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Building faith with parables from football

Jesus would have made one heck of a linebacker.

The implausibility of that statement didn't seem to bother the audience of 300 men. After all, these are men, and we're talking football here. They were riveted.

And that's the point of a daylong seminar called Summer Training Camp, the brainchild of a National Football League assistant coach who seeks to meet the spiritual needs of men by mixing in a little of what they know best.

"We call it four quarters of faith and football," said Les Steckel, running backs coach for the Buffalo Bills who still lives near Nashville since a stint as offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans.

"The purpose for doing this is to bring men together," he said. "There are a lot of men that are really lost."

Summer Training Camp, held for the first time last month, grew out of the Tuesday Morning Quarterback class for men that Steckel teaches at Brentwood Baptist Church. Many participants weren't church members. His background in football was the draw.

"They say, "All I'm doing is working, working, working. I'm tired. I'm not getting any positive feedback or affirmation or attention. I'm lonely. You know what? When it gets right down to it, I'm angry about the whole thing.' "

Steckel, an assistant to Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney at the University of Colorado in 1991-92, doesn't think his event will reach the national level of Promise Keepers, which has attracted thousands of men to stadiums for emotional Christian uplift.

Summer Training Camp comes off as a less-frenzied cousin of Promise Keepers, with a solid focus on football as the sugar to help the medicine go down.

"It's to show a model of being a man, and a model of being involved in a marriage that's successful, and a model of being a good father," Steckel said.

The models at the first Summer Training Camp were Steckel, Nebraska receivers coach Ron Brown, Titans running backs coach Sherman Smith, Fellowship of Christian Athletes president Dal Shealy and Football Hall of Fame player and former NFL coach Raymond Berry. Former Titans wide receiver Chris Sanders made a brief speech.

"Just because I'm a Christian doesn't mean I have to walk around all meek and frail," Sanders said. "I hate to use this expression, but Jesus was no punk."

Brown said that Jesus would have made a great linebacker because someone who could go through crucifixion is tough enough to take a lot of punishment for the good of the team.

"He would put his heart and soul into every play," Brown said of Christ.

Brown stated the case against premarital sex: "Think of the Bible as the playbook," he said. "Before you are married, do not run that play. After you are married, run that play _ often."

Berry, who caught touchdown passes from Johnny Unitas for 13 seasons, talked ofalmost quitting his football career at its peak, comparing it to the story of Abraham and his son Isaac. God ordered Abraham to slaughter his son, then stopped him at the last second.

Likewise, Berry decided to quit football after getting religion, only to find a holy reprieve.

"I was set free from worshiping a false God," Berry said. "There wasn't anything wrong with wanting to play football. It was wrong to put it in first place."

Adam Helton, 28, a Nashville real estate agent, said he attended Summer Training Camp for "encouragement."

"I like football. This is helpful in getting fired up, you know, to walk with the Lord."

Steckel, 57, says his up-and-down coaching career puts him in a good position to offer advice to men about keeping perspective. He has helped two teams get to the Super Bowl as an offensive coordinator (the Titans in 2000 and the New England Patriots in 1985), and been fired more than once, including as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings after going 3-13 in 1984. He recently returned to the NFL with Buffalo after taking two seasons off to help coach his son's high school team.

"I was a driven man at one time, gratified only by accomplishments and the symbols of accomplishment," he said. "My attitude now is it's easy to live in the pressure cooker, and winning isn't everything.

"The thing I have a heart for is other lost men."

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