"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Bowl XLII: superstition or apologetics?

As a New Yorker by upbringing, one who wishes he could still afford to live there, I only get interested in pro football when the Giants make the playoffs. As a wild-card team this year, they made the most thrilling run through the playoffs in NFL history, culminating in their improbable 17-14 victory over the hitherto-invincible Patriots last Sunday. For me, that's made an otherwise tough winter bearable. But as one who is usually more interested in the theological significance of temporal things than in the things themselves, I can't help asking about the role of divine providence in the key offensive play that effectively won them the game: David Tyree's crucial pass catch with less than two minutes left.

You can watch the play here:

Now if you don't know the personal background, that play seems like nothing more than an outstanding play. Quarterback Eli Manning slipped what was shaping up as a clear sack and threw right down the middle of the field to a receiver who was well covered by more than one defender. Tyree leapt over the closest defender, snared the ball away from him, and secured it against his own helmet as he fell. The resulting first down in Patriots' territory is what set up the winning touchdown pass. So, Tyree's catch was the key play of a remarkable game. But is that all it was?

Consider that Tyree had caught very few passes all year and that his mother had recently died. Indeed, one teammate of his marvelled at the improbability of such a catch by a player who "had been dropping passes" all day Friday in practice. Now consider this:

Over the past six weeks, Tyree had experienced a near-univeral emotional low and a high that few will ever know. Until Sunday, Tyree was most often described in the New York papers as "a special teams standout." In the Super Bowl, he was Eli Manning's most important target, having not only made the crucial third down catch that gave the Giants an opportunity to score on that last drive, but also having scored a touchdown earlier in the quarter to put the Giants ahead. Just before Christmas, he missed a crucial game on December 16 against the Washington Redskins because his mother died.

Moments after he watched his son accept the Vince Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl Champions and the individual honor of Super Bowl MVP, Archie Manning took a back elevator from a luxury suite to the locker room with his wife and eldest son, Cooper. The former NFL standout told his wife that he saw divine intervention in Tyree's remarkable reception. "I think his mother was looking out for him today," Manning said. She nodded her head in agreement.

It's easy to dismiss that sort of observation as superstitious, post-game hyperbole. That's pretty much always been my take on bringing God into sports to explain victories and defeats. And why not? We ought to hesitate to believe that God is on our side even in wartime, if that belief means he's not very much on the side of every human being, including our enemies. We should be all the more hesitant when it comes to sports—which, unlike real war, is basically entertainment.

But sports are not just entertainment. For nothing on earth, no matter how apparently trivial, is "just" what it appears to be. Everything good is both the product of divine creativity and a medium of his divinizing presence to us. Even evils are often occasions of grace: that's what follows from the Crucifixion, and that's what the Patriots and their fans would do well to remember. No human is invincible, and humility is a virtue. But as a Catholic, I can't help agreeing with Archie Manning, who isn't Catholic and might not even have subscribed hitherto to the dogma of the communion of saints. God himself might not care much about the scores, the ratings, and the salaries, but on occasion he does allow things that constitute special aids to faith even in the midst of such worldliness. In this case, David Tyree was the medium and Eli Manning the instrument.

For that, I congratulate them and their teammates more than for the play itself.
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