The stunning tale of New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin’s overnight transformation from NBA benchwarmer into superstar has become an international phenomenon, with each day bringing new revelations about the Taiwanese-American player. The latest news to emerge: Lin is a devout Christian, and he’s now being dubbed the “Taiwanese Tebow” by some, in reference to Denver Broncos quarterback — and fellow Christian — Tim Tebow. Two such high-profile and devout Christian athletes sparking media frenzies in a matter of a few months probably has some evangelical Christians and non-believers alike wondering if the end times are at hand. But Tebow and Lin certainly aren’t the first athletes to make news for their evangelical beliefs. Here, in no particular order, are 10 notable sports figures from recent years who have openly expressed their Christian faith.
10. Jeremy Lin
No one — not Michael Jordan, not Kobe Bryant, not Lebron James — no one in the past generation has exploded on the NBA scene the way Jeremy Lin did in February 2012. The 6-3 New York Knicks guard scored 89 points in his first three games as a starter, 109 in his first four starts and 136 in his first five starts, the most for any NBA player in the past 35 years. He’s been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine and become a multimillion-dollar brand name. All this from a player who went undrafted in 2010 coming out of Harvard, bounced around between three NBA teams and the minor leagues and slept on the couch in his brother’s apartment before being unexpectedly thrust into the Knicks starting lineup because of injuries. Some players might have trouble adjusting to the rise from obscurity to sports royalty in a matter of days, but Lin says his background as a Christian helps him maintain balance in his life. Immediately after his first big game, Lin called his longtime pastor to talk about how he’d been blessed. In the many interviews Lin has conducted during his meteoric rise, his evangelical beliefs have been a constant theme. As he told the MercuryNews.com, “There is so much temptation to hold on to my career even more now,” Lin said. “To try to micromanage and dictate every little aspect. But that’s not how I want to do things anymore. I’m thinking about how can I trust God more. How can I surrender more? How can I bring him more glory?”
9. Mariano Rivera
Widely regarded as the best relief pitcher in baseball history, the New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera gave his life to Jesus in his early 20s. Rivera can frequently be found reading the Bible in the Yankees clubhouse, and he even has a Biblical verse (Phil. 4:13) inscribed on his glove: “I can do all things through Christ who is strengthening me.” Off the field, the pitcher’s Mariano Rivera Foundation, a faith-based initiative, helps poor youths in the U.S. and in Rivera’s native Panama.
8. Albert Pujols
After becoming an icon with the St. Louis Cardinals the past dozen years, the 32-year-old slugger signed a 10-year, $254 million contract in the offseason with the Los Angeles Angels. One of the greatest hitters in baseball history, Pujols fully realizes there’s more to life than baseball. This message is prominently displayed on Pujols’ charity website, PujolsFamilyFoundation.org: “My life’s goal is to bring glory to Jesus. My life is not mostly dedicated to the Lord, it is 100% committed to Jesus Christ and His will. God has given me the ability to succeed in the game of baseball. But baseball is not the end; baseball is the means by which my wife, Dee Dee, and I glorify God.” Any questions?
7. David Robinson
Robinson committed his life to Jesus on June 8, 1991. By then, the 7-foot, 1-inch center was already an NBA superstar, but despite the fame and fortune, he found himself feeling empty inside. Robinson said being saved gave his life and career new purpose. As he told Sports Illustrated in 1996, “I’m not playing for the fans or the money, but to honor God.” Robinson won two NBA championships with the San Antonio Spurs and entered the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. During his induction speech, Robinson mentioned a story from Luke, then concluded his speech with this: “God has followed me in my career and he has blessed me and he has strengthened me and he has encouraged me and anybody who knows me or anybody who has watched me, you have seen his hand in my life. And my prayer is that he will walk with you as he has walked with me all through my life.”
