In routine game and match coverage, sportswriters often puzzle over the Christian faith of star athletes and coaches. Sometimes the reporters can't grasp the faith, so they stick to the sport and miss the bigger picture. With some athletes, though, the faith can't be ignored.
With the Masters Tournament coming up early next month, it's a good time to read Mark Frost's The Match (Hyperion), which came out in paperback last week. Frost offers a new perspective on how professional golfers took over the game from the amateur ideal set by Bobby Jones. Jones, a Tiger Woods-level golfer, never played for money, but in 1930 he won the four major tournaments in the United States and Great Britain.
Frost takes an unpublicized 1956 match between two pros and two amateurs and weaves their personal stories around the trends in the game. The pros, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan, won on the last hole against amateurs Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward. Frost makes the outcome a symbol of the professional takeover of the game, thanks to a mix of television, money, and a charismatic young player named Arnold Palmer.
Middle-aged golfers will remember Palmer and his younger rival, Jack Nicklaus. What they may not recall is how TV commentator Byron Nelson dominated the game as a player. Nelson played so well just after World War II that the Associated Press named him Athlete of the Year for two consecutive years. He won 11 tournaments in a row in 1945, an unbeaten record. His 68.3 average score stood as a record until Tiger Woods beat it in 2000.
Frost gives tribute to Nelson's Christian faith and how he remained a humble man even after he became a TV celebrity. He and his wife lived in a simple house around Fort Worth, Texas, never even buying a dishwasher. When his wife suffered a stroke, he cared for her with compassion until her 1985 death.
Nelson used his wealth for others. "In quiet, everyday ways, never for show or to put his name in the papers, the good works he performed for people in need in his community of Fort Worth and the wider world are a human accomplishment of rare wonder," Frost notes. "The number of people who benefited can hardly be calculated, nor did Byron ever want it to be."
Good storytellers have a challenge with athletes of faith like Byron Nelson. "The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God," Paul writes in 1 Corinthians. "They are spiritually discerned." Yet the fruits of that faith still make their way into these stories because the law is written on everyone's hearts, as Paul wrote to the Romans.
For football fans, Mark Bowden offers The Best Game Ever (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008), a 50th-anniversary story of the 1958 championship between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants.
Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, tells the game story with character sketches of Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, Giants linebacker Sam Huff, and Colts receiver Raymond Berry. The Unitas-to-Berry combination made the pass a vital part of the game.
Berry, though, was not a natural athlete. He just worked hard and studied the game and the opposition. He used his mind as well as his body, in an era when his teammates thought him a little odd because he never joined them in smoking, drinking, or carousing.
Bowden indirectly mentions Berry's Christian faith and how he came to see his drive to excellence as a gift from God. Others had speed or big hands and could jump high. "I began to realize it was a tremendous gift," Berry explained. "I got very curious about the source, and I finally realized that God gave me that drive."
There's more to that story than Bowden tells. Berry became a Christian through the Colts' big game victory. He pondered his drive to excellence and realized that it was coming from somewhere outside himself. After his conversion to Christ he became as disciplined in memorizing Scripture as he was about plotting pass patterns.