Challenge SPORT

By Caitlin Chodakowsky

AFL favourites against the grain

“Australians typically wince when someone publicly mentions God”

Andrew Swallow
Kangaroos captain Andrew Swallow

Some AFL greats are publically declaring their faith in Jesus despite the norms of our sporting culture.

Australia and footy go hand in hand but when it comes to the Christian faith it has always been more of an American thing to pray to God before a big game.

Despite this, sports writer Michael Gleeson wrote an interesting article last year for The Age about AFL's growing band of religious players and their boldness in going public with their beliefs.

AFL players Gary Ablett, Zac Smith, Aaron Hall, Andrew Swallow and Jonathan Giles were among some of the boys Gleeson highlighted as going against the grain with their bold Christian faith, stating, "Australians typically wince when someone publicly mentions God".

He adds that Gold Coast captain Gary Ablett made some people uneasy in their seats during his speech on Brownlow night back in 2013 after his second win.

"I want to thank God because without Him I wouldn't be up here tonight," he said, adding to this bold public statement with frequent Biblical references, links and Christian Youtube clips on his social media pages.

Gary Abbett
Gold Coast Suns captain Gary Abbett is a dual Brownlow medallist

On one occasion Ablett posted a photo on social media of himself praying with Gold Coast teammates Aaron Hall and Zac Smith accompanied by scripture from 1 Corinthians chapter 10 verse 31, "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."

The picture attracted more than 1600 likes on Instagram and 86 retweets on his Twitter account.

When Smith was asked about this public display of his faith – praying with Ablett and Hall before each game – he affirmed that he too was "a man of God".

"I trust in Jesus every day just to help me through," Smith explained to Gleeson.

"It's just our group but we invite others in, it's open to anyone ... We love it, that's why we do it. We just love having that relationship with Jesus."

Along with prayer, Smith, Ablett and Hall formed their own "Life Group" where they could meet regularly and invite others in to talk about life, their struggles and, according to Smith, "to encourage each other in our faith."

These footy boys are not the only ones passionate about their Christian faith.

North Melbourne captain Andrew Swallow adds his support saying, "People are so passionate about football, why can't we be passionate about our God?"

When asked about his beliefs, Swallow explained, "Yes, I am religious but I don't like the term religious because of the connotations it has. I am a spiritual person. Christians believe Jesus died for my sins.

"For me it gives me great grounding and a sense of purpose and destiny and that allows me to go and do what I do. All the guys know I go to church and do all that but I don't stand around bashing them with it. Hopefully they see it through me and they are drawn to it within me and the boys are always asking questions."

Jonathan Giles
Essendon ruckman Jonathan Giles formerly played for Greater Western Sydney

Essendon player Jonathan Giles also attends a Christian church regularly or makes a plan to spend quite time alone with God when playing interstate.

"I downloaded a couple of Easter services to my laptop and watched them on the plane and in my hotel room," he shares about one past experience.

Port Adelaide coaching director and former Brisbane Lions player Shaun Hart also identifies himself as a church-going Christian and described a metaphoric connection to Gleeson between faith and team sport.

Gleeson writes, "Football preaches an ethos of team first, self as second; of worrying for teammates more than yourself ... 'We are in this together,' Hart said. 'At Port Adelaide it is team first, self as second, and that is a very similar theme to faith. There is a strong parallel there'."

These footy players are not the only professional Aussie sportspeople to risk their image in revealing a confident faith in the God of the Bible publically.

Yet, if AFL is the epitome of Aussie sporting culture, Gleeson has cottoned-on to a shift in thinking.

It is clear Christianity is not an outdated, dying religion for the old folk but a dynamic, thriving relationship with Jesus that has got even our sporting heroes passionate about sharing.

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