israel Folau and Anthony Miles (now at Richmond) in the hotel room before games. He found it gave him comfort.

The sports book Bounce has spoken of the impact of faith and what it contends are the placebo effects of religion on sportsmen. It is an extension of the idea of the Power of Positive Thinking and does not seek to challenge the merit of a faith but suggests that the fact of having a faith and a belief in divine support was influential in a sportsman’s performance.

The impact of religion in sport among otherwise agnostic people is evidenced in the commonplace sign of the cross by batsmen making a century, by South American soccer players crossing themselves six times as they step onto the field or by footballer looking to the sky after kicking a goal. Whether they are looking to a God or offering the performance up to a departed friend or family member they are still looking to the heavens. 

“I will say a prayer in the rooms and no one would even know,'' Giles said. ''It’s in my own peace and quiet but it is not something before a game I have to go and pray.” 

His faith is a part of his performance as a sportsman only, he said, because it is part of who he is.

“Apart from having respect I don’t go about my football any differently,” he said.

At North Melbourne, Daniel Wells plays on a wing with a prayer.

He is a spiritual man in a country where sport is religion. Wells was raised with a belief but not in a church, he now has a family of his own and he is a converted and devout Catholic.

Wells attends mass without fail every week. When he goes to Utah for the club’s altitude camps he treks off on a bus an hour or so away in the snow to find a small church to attend mass.

“Every Saturday or Saturday night or Sunday it doesn’t matter. I fit it in around footy. Don’t worry, I always fit it in, I don’t miss no matter where we are,” he said.

“It does set me up for the week. If I don’t go to mass I do feel very empty. It is something that is compulsory for me and my family and we make sure we get there regardless,” he said.

His faith is a bigger part of him than football. One is what he does, the other is who he is. He was a footballer first then a Catholic; now he considers it the other way around. Wells became a Catholic after meeting his future wife, Mariangela.

“When I met her and we started to catch the light I suppose with the faith, it was a big change in my life and a positive change. At the start you are on a real big high and then you come back down a bit and you have to find that balance,” he said.

Wells was not Catholic, nor a churchgoer, when he arrived at the club as a shy teenager so he said was never inclined to start preaching to his teammates. He says a prayer for them and occasionally says a quiet Hail Mary to himself in a game.

“I might say something quickly in my head, but nothing to win a game,” he said smiling.

“A couple of times in a game I might have said a quick Hail Mary, just said her name as I was having a shot at goal. I missed one but that doesn’t matter, I drilled the other one. I don’t use my faith for success in footy, maybe for a bit of protection for the boys and everyone there and to be thankful I am playing this great game.” 

67 comments so far

  • Good article. But it begs the question, given the strong devout nature of both Andrew Swallow and Daniel Wells, will both be fronting up next year to play Good Friday football? Good Friday is a solemn day for all Christians/Catholics and believers of Jesus Christ, and whilst the Christian community will be mourning on Good Friday next year, I am curious to see what the stance of both Swallow and Wells will be, and whether they too will choose to mourn on the day, or instead play football for their club? Its an interesting question too because on a purely football perspective, a North Melbourne team without Swallow and Wells is like Hawthorn without Mitchell and Hodge! Go Hawks!

    Date and time
    May 23, 2014, 10:15AM
    • I think saying games shouldn't be played on Good Friday so we can have a 'day off footy' is a bit much.
      I don't want a day off footy on a friday evening when already everything is shut and there is nothing to do but sit at home with mates (hopefully having remembered to already get the beer before things close).
      If any of these guys don't want to play on Good Friday then don't...I bet their faith is quite so strong though to stop them.

      Date and time
      May 23, 2014, 11:11AM
    • Both Andrew Swallow and Daniel Wells have stated publicly that they would not like to play on Good Friday because of their beliefs. It begs the question though if North do get granted a Good Friday fixture as they have requested. As employees of the NMFC I find it pretty hard to believe that they would refuse to play.

      Date and time
      May 23, 2014, 1:05PM
    • You dont need an ancient text full of bizzare and violent things in order to be a fantastic and friendly citizen.

      Religions are completely unnecessary in 2014. They should be phased out as they serve no purpose.

      Date and time
      May 23, 2014, 2:50PM
    • What a load metaphysical tripe.

      Date and time
      May 25, 2014, 9:05PM
  • You would have to hope that with the right guidance this kind of stuff could be minimised.

    Date and time
    May 23, 2014, 10:28AM
    • What are you proposing? Mind control, censorship, re-education camps, something out of the worst of Soviet and Chinese communist history? That is very intolerant of you to deny them the right to believe in God, our Creator and Redeemer.

      Date and time
      May 23, 2014, 8:37PM
  • Given the regularity with which many Geelong supported referred to Ablett as SOG (Son-of-God) have the Gold Coast players considered they are in fact no praying to the heavens but to the man next to them instead?

    It makes as about as much sense.

    Date and time
    May 23, 2014, 10:36AM
    • Actually your attempt at contempt (for religion) is an own goal! Or for an AFL equivalent "as the fullback you just kicked directly into the arms of the full forward, 25m out."

      Why? Well, Giving, thanks for and/or having hope in and faith in Garry Ablett playing a good game is a pretty safe prayer. Having a great game, well,,,better than even money. So if that event is a safe, secure and probable then YOU have just said praying to god for the same result is also very probable and hence useful and worthwhile.

      It is sad, some persons cannot accept their right to disbelieve in something is only valid when they accept others have the right to believe in it.

      At this point, I have either lost you or made you angry. In either case,relax, trust me, as I am right. Enjoy the Footy!

      Frequent Flyer
      Date and time
      May 23, 2014, 3:11PM
  • In a society that believes in free speech and expression, it's very refreshing to hear of young men standing up for a lifestyle where the love of God and moral values guide their lives. Sadly there are many who criticize their openness. Would we prefer them to be racial abusers, or getting media attention for drunken brawls? When greats of the game like Ablett, Hart, Wells, Swallow etc set such an example of finding a source of help that makes them wonderful examples to our youth we should celebrate it, not condemn it. Great article. Many thanks!

    Date and time
    May 23, 2014, 10:56AM

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    Sat, 20 SepTimes shown AEST
    HAW 97 vs PTA 94 Report Stats
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    AFL Finals Round 4
    Sat, 27 SepTimes shown AEST
    SYD 74 vs HAW 137 Report Stats
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    AFL Home and Away
    Overall standings
    Team P W L D % Pts
    Sydney Swans 22 17 5 0 142.88 68
    Hawthorn 22 17 5 0 140.78 68
    Geelong Cats 22 17 5 0 113.77 68
    Fremantle 22 16 6 0 130.40 64
    Port Adelaide 22 14 8 0 129.92 56
    North Melbourne 22 14 8 0 117.04 56
    Essendon 22 12 9 1 106.34 50
    Richmond 22 12 10 0 105.77 48
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