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When Trey Burton signed with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles as a rookie free agent in 2014, he could see divine fingerprints all over the deal.

At the time, Burton, an undrafted multipurpose offensive player, was looking for both an NFL team and a spiritual home. He and his two younger brothers had grown up in a single-parent family after his father had left when he was two weeks old. Burton attended a Christian academy in grade school and professed faith in kindergarten, but as he got older, worldly temptations kept getting the best of him. He lacked spiritual fruit.

During his junior year at the University of Florida, his girlfriend, Yesenia, handed him a positive pregnancy test. Shortly after they got married in December 2012, she gave birth to their first child. “We were embarrassed,” Burton says. “We were trying to do the right thing. But we made a mistake.”

Coming to Philadelphia was a game-changer for Burton. He quickly found a unique Christian fellowship of mature believers who were hungry for God’s word.

Backup quarterback Nick Foles, now in his sixth NFL season, and eighth-year special teams standout Chris Maragos were the veterans of the small yet dynamic cohort. Wide receiver Jordan Matthews (who was traded to the Buffalo Bills in August) came in as a 2014 rookie like Burton. Linebacker Jordan Hicks followed in 2015, and quarterback Carson Wentz, the second overall draft pick in 2016, joined the team last year. Tight end Zach Ertz, a second-round draft pick in 2013, fully committed to the group last season, too.

“Now I’m in Philly with a bunch of unbelievably strong men,” says Burton, who has settled into a tight end role in Philadelphia. “I’m surrounded by a ton of good people, and I can be who God created me to be.”

"Rather, train yourself for Godliness." (1 Timothy 4:7)

Bible studies are common throughout the National Football League. What distinguishes the Eagles’ group is the players’ uncompromising pursuit of biblical truth, deep theology, genuine accountability, and gospel-fueled charity. They’re not interested in status-quo spirituality.

Plenty of NFL players attend weekly chapel services, ink their bodies with Bible verses, and point heavenward after scoring. But rarely do their voices flicker with excitement when they discuss God’s word, like the players in the Eagles’ group. They go beyond surface-level Bible study and immerse themselves in the intricacies and contextual nuances of Scripture. Relying on Logos Bible Software, they peruse biblical commentaries and examine keywords in Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek. They also explore the ancient world of the Bible visually, using interactive features and other media in Logos.

The Eagles have had a Bible study since at least the early 1990s, when most of the current members were in diapers or not even born. Things really took off once Foles arrived as a rookie in 2012 and worked with teammates to get more player buy-in.

“This group is, without a doubt, extremely unique,” Maragos says. “This is my third team in eight years, and the reason why it’s super-unique is because we have so many solid leaders and guys who are well-versed in the word. These guys are willing to get out in the community and share the gospel, serve each other around the [team] facility, and be invested in each other’s lives on a daily basis.”

“Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” (1 Timothy 4:13)

A professional football player’s life is highly regimented.  So it comes naturally to the Christians on the Eagles to schedule Bible study and fellowship as part of their weekly routines.

During offseason training activities this past May and June, the group would arrive at the Eagles’ complex in south Philadelphia at 8 a.m. and spend 45 minutes studying the book of Acts. Tuesdays featured a short sermon from the team chaplain. On Wednesdays, they studied a few more chapters in Acts. On Thursdays, they discussed the book Jesus is Greater Than Religion, by author and blogger Jefferson Bethke.

Once training camp began in July, their time for studying together became more limited. They gathered for post-practice prayer as much as possible and aimed to meet otherwise at least once a week. On a good week, they’d hold a Bible study for couples at someone’s house on Monday nights and another study just for players on Thursday nights. Then on Saturday nights, the group would meet in someone’s hotel room to discuss their personal Bible studies.

“We love the word,” Burton says. “We could talk about it all day long.”

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Studying the Bible—both privately and corporately—is particularly important for NFL players, who miss at least 30 percent of Sunday morning church services each year due to their profession. But there is also an inherent danger for athletes to rely on others—chaplains, mentors, pastors on podcasts, and so on—to bring Scripture to them because of their busy schedules and lack of church involvement during the season.

“A lot of times, people are going to pastors and religious leaders instead of going to God’s word,” Burton says. “You hear stories where people revolve around pastors, and that’s not the way it should be. It should be around God’s word. You won’t understand it until you open it up.”

“But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:2)

Everyone is busy these days. But NFL players face particular challenges when it comes to making time for God’s word, especially once training camp begins. That’s why most of the Christians on the Eagles try to do their personal devotions before they leave the house.

As the Eagles’ starting quarterback, Wentz is used to early mornings and late nights. Such is life at the NFL’s premier position. Few players put in more hours of practice, meetings, and film study. So Wentz uses his spare time wisely. He often listens to Christian podcasts during his 30-minute drive to and from the team’s training facility. If he has a 20-minute break between meetings, he tries to avoid social media and instead finds a quiet spot to read the Bible. “It really comes down to prioritizing things,” he says.

Likewise, Maragos often makes Bible study happen on the fly during the season. “I get to the facility, get some food in me, and it’s reading things on the go rather than sitting down,” he says. “Sometimes, I’m reading things in the hot tub or reading an audio Bible or a sermon podcast during a stretching routine.”

Foles might win the award for pure willpower. If he has to be at the team facility at 6 a.m., he wakes up at 4 to pray and read Scripture before leaving the house. If he needs to arrive at 4, he sets the alarm for—gulp—2 a.m. “My wife thinks I’m crazy at times, but I’ve got to get up before the day gets going,” says Foles, who is taking online seminary classes through Liberty University. “It doesn’t have meaning if I don’t get it going before then. Selfish desires creep in if I haven’t humbled myself daily.”

