The Rev. Robert Matya stood with Nebraska and Penn State football players around the 50-yard line of Beaver Stadium on Nov. 12, 2011.
The Catholic priest and Husker team chaplain listened to running backs coach Ron Brown begin to pray at the center of the Nittany Lion logo. Quiet began to creep into the stadium of 107,903 fans, who suffered the unthinkable that week.
Finally, Matya heard what he has never heard in a football stadium. Complete silence.
“I think that’s the only time I have experienced, in that large of a group of people, that spirit of entering into that moment of prayer,” Matya said.
The Penn State faithful had a right to be silent for a little while that day.
After 62 years with the program, Penn State’s football coach, Joe Paterno, had just announced his retirement at the height of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
“Pretty profound in moments of tragedy, like that was a moment of tragedy for that community, what else can you do other than pray together?” Matya said.
For Matya and Nebraska – a state where its citizens vote Republican and attend pristine churches – praying is all a part of the culture. And this moment at Penn State one year ago portrays Nebraska’s covenant between God and football in Matya’s eyes.
Not everyone in Nebraska is as keen on that covenant as Matya, though.
BUILDING A CULTURE
Tom Osborne looked around at the 1957 Fellowship of Christian Athletes conference in Estes Park, Colo.
He made the 437-mile drive alone to sit next to the likes of Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker, Olympic Gold Medal pole-vaulter Bob Richards, members of the Oklahoma and LSU football teams and about 300 other people who attended the conference.
At the second annual FCA conference, in front of all of those famous athletes, the then 19-year-old Osborne made the commitment to his faith.
“There’s a point as an adult, you decide which direction you are going to go with your faith,” Osborne said. “During that week I made that commitment to follow Christ. I haven’t turned back from that moment.”
That decision became part of his legacy, beyond winning three national championships, 13 conference titles and 25 bowl games.
When Osborne became head coach in 1973, he began to run the program with an emphasis on personal character, and God did much of the heavy lifting with that strategy. He hired coaches with a positive attitude toward football and faith.
Osborne’s coaching staff would start days at 7 a.m. with a 10-minute devotional prayer. Osborne offered chapel and Catholic mass before games for his teams.
There was silent prayer before and after games in the locker room, win or lose. Osborne kept the prayer silent because he wanted to keep it from “turning into a pep talk.”
Osborne said he emphasized sportsmanship and respect among his coaches and players and used faith to cement the idea.
“Football can be a cruel, violent game, where hatred can be found,” Osborne said. “On the other hand, it could be a sport where players learn discipline. We had players who hit people very hard, but we would always pick players up and pat them on the back, try to treat them with respect.”
Eventually, Osborne said prayer groups formed and embraced religion and football, under the guidance of their faithful coaches.
“Most players, when they get out of college, can point to a coach that has scarred them badly or a coach that was good to them in ways of self-worth,” Osborne said. “I felt it was important to hire coaches that would be positive people and were going to leave a solid influence.”
Through Matya’s eyes, Osborne’s influence changed many people’s lives and the entire Nebraska athletic program.
“Osborne was willing to say, ‘This is who I am. This is who we are,’ ” Matya said. “This isn’t something new that Bo (Pelini) started, but this is a part of Nebraska tradition.”
Brown, Nebraska running backs coach, is an avid FCA member and co-founder of a Christian ministry called Mission Nebraska. He also appreciates Osborne’s religious influence on the team. He said the Nebraska football program has grown because it is built around faith.
“Coach Osborne created a culture that those things could exist if people wanted to do it,” Brown said. “It’s a huge responsibility to take young men and shape them and mold them into knowing who the Lord is. We won’t force it on them. They don’t have to believe it, but it’s there for them.”
ADVOCATING VS. PROMOTING
Jason Peter didn’t care for the relationship between God and football in his time at Nebraska.
He was wild and mean on the football field. Whether it was hitting Peyton Manning in the 1998 Orange Bowl or letting out a thunderous roar after scoring a touchdown in the 1996 Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech, Peter played with aggression.
