By Rob Maaddi
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. — Proverbs 27:17
Eight and a half hours before kickoff for Super Bowl LII, members of the Philadelphia Eagles got ready for the biggest game of their lives with an intimate celebration of their love for Jesus Christ. About 20 players gathered in the offensive meeting room at the team hotel for a worship service organized by Carson Wentz and Trey Burton. The underdog Eagles were set to play against the defending champion New England Patriots, one victory from finally capturing that elusive Vince Lombardi Trophy for the first time in franchise history and bringing it home to a city starving for a National Football League title. But for the guys in that conference room and a few others on the team, their relationship with Jesus was more important than winning football games.
Wentz, the franchise quarterback who was on his way to likely winning the league’s Most Valuable Player Award in only his second season before wrecking his left knee in Week 14, and Burton, the backup tight end who later that night would become a central figure in one of the greatest plays in sports history, had planned similar worship services over the past two seasons. Whenever the Eagles had free time on a Sunday morning because they were playing a game in late afternoon or at night, players held “church” at their hotel. It didn’t matter if they were playing against the woeful Cleveland Browns in September or trying to prevent the Patriots from winning their sixth ring. Getting together to praise God was the top priority for these brothers in Christ. The stakes just happened to be much higher on this frigid Sunday morning in Minnesota.
“Given the obvious fact that we’re not in church on Sundays, we’re always looking for ways to implement that,” Wentz told me a week after we did a faith event together at a Christian high school in New Jersey. I first asked him about Super Bowl morning on the limo ride home following that event. He didn’t think it was extraordinary because it was something the team always did together. I insisted it was pretty special, so he was happy to share some details.
“We would always have chapel the night before, but some guys wouldn’t always make it,” he continued. “It’s tough when you’re on the road and you have plans if you’re going out to dinner. So it’s really cool to have our own form of church service for anyone who could make it. It’s just normal for us. That was just what we did and what we knew.”
Community worship was part of the daily fabric of this team, similar to studying the playbook, watching film, working out, and practicing. On Monday nights, players gathered with their significant others for Bible study at a teammate’s house. On Thursday nights, they had Bible study for players at the practice facility with the team chaplain, Pastor Ted Winsley. On nights before games, they had a chapel service at the team hotel followed by prayer and fellowship in their rooms. Sometimes they had a guest speaker or musician. Before a Thursday night game against the Carolina Panthers in Week 6, Mack Brock, former lead singer for Elevation Worship, joined the players at the team hotel and led them in worship.
At the Super Bowl Sunday service, they spent the first 30-to-40 minutes watching videos of some of their favorite worship songs on the same projector screen used to watch game film during the week. Guys lifted their hands to the Lord, sang along to the powerful music, and focused their minds and hearts on what mattered most: serving their Savior, no matter what the outcome of the game.
Pastor Kyle Horner, founder of The Connect Church in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, followed with a 15-minute message of encouragement, reminding the players who God created them to be and how they could give him glory. Horner, a former college quarterback at Tennessee and Richmond, has a strong relationship with several players who go to his church.
“They just love Jesus and this is what they do,” Horner told me a few months later. “They’re not using Jesus as a crutch. They’re not coming just to get their religious fix on a Super Bowl morning. This is who they want to be, and they want to pray for their brothers and do this thing together. The power in it is them treating the Super Bowl just like any other game. They’re not trying to get God on their side. They’re not trying to do something to make God happy with them. Keeping God in the center of it all is who they are. That’s what enabled them to play the way they played.”
After Horner spoke, players broke into groups of two or three instead of their usual large prayer circle. They laid hands on and prayed over each other.
“I remember that being pretty cool that we got in small groups and prayed with and for each other out loud,” Wentz said. “It keeps God in the middle of it and strengthens the community as well where we’re not sitting there in church, listening, and leaving. We’re doing this together. We’re brothers in Christ, and that’s bigger than each of us.”
Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz, starting left guard Stefen Wisniewski, injured special teams captain Chris Maragos, injured star linebacker Jordan Hicks, and reserve wide receiver Marcus Johnson were among the players in the room that morning. Nick Foles couldn’t be there because he was in a meeting going over the final preparations for the game.
“Brothers in Christ, no matter what’s going on in your life, you have Jesus and you have each other, and that’s never gonna change,” Wisniewski had told me a few days before the game, when anticipation was running high. “God is with us no matter what, and if that’s real to you because you’re spending time with God every day, if that’s real to you because you’re spending time with your brothers in Christ, then no matter what you’re going through, you can still have joy, you can still have peace, and you can be more than a conqueror of any of your circumstances. That definitely helped this team and all the Christians on this team to persevere.”
Players were certainly excited to play against New England in the Super Bowl. To a man, every guy wanted to win, to take down Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the Patriots dynasty. Every kid dreams about winning a Super Bowl from the minute they step foot on a Pee Wee league field. These were big-time competitors playing on the grandest stage. They understood the significance of the game. But winning or losing the Super Bowl wasn’t going to define this group of men on the Philadelphia Eagles. Their identity wasn’t rooted in their accomplishments; it was found in Christ.
“Worshiping God is not what they do, it’s who they are, and that’s the difference between religion and what these guys have, and that’s a relationship with Jesus,” Horner said. “Who they are is building a lifestyle of worship for God whether on the field or off the field. I recognize in sports everybody has their own pregame ritual. For these guys, this service was more than that. It wasn’t just a pregame ritual. This was an intentional act of love, devotion, and choosing God first. When you’re talking about being on that platform, that level, the biggest platform ever, a billion people watching this game, it would’ve been easy for guys to skip it because they had chapel the night before. But for them, it was Sunday morning. This is who they are. This is what made the Eagles special.”
Taken from Birds of Pray: The Story of the Philadelphia Eagles’ Faith, Brotherhood, and Super Bowl Victory by Rob Maaddi. Foreword by Carson Wentz. Click here to learn more about this title.
They were the first No. 1 seed in NFL history to enter the playoffs as an underdog. Their star quarterback was out with a season-ending knee injury. Five-time Super Bowl champions the New England Patriots towered over them. But public opinion didn’t matter to the Philadelphia Eagles. They believed in each other. The band of Christian brothers on the team believed in the God of the impossible, and they played for an audience of One.
The most extensive book to explore the Christian faith shared by many of the team’s players, Birds of Pray details the incredible inside story behind the Eagles’ capture of the biggest prize in professional sports: the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Through exclusive interviews with the players, never-before-seen photos, and insider accounts of the miracle season’s most memorable moments, Philly native and Associated Press sportswriter Rob Maaddi reveals a side of the team the world has yet to fully witness.
From an impromptu baptism in the team’s cold tub to weekly Bible studies and pre-game prayers, to the unique friendship between star quarterback Carson Wentz and back-up-then-MVP Nick Foles, the Eagles excel in the unexpected. Birds of Pray follows the deep faith shared among players, the high stakes they faced together, and their relentless reliance on Christ who gives all strength in moments of crisis and celebration alike. The result is a boldly inspiring, entertaining read that will challenge you to go deeper in your faith, dream bigger, and live with renewed courage for whatever odds life stacks against you. Learn more at BirdsOfPrayBook.com.
Rob Maaddi is an author, radio and television personality and dynamic speaker who has covered Philadelphia sports for The Associated Press since 2000. A passionate Christian devoted to spreading the Gospel, Rob launched “Faith On The Field Show” on Philadelphia’s 610 ESPN radio in April 2017. Rob has written or co-written seven other books. Rob and his wife, Remy, have twin daughters: Alexia and Melina.