Spring 2021 Magazine

MAGAZINE: His Huddle - How the NFL postgame prayer huddle at the 50 came to be

This story appears in the Fall 2017 issue of Sports Spectrum Magazine. For more in-depth feature stories like it, subscribe to our quarterly magazine for only $18.

His Huddle

Fall 2017 issue

How the NFL prayer huddle postgame at the 50 came to be

***

Pat Richie was in the shower when the trailblazing idea hit him. That’s a place many great thoughts have come to mind, but few go on to have a culture-changing impact like this one. Fewer still are shared by a friend on the other side of the country at the same time.

Richie was the chaplain for the two-time defending Super Bowl-champion San Francisco 49ers in 1990, when he was struck with the desire to use his platform to give glory to God. Looking ahead to his team’s Dec. 3 Monday night matchup against the New York Giants, it appeared as if it could be a meeting of undefeated rivals. Richie thought that evening could be special.

“I saw this as a strategic game,” he said, “and I thought, ‘Is there a way to use this in a God-honoring way?’”

So he phoned his friend, Dave Bratton, the Giants’ chaplain.

“Pat called me and he asked, ‘What can we do to let people see that these players have a spiritual nature as well as physical and material?’” Bratton said. “My response was, ‘We can pray together.’”

While Richie was on the West Coast, Bratton was on the East Coast also searching for an opportunity to bring faith into the spotlight that comes with football. They immediately collaborated on a way to make their dreams a reality.

Although both the 49ers and Giants lost their games the week before the big Monday nighter, anticipation for the meeting of NFC powerhouses still raged. While each team prepared for what was billed as an NFC championship game preview, each team chaplain worked out details for what would become one of the most enduring displays of faith to ever take place on a football field.

***

As the 98th season of the NFL kicks off this month, a now-27-year-old tradition will continue. Immediately following nearly every game, every week, a postgame prayer will commence. Players from both teams, after spending the previous three hours in opposition, will join hands to thank and honor our Heavenly Father.

The players could also thank Richie and Bratton, and some courageous players, for paving the way to see this expression of faith take place on a football field. It wasn’t as simple as just dropping to a knee back in the 90s.

The idea of opponents coming together to pray was planted in Bratton’s head by Giants tight end Howard Cross. “Howard shared with me about his college years, playing for Alabama when guys from both teams would come out before the game and pray together,” Bratton says.

After the chaplains’ initial conversation, which left them excited for their shared dream, each one approached some believers on their team. “I went and asked my players if they would want to pray, and they said yes,” Richie said. “I called Dave and he said ‘Hey, my guys are up for this too!’”

It then became a matter of logistics. Wanting to take best advantage of the media coverage surrounding the game – it was expected to have the largest Monday night audience in NFL history up to that point, and it ultimately did – Richie and Bratton decided a postgame prayer would be most effective.

“Pat and I thought, ‘People won’t see it before the game,’” Bratton said. “There will be no people in the stadium yet and the cameras won’t catch it. We’ll need to do it after. But where are we gonna do it?’”

Richie suggested the 40-yard line, closest to the scoreboard in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. Bratton thought the 50-yard line would be more memorable and less confusing, but he agreed to the 40.

“Although we play for different teams and have different uniforms on, we are one family when it comes to our beliefs and being part of God’s family.” — Benjamin Watson

Though they played in separate divisions on opposite sides of the country, the Niners-Giants rivalry had been growing for years. During the 1986 playoffs, the Giants throttled San Francisco, 49-3, the worst defeat in franchise history. New York sent 49ers QB Joe Montana to the hospital in the process. In 1988, the Giants missed the playoffs due to a tiebreaker after the 49ers lost their season finale. Some Giants accused the Niners of letting that game go so it would keep their rivals out of the postseason.

Thus, viewers were hoping for an intense battle the night of Dec. 3, 1990. They were not disappointed. Viewers hoping for a high-scoring affair, however, were. The game was extremely competitive and close, but the only scoring took place in the second quarter: a Matt Bahr field goal for the Giants, followed by a Montana TD pass to John Taylor for the Niners. San Francisco’s 7-3 win was the lowest-scoring MNF game ever at that point.

“When the game was over, I watched to see if anybody was actually going to do this (prayer),” Richie said. “I looked out to see this massive crowd at the 40-yard line. I couldn’t believe how many people were out there!”

What he didn’t realize at first glance, though, was that the crowd had gathered for what almost became a brawl. Niners safety Ronnie Lott and Giants quarterback Phil Simms had exchanged words before the game, then during, and continued afterward. They had to be pulled apart by teammates right at midfield – just yards away from where a small group had formed to pray.

“I thought, ‘This isn’t gonna happen,’” Richie said. But sure enough, it did.

“The confrontation was being captured on news cameras at the 40, and then they panned over to see a few players on their knees, praying together,” Bratton said.

Initially the circle consisted only of San Francisco players: Brent Jones, Ron Lewis, Guy McIntyre, Bubba Paris, Steve Wallace and Dave Waymer. “But within 10 seconds, two of the Giants players (Cross and Reyna Thompson) ran over and joined the prayer huddle. That was the first time the postgame prayer huddle ever happened,” Richie said.

Bratton will never forget the phone call he received a couple days later. Watson Spoelstra, the founder of Baseball Chapel, saw the huddle on TV and told him, “That’s the coolest thing that could ever happen in pro sports.”

“In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will.” – Ephesians 1:11

***

Despite the loss and chaos that surrounded them during the postgame prayer circle, Giants players huddled to honor God the next week too, and the next, and after nearly every week the rest of the season. Bratton would contact the opposing teams’ chaplains with the same proposal to pray. Week after week, the chaplains found players who agreed to gather in prayer with their opponents after competing.

