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UNC Athletes Pray Before Games, Take Faith to Fields

"I started bringing my Bible to the locker room and would read one or two of my favorite verses or a verse someone had given me to encourage me before games or at halftime," the senior said. "Or I would say a simple prayer."

He didn't always say his prayers alone.

Norkus, who is involved in Athletes in Action, Campus Crusade for Christ and Fellowship of Christian Athletes, said he and his teammates often prayed together before games.

It's a common event for an athletic team to have such huddles before competition. So common, in fact, that most observers probably don't give them a second thought. Religion has been intertwined with sports so frequently that sometimes the two seem to go hand in hand.

But early this season, Norkus said, one of the team's assistant coaches asked the men's soccer players not to have team prayers anymore.

"We went to pray like our first game, and our assistant coach came up and said, 'Not everyone is down with this. Let's not make anyone uncomfortable,'" Norkus said.

Norkus understood the point the coach -- who is out of town this week on a recruiting trip and could not be reached for comment -- was trying to make. "I don't really think that guys are against it," Norkus said. "I just think they're not all for it. So it's kind of like if you're not all for it then you're maybe not comfortable with it. And I've been in that place definitely."

So they stopped.

Other teams at the University continue to pray. Infielder Sarah Young usually leads the softball team in prayer before heading out on the field for a game -- a ritual the junior said was in place before she arrived from Annandale, Va.

Outfielder Adam Greenberg said UNC coach Mike Fox leads the baseball team in prayer before games.

But at a public university, not everyone is religious. Not everyone who is religious is Christian.

Just ask Greenberg.

"I believe what I believe, and I'm not going to make an issue out of that," the sophomore said. "Being the only Jewish person on this team, a lot of people are kind of fascinated by it, and they ask me questions about it."

Greenberg said the team prayers don't bother him because he's used to being a minority, and nothing is being forced upon him. He removes his cap and bows his head, like everyone else, out of respect. "For me, I can just let it go over my head," he said.

Young, who spent two weeks in Mexico two summers ago playing softball and doing Christian missionary work, said she doesn't think the team prayers she leads are a problem on the softball squad.

"Because it's led by us and it's not enforced by the University at all, I don't think there's any kind of issue," she said.

But the reminders of religion in sports go beyond team prayers.

Organizations such as Athletes in Action use sports to help spread their religious messages. Norkus said he sometimes kneeled and quickly said "thank you" to God after scoring a goal.

Some baseball players give the sign of the cross as they step into the batter's box. Ronald Curry points to the sky after throwing a touchdown pass. Sometimes athletes mention their religious convictions in media interviews.

Such references in the press also became an issue on the men's soccer team this past season.

"This year when we started being ranked No. 1, our coaches were talking to us about what we needed to be saying: 'Kind of keep your religion to yourself in the interviews,'" Norkus said. "And I understood because the team is first. But if I got the chance, I wanted people to know what I stood for and what I was playing for."

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Some might wonder why the connection between religion and sports is so strong, particularly because not all athletes share the same beliefs. Does someone who says a prayer before competition have an advantage over someone who doesn't?

"Good or bad, I feel like I'm still out there playing my heart out because (God's) giving me the chance to be out there," Young said after a game Saturday. "I'm not going to always play well. I'm going to make dumb errors like I did in that last inning and look stupid."

Young said her prayers are mostly about giving thanks for the opportunity to play and giving God the glory of the team's efforts. She believes it gives her an advantage but doesn't determine winners and losers.

"I don't think (God) necessarily works that way -- like a little drop box and here (are) my requests," she said.

Norkus also said he ties his religious beliefs into soccer because he dedicates his efforts to God.

Folded in half inside his wallet is an old yellow Post-it note with a message that his mother, Becky, wrote on it for him. The paper is worn and dirty, and the words are a little smudged, but Norkus carries the note with him as a reminder.

"Your talent is God's gift to you," it reads. "What you do with it is your gift back to God."

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