Once he’s up, Foles takes a cue from the Beach Boys’ playlist and seeks good vibrations. Sufficiently caffeinated by his pre-dawn cup of joe, he hops on a vibration plate—a 2x2-foot pad that emits 30 pulsations per second, to stimulate his body. There, he does his morning devotions as drowsiness is slowly and electronically evicted from his body. “So I’m getting my body ready to play,” he says, “along with my spirit and mind.”

Then there’s Burton. For the father of three kids, ages 4 and under, the how and when of personal Bible study often boil down to flexibility, perseverance, and a bit of sheer resourcefulness. “Sometimes,” he says, “I even go into my closet just to get away—just to allow the Spirit to speak and reveal himself.”

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105)

Most Christians have a favorite Scripture verse, or at least one that is especially meaningful to them at certain moments in life. The Eagles’ Bible study members are no different.

Maragos counts Romans 8, which many consider Scripture’s apex, as well as Matthew 6 and Psalm 91 among his go-to passages. Burton has adopted Jeremiah 29:13 as his “life-verse”: “A lot of people know verses 10-12, but verse 13 says, ‘You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.’ Man, that’s my life. I was one foot in, one foot out [before getting married].”

Wentz often meditates on Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” “My life motto is ‘AO1’—‘Audience of One,’” he says. “That resonates with me for everything I do. It’s an audience of the Lord—not for the world, not for fans. It stems from Colossians 3:23. I’ve been given a gift, but I’m going to work at it with all my heart for the Lord.”

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For Foles, 2 Corinthians 12:9 has been very encouraging recently. In 2013, his nascent career was looking quite promising after he threw for 2,891 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, and only two interceptions in 13 games. But following an off-year in 2014, the Eagles traded him to the St. Louis Rams. Around that time, his wife was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome and then Lyme disease.

He considered retirement, but instead he took what he calls a “leap of faith” and signed for the 2016 season with Kansas City, where he said God “revitalized me” even though he only saw action in three games. In March, Foles signed a two-year deal to return to the Eagles.

Through it all, Foles was buoyed by the Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

“It would take days and a book to go through what God has done in my life,” Foles says.

“All Scripture is breathed out by God.” (2 Timothy 3:16)

Matthews and his fiancée are currently reading through the whole Bible together, an endeavor that has opened his eyes to God’s overarching plan of salvation through Christ. Through careful study, he has seen how difficult Old Testament books such as Leviticus—which can sound a bit archaic to the novice Bible reader—all fit into redemptive history thanks to the gospel. “I didn’t get that before, but now I understand,” he says. “I wonder how many other believers need to know these verses.”

Maragos shares the same perspective. Although he hasn’t read the Bible cover to cover, he says the most surprising thing to him is “how everything in the Old Testament is in line with the New Testament. You start looking at all the different parallels and Jesus coming, and it all ties in. It’s super-cool to see God’s redemptive story throughout.”

Foles completed a Bible-in-a-year plan in 2016. While the exercise was unequivocally rewarding, he’s a fan of moving slowly through Scripture, even if only a handful of verses at a time, to understand the inspired author’s original intent. His Genesis-to-Revelation experience taught him “that there’s a lifelong journey of information in [the Bible], and that I really see how [theologians can] study one book.”

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

God’s word never calls Christians to a life of inertia. So the Eagles’ believers are using their scriptural wisdom to fulfill the Great Commission. They begin with the lockers next to theirs.

“I know lot of guys who aren’t saved, and they ask lot of questions,” Burton says. “It’s a key component of Bible study: ‘Who in the locker room wants to know more? Who can we talk to?’ We’re planning next steps.”

The players also think regionally and globally. Hicks and Maragos help with homeless organizations in the Philadelphia area. In May, Matthews and Wentz traveled to Haiti on a relief mission. Foles works with the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance, which fights child trafficking and sexual abuse. Burton partners with International Justice Mission, an organization with similar global aims.

“Giving and tithing are easy,” Foles says. “I not only want to do that, but I want to have my hands in it and do things. Doing things in Jesus’ name has been the thing for scriptural study.”

“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)

Playing in the NFL doesn’t offer much in the way of job security. The average career is 3.3 years, according to the NFL Players Association. Injuries, trades, cuts, and free agency all make for frequent roster changes across the league. In August, just after the Eagles’ first preseason game, Matthews was traded to the Buffalo Bills. His sudden departure hit the team hard, especially his partners in faith.

“On the personal side, it’s tough,” Wentz told EPSN the day after the trade was announced. “This is my first time experiencing this with someone that’s one of my best friends. Seeing him yesterday, it’s tough on him, too.”

Knowing that transitions can come at any moment, the players are grateful for the brief time they’ll share together. They know that—just like NFL contracts—nothing is fully guaranteed. The only thing that’s certain is God’s word.

“It’s such a unique time in our lives,” Foles says. “We know it won’t last much longer because we know how the world works. We know we’ll eventually be separated, but it won’t matter because we’ll share with other people—and they’ll go spread the word and it will continue.”

 
Joshua Cooley is the children’s minister at Chapel Hill Bible Church in North Carolina and a former sports writer and editor. He has authored or contributed to eight books, including The One Year Devotions With Jesus and Heroes of the Bible Devotional. He is currently writing a book about the intersection of faith and sports featuring the Eagles players mentioned in this story (New Growth Press).

Joshua Cooley is the children’s minister at Chapel Hill Bible Church in North Carolina and a former sports writer and editor. He has authored or contributed to eight books, including The One Year Devotions With Jesus and Heroes of the Bible Devotional. He is currently writing a book about the intersection of faith and sports featuring the Eagles players mentioned in this story (New Growth Press).


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