6. Curt Schilling
Curt Schilling’s heroics in the Boston Red Sox’ incredible run to the 2004 World Series championship will live forever in baseball lore. Pitching on an injured ankle in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, Schilling’s white sock became soaked with blood, yet he persevered to win the game. But how many remember Schilling’s proclamation of faith after that performance, when he noted, “Tonight was God’s work on the mound.” Schilling, who retired in 2009, has continued to be outspoken about his faith as a born-again Christian in recent years.
5. Reggie White
On the football field Reggie White was a frightening figure to opposing defenses, a defensive end who set a record for the most career sacks and was named NFL All-Pro 13 times in his 15 seasons. Yet his popular nickname, “The Minister of Defense,” referred to his standing as an ordained evangelical minister, and at 6 foot, 5 inches, he cut an imposing figure behind the pulpit. He freely shared his faith with teammates and opponents, and authored the books, Reggie White: Minister of Defense and Reggie White: In the Trenches. White died in 2004 at age 43, of complications resulting from sleep apnea.
4. George Foreman
George Foreman has reinvented himself several times in his life, going from two-time world heavyweight boxing champion (76-5 career record) to entrepreneur (the George Foreman Grill) to actor and author. But his biggest conversion came in 1977, when he became a born-again Christian, with some help from noted evangelist Dr. Robert Schuller. Foreman recounts his conversion in his 2007 book, God in My Corner: A Spiritual Memoir. Today, Foreman preaches at The Church of Lord Jesus Christ in Houston.
3. Joe Gibbs
He’s not an athlete, but any list of Christians in professional sports would be incomplete without Gibbs. The man who coached the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl championships — and later won three championships as a NASCAR team owner — embraced Christianity at the age of 9. Today, at age 71, he remains a much-sought-after religious and motivational speaker, and has written several books on his faith. He also hosts a website, GamePlanForLife.com, with advice on how to live a faith-based life.
2. Kurt Warner
Jeremy Lin’s improbable rags-to-riches story pales in comparison to the rise of Kurt Warner to NFL fame. Failing to catch on in the NFL after college, Warner worked as a grocery stock clerk before a turn of events thrust him into the starting quarterback position with the St. Louis Rams in 1999. Warner became the story of the year in the NFL, throwing 41 touchdown passes and leading the Rams to victory in the Super Bowl, in which he was named MVP. Following the game, when asked about his final touchdown pass, Warner said, “Well, first things first, I’ve got to thank my Lord and Savior up above — thank you, Jesus!”
Warner won the NFL Most Valuable Player Award that year, and again in 2001, but later hit a rocky career patch that eventually landed him in Phoenix, where he led the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2009. Although Warner and the Cardinals lost the game to Pittsburgh, he noted in a postgame interview, “There’s one reason that I’m standing up on this stage today. That’s because of my Lord up above. I’ve got to say thanks to Jesus, you knew I was going to do it, but I’ve got to do it. “ Warner retired in 2010, and he and his wife, Brenda, remain active in Christian causes, including their First Things First Foundation, which ministers to people in extreme need.
1. Tim Tebow
Some of the other athletes on this list are almost universally beloved in the sports world, despite publicly proclaiming their Christian faith. But there is just something about Tim Tebow that has turned the young quarterback into a target for criticism. For whatever reason, be it his practice of Tebowing, or bowing on the field in prayer, his well-known vow of celibacy, his acknowledgement of faith in interviews, even a controversial anti-abortion commercial he appeared in with his mother, Tebow has attracted many critics, and they are very outspoken. Even some NFL players are targeting him — after a Detroit Lions linebacker sacked Tebow in a game last year, he knelt to mock the quarterback’s Tebowing posture.
Tebow told ESPN First Take in late 2011 he has no plans to limit his expressions of faith: “If you’re married, and you have a wife, and you really love your wife, is it good enough to only say to your wife, I love her, the day you get married? Or should you tell her every single day when you wake up and have the opportunity? And that’s how I feel about my relationship with Jesus Christ.”