Football is a great sport – so great that fans of other games have stolen its name, as if they could thereby borrow its splendour and glory. I am talking, of course, about American football, that brutal game played by 11 men on the gridiron, except in depopulated small towns where Americans unwilling to let go of their ancestral traditions field teams of six.

I was never any good at the sport. I played various positions in the middle-school squad of the O’Neill Eagles, the worst team in the Nebraska Sandhills. I remember vividly every touchdown we scored. (We scored very few.) I remember the hits I took less distinctly. (I took very many.)

On Fridays in the autumn, the whole town would gather in the bleachers, hands over hearts for The Star-Spangled Banner, heads bowed for a paternoster at the 50-yard line, roaring with excitement when the boys scored, gravely silent but unsurprised when one was carried off on a stretcher.

On Thursday mornings students would gather in the home economics room for meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Coach would tell us about spiritual battle against demons, using roughly the same terms he used to describe our contests against the Gothenburg Swedes or the Broken Bow Indians. He reminded us that we wrestled not against flesh and blood.

When St Paul boasted, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith,” he presented the Christian life as both a race and a battle. Football combines the two to a unique degree. Here is the sudden exhilaration of a runner being chased down an open field. There is the wonderful dread of two lines crashing together.

A running back fleeing a tackler does what we must do when faced with temptation. A lineman who spends dreary days in the weightroom so he can overwhelm his opponent on the field of glory gives us a lesson in spiritual combat.

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