“We only missed one game that year since we started,” Bratton said, “and that was against Buffalo, on December 15th. Afterwards, I looked at the team and we thought, ‘We may get a chance to rectify that.’ Sure enough, that’s what happened.”

The Giants found themselves facing the Bills again in Super Bowl XXV, which turned out to be one of the most memorable in history. During a particularly patriotic time in the U.S. due to the onset of the Persian Gulf War, the night began with Whitney Houston performing perhaps the greatest rendition ever of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And after a tight, back-and-forth contest, the Giants emerged with a 20-19 victory following kicker Scott Norwood’s “wide right” miss on a 47-yard game-winning attempt.

Amidst the drama, Giants and Bills players convened one last time that season on the 50 for a postgame prayer huddle.

Members of the New York Giants and the Buffalo Bill pray together after the Super Bowl in Tampa, Sunday, Jan. 27, 1991. (AP Photo/Craig Fujii)

But not everyone was thrilled about the players’ public display of faith. Just weeks after the Super Bowl, Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly ripped the Giants for praying, comparing postgame huddles and sideline prayers with German Nazis displaying badges reading, “God is with us.”

Then in March, the NFL imposed a non-fraternization rule. Players on opposing teams were not allowed to hug or shake the hand of another player after the game. Such an act could result in fines up to $25,000 for those involved.

“We knew this was targeted at the postgame prayer,” Richie said. “I thought to myself, ‘With all the problems in the NFL, if they fine these guys for praying after the game, they’re nuts!’”

As the 1991 season approached, many wondered if the postgame prayer would resurface in light of the NFL’s apparent opposition. But wouldn’t you know who opened the season against each other? The Giants and 49ers, again on Monday Night Football. On Sept. 2, the rivals played another close, competitive game, with the Giants taking this one, 16-14.

“After the game … I looked over and saw Steve Wallace (offensive lineman for the 49ers), who started to walk towards the locker room, then he zigged toward the huddle, and then zagged toward the locker room, then again towards the huddle,” Richie recalled. “…He went over to pray.”

A group of five Giants (Cross, Thompson, Zeke Mowatt, William Roberts, John Washington) and one 49er (Wallace) gathered at the 50, brothers in Christ locking arms in the face of the NFL fraternization rule. The players were watched closely as their desire to live out their faith outweighed the threat of a fine – especially after ABC’s announcers pointed them out.

“By the way, gentlemen, that little grouping we’re getting there at midfield, this was supposed to be taboo this year. A prayer,” Dan Dierdorf said on air.

“I’d hate to be the guy to say that’s taboo,” Frank Gifford said.

“Really, really,” Dierdorf said in agreement.

“I walked up to Steve afterwards and I said, ‘Steve, I’m really proud of you.’ He put his arm around me, looked at me with a smile and said, ‘If they fine me, you’re in big trouble,’” Richie said.

Neither the players nor chaplains knew what would be the result of their stand against the non-fraternization rule, but they acted in faith. Faith-based organizations and ministries contacted Richie in support, offering to defend him all the way to court if need be. But no fine was ever levied.

“I was a little nervous for them,” Richie said. “But one of the great things about working with athletes is that they are incredibly courageous. They will take a bullet for their faith.”

The prayer circle has carried on ever since, and the movement spread outside the NFL. Two years after the first NFL postgame huddle, about 90 college players gathered at the 50-yard line after the Rose Bowl game.

“Seeing that, I thought, ‘Wow, look at what these guys started,” Richie said.

Soon, Richie began to receive emails and letters from teams of all sports from around the world who were gathering to pray at the end of their games. Bratton also received messages from youth coaches in his hometown who had adopted the tradition in their leagues, saying, “If the pros can do it, why can’t we?”

“To see the impact that these huddles made completely humbled me,” Bratton said. “To know that my hometown had been touched by what the Giants were doing was inspiring. … This was just God touching a man’s life through a ‘shower moment.’ That guy picked up the phone to call another guy who had a similar dream to see players gather to pray. Who knew that God would use this Monday night game as an opportunity to start all this?”

The postgame prayer is so ingrained in the culture of the NFL now that players just know to head to the 50-yard line. And the rookies learn. Benjamin Watson, a tight end for the Baltimore Ravens, said he just followed the veterans when he came into the league. Now, he’s among those leading the prayer.

“It’s either a chaplain from the home team or a player from the home team that usually leads the prayer,” Watson recently told Jason Romano on the Sports Spectrum Podcast. “Sometimes you have five guys, sometimes you have up to 25 guys that are kneeling, holding hands, embracing and just praying and thanking the Lord for the opportunity to play this game, for the platform that we have. Praying for our families while we’re away from them, praying for safe travels for the visiting team going back, praying for those who have been injured, lifting each other up for the rest of the season and encouraging each other. Simply displaying that although we work for different teams, we play for different teams and have different uniforms on, we are one family when it comes to our beliefs and being part of God’s family.”

That all started with a calling put on the hearts of two people, whom God positioned to be instrumental in the lives of NFL players. As they answered that call, God went to work.

“The prayer huddle has nothing to do with wins and losses,” Bratton said. “It is about players expressing their thanks to God for their ability to play the game. It’s a time of worship where opponents gather and acknowledge their brotherhood and common faith in Jesus Christ.”

“Who will not fear You, Lord, and bring glory to Your name? For You alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before You, for Your righteous acts have been revealed.” – Psalm 115:1

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