Peter played defensive end for Osborne from 1994-1997 and was a part of two national championship teams. The Carolina Panthers drafted him 14th overall in the 1998 NFL draft and Peter played professionally for three seasons.
Throughout his time at Nebraska, Peter said he didn’t participate in a single locker room prayer session, though he did attend mass before games because of personal choice. Peter insisted praying before games didn’t make sense.
“There’s a time and place,” Peter said. “This is a game when you are trying to inflict pain on your opponent. You have to have that mentality heading into a game. You have to prepare for that. I don’t think it preaches anything in the Bible about inflicting pain on another person.”
Peter also doesn’t like using athletics to promote faith, though he understands football – because of its popularity in the U.S. as something pure and patriotic despite its violence – can be a strong stage for evangelism.
“Some people like to have an image of themselves as faith-filled people, but in the background they live double lives,” Peter said. “For coach Osborne, it wasn’t like that. He was who he was. If he was asked about faith he would answer the question, but he never pushed it on anyone, players and coaches alike.”
Peter and fellow defensive lineman Grant Wistrom dumped a Gatorade bucket on Osborne in the closing seconds of Nebraska’s 1998 Orange Bowl win over Tennessee. Osborne looked back at Peter, and Peter, with a big smile on his face, wrapped his tattooed arm around his coach.
Though they didn’t see eye-to-eye on religion, they understood one thing together; how to win football games.
Unlike Peter, some players bought into the religious culture. Osborne called those players “the glue that held us together.” He said the group sacrificed more for the team in practice and games.
Peter disagrees, saying players who emphasize religion while they play aren’t any more significant than those who listen to AC/DC or kiss a rabbit’s foot before each game. For Peter, prayer didn’t win national championships, or sack Peyton Manning.
“I’m not saying you need a team full of guys who don’t pray,” Peter said. “You can have a few guys who do. I just don’t think it’s necessary.”
People say prayer matters in football because it makes them feel better, he said.
“To say God helped you score a touchdown or God helped you force a fumble, I don’t understand that,” Peter said. “The offense scored a touchdown, the defense forced that fumble, and God didn’t have anything to do with it. You never hear people thank God when they lose. It’s always when they win.”
CONTINUING A TRADITION
Matya and Nebraska coach Bo Pelini talked at charity event introducing Pelini as the new football coach five years ago.
They talked about faith and football. Pelini asked Matya about the Catholic influence on campus.
Matya expressed his interest in getting involved with student-athletes. He said he was unable to expand his ministry because he could never reach the student-athletes. They were always to busy to talk or stop by the Newman Center.
Pelini then asked Matya to be the team’s chaplain.
Pelini and Matya resurrected many Osborne-era traditions discarded by former coach Bill Callahan, Matya said. Pelini wanted to make sure his players had the option to express their faith.
“He really cares about trying to help these guys became good men. Helping them figure out what else is important in their lives,” Matya said.
Chapel and mass are once again offered before games. Pelini leads prayer for the team in the locker room before the Huskers take the field. Brown leads a prayer group on the 50-yard line after the game; as many as 30 players participate each week.
Current Nebraska sophomore I-Back Ameer Abdullah, a practicing Muslim athlete, said Brown talks about Christianity more than at that meeting on the 50-yard line. In fact, Brown regularly quotes scripture before and during practice.
Abdullah doesn’t see it as offensive though. He sees it in a different light.
“I view it more as life lessons, something I can use in a non-religious part of life,” Abdullah said.
Pelini is Catholic and participates in pregame mass with his players and coaches.
Matya said Pelini’s players appreciate he cares about other things besides football. Pelini emphasizes academics. His players are required to go to class or be suspended.
Pelini’s philosophy makes a difference on Saturdays, Matya said. Whether the team wins or loses, Matya sees something in the players’ attitudes for Pelini that most people don’t get to see.
“One of my great mentors in the priesthood told me before I became a teacher, ‘Father, it doesn’t matter how much you know about Catholicism or the faith. But these kids that you’re going to teach, they have to know that you care about them. Until they know that you care about them, they aren’t going to care about anything you say in that classroom,’” Matya said. “If they know that their coach truly cares about them, these football players are going to do anything he tells them. … I think if he asked them to run off a cliff they’d do it.”
