With a Bible in hand and the warmth of a concerned family member in his voice, Nick Martinez impressed upon Largo's football players to keep their hearts covered. The players, strewn on benches and the floor of the school's weight room, listened intently. "If you want to win out there, you've got to cover your heart," said Martinez, 27, the youth pastor at First Clearwater Assembly. "It's the same thing when you are not on the field. Everywhere you walk, you are tempted. Television. The Internet. There are real consequences to every decision and you could end up with a life of hurt. That's why you cover your heart."
From 1:55 p.m. to about 2 p.m. every Friday on game day, Martinez addresses the Packers football team with a life lesson. He's not preaching. He's trying to persuade the players to make sound life decisions beyond the gridiron. He's asking the young men to think about life's choices and their results.
"Don't let your life equal terrible pain because of peer pressure," Martinez said. "It's what you let in your heart that matters."
For about three years, Largo head coach Rick Rodriguez has invited a spiritual component to his pre-game ritual.
"I need for them to learn other parts of life, not just about football," Rodriguez said. "He (Martinez) talks about life issues that they deal with like peer pressure and how to deal with the pressures of life. He talks about another way to fulfill one's potential.
"I believe to have a good football program, there's more than the X's and O's, but what happens outside football with their life is just as important."
There are 10 private and public high schools in Pinellas County that have the voluntary chapels before games, said Pat Kavanagh, the county's representative for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or FCA, which coordinates the program. There's an FCA chapter at Largo High.
"We try to talk about subjects like teamwork, loyalty, trust," Kavanagh said. "All the things that coaches are trying to build with their teams."
Kavanagh stressed that the conversations are strictly voluntary for players.
"A lot of the coaches we work with are not Christians; they just think it's a good thing," Kavanagh said. "We don't just talk about the Bible. We talk about your teammates and the importance in having his back and not being cheaters and playing by the rules and with integrity."
Though the time Martinez spends with the Packers on Friday afternoons is short, he's says it's well worth it.
"Five minutes is better than nothing," Martinez said. "If the life lessons are taught to them, then they have a choice and that's something they have to make by themselves. I'm happy and prayerful that they will take what's being said to heart and begin to make changes for their future."
Justin Shaw, a Packers senior linebacker, said the talk "really lifts the team up before the game."
"It helps because we are faced with a lot at school and at home," Shaw said. "The things that are said do stick with you."
After Martinez encouraged the players to keep their hearts covered, they were asked to bow their heads. A Largo Packer then said a prayer asking that the players be granted strength to face that night's opponent.
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.