NFL Buffalo Bills Players Talk Faith in God to 900 People
The auditorium at the Buffalo Christian Center in downtown Buffalo began to fill up. Families packed into the seats and overflowed into the balcony area, waiting to get a glimpse of their gridiron heroes. The room carried an almost electric charge, the group abuzz with excitement.
Backstage, the scene was more subdued. Participants reviewed the evening’s agenda then paused for prayer, asking God to bless their efforts and calm their nerves.
This is a familiar scene for Fred Raines, who serves as Athletes in Action’s chaplain for the Buffalo Bills pro football program. In his 15 years of organizing the “Night out with the Bills” as an inner-city outreach, Raines is used to seeing strong, tough football players get a little anxious before going on stage.
“These guys can play football in front of 80,000 people, but to walk out on a stage, they are sweating bullets,” he said, lauging. “It’s almost a training time for a lot of them to see what God can do through them. For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve really talked publicly about their faith.”
On the Agenda
The night of Nov. 11 was no different. On that night, Raines served as host for the event attended by 900 people. Twelve players and several of their wives joined Raines on the stage for the informal evening that gives audience members a glimpse into the lives of NFL players and their families. The evening began with some individual brief interviews of players by a teammate, then Raines takes over the microphone to moderate a panel discussion of the players and their wives, trying to include all of those who participated.
The second half of the evening’s program features an autograph session in another larger room. Guests are given a booklet as they enter that includes action photos of each participating Bill player along with their favorite Bible verse. The booklets serve as autograph books for the children, who leave with a precious keepsake for their time.
“Hopefully, they’ll look back at that and remember what they heard the players say and read those verses,” Raines says of the books.
Up Close and Personal
The evening’s message has a decidedly personal bent to it. The interviews always deal with the players’ faith journey and how they keep themselves grounded in God in the seemingly glamorous world of professional football. At the end, a player gives a Gospel presentation and even leads a prayer that audience members can join him in. This year, tight end Scott Chandler had that role. Other Bills participating included Jairus Byrd, Andra Davis, Spencer Johnson, Stevie Johnson, Chris Kelsay, Rian Lindell, Ruvell Martin, David Nelson, Brad Smith, Tyler Thigpen and George Wilson.
Raines and wife Kathy, who have been chaplains with the Bills for 28 years, collect response cards from each person in attendance in order to follow up with anyone who made a decision for God. He said this year’s event had 55 people indicate they had prayed and received Christ.
And that, Raines says, is the whole point of the event. Besides being a tangible way that players can give back to the community, the “Night Out” is an evangelistic effort that affects both young and old audience members.
“Everyone loves the event, and the response is tremendous. People aren’t aware that these kinds of people are believers. These are the heroes they’re looking up to,” he says. “We encourage the guys to talk about their faith as much as they can. They see it as a sense of stewardship because God’s given them a unique platform.
“We see it as we’re taking a few hours of our time to affect eternity.”
Raines believes it is important that the wives accompany their NFL husbands whenever possible. For one, it paints a picture of the normalcy that players have in one sense. It also shows what a godly husband and wife living for Christ really looks like.
Staying in the Word
Those who participate in the annual outreach make up about half of Raines’ weekly Bible study for players and their wives or girlfriends. Kathy also hosts a weekly Bible study for the wives, girlfriends and coaches’ wives, and Fred meets specifically with coaches weekly. A leadership group of players meets weekly, and the team has a chapel every Saturday night.
He said the growth in players is evident over the months, even in a setting where the group changes every year at least a little. Raines has worked through nine coaching changes in Buffalo and numerous roster renovations, but he remains steadfast in reaching those he can while he can.
“You just don’t know what’s going on in these guys’ hearts, so we try to have a presence and be there for them. You never know when these (faith) conversations will take place,” says Raines. “I love seeing guys’ lives changed when the light goes on and they begin to grow in their relationship with Christ. Some have that foundation and now they decide this is what they really want to be important in their lives.
“It’s challenging, no doubt about it. But it’s been done with God’s favor.”