CROSSING THE LINE
Barbara Baier listened to Brown speak.
The talk was supposed to support a nonprofit organization at UNL’s Champions Club. That day, the group was supposed to be patting itself on the back for its recent work in the community. That benevolence wasn’t what Brown talked about though.
What Baier, the only lesbian or gay member on the Lincoln Public School’s Board of Education, heard from Brown that day terrified her, so much so that she left early.
“I was afraid of him,” she said.
Baier recalls the day with vivid memories with one common theme. Fear. Fear for her partner of 25 years. Fear for their 13-year-old son. Fear for her own life.
“He said that we should all fear gay people,” Baier said.
The talk marked the beginning of a long process of complaints to the athletic department. When Brown decided to speak against the Omaha City Council’s anti-discrimination ordinance, Baier wrote a letter to University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman, Osborne, Pelini and the University of Nebraska Board of Regents asking for Brown to be fired. The law would extend protections to gay and transgender people.
In his three-minute speech in front of the Omaha City Council, Brown explained the Bible doesn’t condone homosexuality.
When he spoke in front of the Omaha City Council, Brown said his home address was “One Memorial Stadium,” making his statements represent the ideals of the university in Baier’s mind.
A week after the events took place, Brown apologized publicly in an interview with the Omaha World-Herald.
“I am not apologizing for my stance,” Brown said to the World-Herald in the interview.
In her letters to the Board of Regents, Perlman, Osborne and Pelini, Baier expressed her concern for the LGBT student-athletes.
“I am not one for strong words, but in the case of the University of Nebraska, hypocrisy is an institutionalized value as regards LGBT students and their fair and legal right to access a tax-subsidized postsecondary education,” Baier wrote in her letter. “This hypocrisy is exemplified by the long-standing and persistent anti-LGBT behavior and bullying tactics of Coach Ron Brown.”
Osborne responded by meeting with Baier. Though Brown still coaches Husker running backs, Baier said Osborne treated her with respect. He met not only with her, but other members of the LGBT, to apologize.
Brown later said in a statement to media that he didn’t mean for his words to reflect UNL’s stance on the issue.
Baier says she still supports the Huskers and the athletic program, but the feeling she had when Brown spoke still leaves her anxious.
“The reason I spoke out was because all students and student-athletes have a right for equal opportunity,” Baier said. “I still have mixed feelings about the athletic department.”
GOD AND FOOTBALL
Matya walked outside Beaver Stadium after Nebraska beat Penn State 17-14, ruining what could have been a small piece of solace for the Nittany Lions at the end of the worst week the university had ever endured.
Matya didn’t stay with the team. He was going back home to Philadelphia for the remainder of the weekend. He was with friends from his hometown.
He wore black dress pants and a black dress shirt with the white collar of his chosen vocation. He also had a Nebraska pin over his heart. Penn State fans realized he was the team chaplain.
“People were thanking – not only myself but also other Husker fans that were there – us for being so kind and understanding,” Matya said. “We understood and appreciated how bad they felt at that time. That community was stunned by that news and was devastated.”
Fans not only thanked Matya that day, but they thanked Brown. Brown has received thousands of emails and letters from Penn State alums and members of the community, thanking him for his moments of prayer.
Even this season, a pin-striped official working Nebraska’s game against Idaho State thanked Brown for what he did at Penn State last year.
“I wasn’t trying to show off or anything,” Brown said. “I was trying to appropriately ask the Lord for his healing touch on the people that have gone through some tough times in the Penn State area.”
Matya can’t imagine how religion couldn’t influence a sport after what happened that day at Penn State. He doesn’t know how religion can’t be involved in football when it provides an anecdote for life.
“Does religion make a difference in your life? Yeah, of course it does,” Matya said. “We put these guys up on a pedestal. They are human beings. They are talented guys that are good enough to play Division I football. But they are not that different from the rest of us. They have a longing in their heart for God as much as anyone else.”