Although he’s with the team often and on the sideline for every game, San Francisco 49ers team chaplain Earl Smith jokes that he doesn’t talk about football.
“I don’t know anything about it,” he said earlier this week on the Sports Spectrum Podcast. “I can talk about the Word because I’m learning about it. That’s what we do.”
Since 1997, Smith has helped lead countless players and coaches in their walk with God. And for the second time in five seasons, he and the 49ers are back in the Super Bowl and again facing the Kansas City Chiefs (6:30 p.m. ET Sunday).
“It’s awesome for me to look at those guys and just see that the work they put in, there’s a value there and God has rewarded that,” Smith said. “Not that He hasn’t rewarded other teams and other players, but in this particular case, looking at my guys and just saying, ‘Look guys, look what God did for us.'”
The 49ers entered the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 1 seed and earned a first-round bye, making them a popular pick to win the NFC. But it took two comeback wins for the 49ers to reach Super Bowl LVIII. They trailed the Green Bay Packers 21-14 heading into the fourth quarter of the NFC divisional round, then erased a 17-point deficit to beat the Detroit Lions in the NFC championship game.
The wins are nice, but for Smith, success isn’t always measured in wins or losses, especially when looking through the lens of faith and spiritual growth. He prays often while on the sidelines, but not necessarily for results on the field.
“I’m calling individual guys’ names out just asking, ‘Lord, bring about Your victory in this person’s life or in this particular situation,'” he said. “So it’s no longer me looking at the game, it’s me looking at the guy and just praying for victory for that guy, not victory for the game. I don’t believe God would be interested in that [game], other than you’d be able to get on a platform and share your faith in a way that you may lead others to understand who He is.”
Smith’s talks in the team chapel services at the start of the season focused on the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt for the Promised Land, but wanting to return because they were comfortable there and knew what to expect. Though something greater lied ahead if they just had faith, they let the fear of the unknown take priority.
Smith asked players and coaches to consider what their Egypt is. What’s a place to which they try to return even if God has delivered them from it?
“That’s what the enemy will do,” Smith said on the podcast. “The enemy will twist your thinking to make you think that it was better over there than it actually was, and it may allow you to be deceived into thinking that you want to go back. This year we just talked about where God has brought us from.”
Attendance at team chapels was “light” at the start of the season, Smith said, but as weeks and months went by, the room began to fill up because players and coaches were inviting others to join, and they did.
“It was almost like standing room,” Smith said. “It was almost this unbelievable feel that the room was being filled with new guys that were coming in that were sort of experiencing what it meant to be in that fellowship for 30 minutes and just share the Word.”
He also talked this year about preparation and how Paul in the Bible was prepared for what God was going to do with him.
“A lot of times we fail as a result of not processing and accepting the fact that God has said, ‘You’re prepared for this. You can do this,'” Smith said.
Any time the 49ers make the playoffs, Smith likes to do something special for the players as a gift for a great season and perhaps spark some momentum for the playoff run. In the spirit of preparation, he also wanted to make sure their heart, mind and spirit were ready for the battle, both on and off the field.
So for this year’s gift, he chose to give every player and coach a Bible with their name engraved on it. The gesture was met with excitement and gratitude, he said, even from those on the team that maybe hadn’t been as outspoken about their faith. Seeing their reactions was a special moment, he added.
As they trailed the Lions by 17 points at halftime, Smith reminded them to have faith and to believe they could overcome the adversity standing in their way. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that he’ll round out the season with a message ahead of the Super Bowl about faith. It’s a time for players to look back on the season and process their own faith journey — the obstacles they overcame and how God has rewarded their faith.
But in the other locker room, another group of players and coaches will be getting focused and fired up from a chapel service of their own. As cliche as it may sound, Smith knows the biggest win of the night would be hearing players and coaches on either side publicly declaring their faith in Jesus.
“I pray for their chapel service. I pray for their service, that those men that go into that room would feel energized as a result of a relationship with Christ,” Smith said. “For us as chapel leaders, we have to understand that the picture is bigger than where God has set us. So I pray for the Chiefs players, that the message they receive that evening would so energize them that they would be pushing to speak Jesus.”
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