It’s the end of summer. It’s the beginning of the fall academic sports season. But it is yet hot, humid, and athletic bodies are in full assault. No matter the sport, it’s preseason. It’s a time of shock, sweat, blood, swelling, and stiffness. It is a time no old athlete forgets, and most wince at the memory. Those engaged are without perspective—they are all coping amid the pain.

Panicked reports abound of summer practice deaths, concussions, fatal lightning strikes and the bemoaning of the depletion of teams by one-sport athletes are common to the point of cliché. Not so 40 tears ago.

In May of 1979, I applied to a tiny ad in the New Haven Register to be a paid assistant high school football coach. There was a new head coach at suburban Branford High School. I had zero coaching or college football experience, but I had been a co-captain of my high school football team, and had been a Resident Adviser at university. And I deeply loved, and love, football.

I was deemed “close enough” and joined a staff of 5 other new assistants on a completely new staff. It was a summer of cramming to learn the Delaware Wing T Offense as applied to The Branford High School Fighting Football Hornets, who had won perhaps 2 games the year before.

The 27-year-old brilliant head coach was the eldest—the rest of us were in our “early 20’s.” We had no girlfriends, so we essentially made that summer our coaching bootcamp. It went well, great for me, as I had just played intramural touch football in undergraduate, and thoroughly missed the game—so I fully dove into the Wing-T. The summer practices were long, hard, and several times a day. Everyone was learning, and young. It was a very focused fortnight.

Until our first scrimmage.

Before the first full-pad “game” with another team, amid the full stank of sweat, dirt, blood and other bodily bi-products common to dehydration and body contact, I was momentarily overwhelmed. As I sat amid 50 young men in the steamy locker room before setting to the visiting team, we were hyped and nervous. The coach barked bromides, we all huzzahed and YEAHed, until he said:

“OK!”

Everyone, except me, instantly took a knee, so I quickly, clumsily, did. Hands grabbed hands. We were together—beyond smell and dirt.

In a monotone everyone murmured:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name;
Thy kingdom come;
Thy will be done
in earth, as it is in heaven:
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive them that trespass against us;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil. Amen.”

I had never done this before—prayed before a scrimmage, let alone a game. I had played on a progressive private school’s team, proudly secular. We just got coached and ran out to the field to play. There was no prayer, no national anthem—perhaps the Pledge of Allegiance—including the 1950s insertion of the God reference. So that afternoon I was mumbling the prayer that I had learned when I was 4, and then loudly started—just before the group “Amen”—

“For thine is the kingdom,
the power, and the glory,
For ever and ever…..”

Oops.

I was a cradle Episcopalian (despite being 10 years without attendance) and the room was, clearly, Roman Catholic. My gaff happened that once, and never again. But my shock never left—we were saying The Lord’s Prayer for goodness sake (!). We were scared, angry, vulnerable, and aggressive young men—and the players were, too. It was repeated for my full 7 seasons of coaching. The prayer helped. Three years later the team went to (and lost) the Connecticut Class MM State Championship Game.

That recitation is now forbidden at all public school sporting events. There is talk that the national anthem is also illegitimate (and football too) here in New England. More than this social subset, the belief in prayer itself is waning in our culture. Full contact at practices is now limited to about three hours a week. We do not teach tackling leading with our head either. Things have changed.

Things are indeed changing in sports, but more in our culture. The vulnerability that made 50 desperate young men huddle in prayer, holding hands, now has an equal number of phones, selfies, and hashtags to connect everyone in the room.

They are, indeed, connected to others, but is there faith, or simply shared fear? And triumph? Are we touching something greater than ourselves in hope—by prayer back then, or are we simply saying “it’s all about me” on the Internet?

God may be absent from public athletics, and soon possibly all patriotic expression as well, in New England. The ritual of athletic sacrifice and the belief in love, together, may be becoming unfashionable. But our human devotion to be greater than who we are, even with celebratory selfies, is ever there. Love is too powerful to be distracted by our fears and hubris.

Perhaps it’s hidden in teenage triumph, angst, and failure, but the overwhelming Font of Every Blessing undeniably wells in the pain and fear of risk. God is with us in all times of uncertainty—especially in this season of hurling our bodies against each other. We can be distracted, but God is always there.