Putting muscle behind their faith

by Kara Hansen

SILVER LAKE — Most athletes have a pre-game ritual of some sort: They listen to the same songs on their iPod, they perform the same warm-up exercises, or they practice free throws or take downs in their head.

But before wrestling tournaments in Silver lake and Burlington, they pray.

Together.

And not just the wrestlers — but the coaches, referees, managers, cheerleaders, and fans as well. Anyone who would like to participate is welcome.

“It’s a student-led prayer with the athletes,” said Harry laMar, head wrestling coach at Silver lake High School. “When the boys are leading the prayer, the whole crowd goes silent.”

The “boys” laMar is speaking of include his son, Brett laMar, a senior on the Silver lake squad, and Michael Vander Linden, a junior wrestler at Burlington High School.

The two teens knew each other casually from wrestling tournaments, but got to know each other better on a retreat about a year ago.

“We just started talking about bringing prayer and God to wrestling and how we could do that,” said Brett, a member of St. Stanislaus Parish in Rossville.

Both teams were praying before tournaments already, so it was something of a natural extension to think about including other teams, too.

“We thought it would be cool to get all the teams together and thought we could really do a lot of things with this,” said Michael, a parishioner at St. Francis Xavier in Burlington. “It was a way we could put God as the focus of what we’re doing.”

All they needed then was an opportunity — something Harry had already been speaking to Burlington’s wrestling coach and Michael’s father, Doug Vander Linden, about via e-mail.

“Coach laMar’s team had been praying together already, and he knew I was involved in FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes),” said Doug. “Last February, Burlington hosted the class 3a regional tournament and we got to talking about how this would be an opportunity for our two sons to do more than pray with their teams.”

“We asked the kids if they would consider it and take off with it, and they did,” said Harry. “The boys came up with their prayers and avenue on their own.”

Brett and Michael each took a day of the regional tournament and invited those present at the tournament to come down to the mat before leading them in a prayer.

“I was nervous, stressed, scared when my dad approached me about doing this,” said Michael. “But now I know this is what I’m supposed to do.

“I’m no longer scared,” he concluded. “It’s all on God.”

The wrestlers and others present at the tournament came to pray with Brett and Michael before matches began each day.

“They got a great response, and it was even better the next day,” said Doug.

Ever since, the communal pre-tournament prayer has become a regular way to kick off any wrestling tournament where either the Burlington or Silver Lake teams are present. Wrestlers for Christ was born.

Giving god the glory

Both Brett and Michael now have a basic outline of the prayer they lead before each tournament starts. It opens with them thanking God for the opportunity and ability to wrestle and asking him to keep the wrestlers safe from injury. They then pray for good sportsmanship on the part of the athletes and for God’s help in keeping him first in their lives. Finally, they pray for the managers, cheerleaders, coaches, officials and even the fans — that they will keep in mind the wrestlers are student/athletes and even though the competition may get intense, they still need to be good role models for their kids.

Following the prayer led by Michael or Brett, the entire group is invited to participate in the Our Father.

“It’s so loud, and the crowd is silent, so you can hear the prayer throughout the entire school,” said Harry. “It’s very powerful.”

Far from forcing the prayer on any of those present who might not want to participate, Michael and Brett say they are simply providing the chance for others to join them in bringing their thoughts and words to God before matches start.

“We invite anyone who’s there down to the circle to pray,” said Brett.

Michael agreed.

“If people want to come down and pray, they can,” he said. “We invite anyone who wants to, and leave the decision up to them. We don’t pray over the microphone because we don’t want to force it on people.”

As the groups of people coming to the mat for prayer have grown in size — up to several hundred, at some matches — not using a microphone has become a challenge.

“There are people from every team in the tournament down there on the mat, so you really have to yell to be heard,” said Michael.

And when school administrators at some of the tournaments have been reluctant to allow the teens to lead group prayer, that’s fine, say Brett and Michael. Both are quick to respect what the administration asks — while still making sure they get their spiritual boost in by praying with their team or in small groups.

The two wrestlers say praying before their matches is a fundamental part of their preparation — just as much as the physical and mental practice that goes into the sport itself.

“I’ve always known the importance of prayer, and a relationship with God is great,” said Michael. “I saw my older brother pray before wrestling. I want to share with others that my number one goal is to glorify God, no matter what happens. And I hope others can see that.”

Spreading the faith

People are noticing. It has been over a year since the two wrestlers began leading pre-tournament prayer, and each report a positive response — both in increasing numbers of people joining them in prayer as well as feedback from those present.

“I have about five to 10 wrestlers come up and tell me ‘Thanks’ at each meet. And the coaches and refs will often tell me, ‘Thanks for doing this,’ or give me a pat on the back,” said Brett.

Players and coaches say they have now heard stories of other teams leading group prayer before tournaments when neither the Silver lake nor Burlington team is present. In Silver lake, Harry has junior high-age wrestlers asking if they can pray before their matches, too.

“You hear stories about some NFL or college players coming together for prayer, but I’ve never seen anything like this in high school sports at all,” said Harry.

The two coaches say they can see the impact of the prayer in other ways, too.

The first three tournaments after the group prayer got started were completely injury-free, something extremely unusual for such an intense and physical sport as wrestling, said Harry.

Plus, those in and around the high school wrestling tournaments are seeking at least one tangible way to show their pride in their sport and their faith at the same time. Gonz Medina, owner of Blue Chip Wrestling, created some 180 T-shirts with the logo “Wrestlers for Christ” on them that both teams have made available to a wider audience.

“When people first started asking for T-shirts, we knew the idea was getting out,” said Michael. “People seem to love the idea and want the shirts. They’re glad God and wrestling are being combined.”

Looking to the future

Michael and Brett are both hoping to see Wrestlers for Christ become bigger and more accessible to wrestlers across the state.

“Because Brett is a senior this year, we’ve talked a lot about who we can hand this down to who will keep it going,” said Michael. “I really want to push harder next year to see this spread throughout the state, so we can rely on many who can keep this going.

“It could be turned into a huge thing.” Brett agreed.

“I’m hoping every team can do this at tournaments we’re not at,” said Brett. “I hope ultimately people want to turn their lives to God and go to church.”

As coaches, both Harry and Doug are supportive of the initiative taken on by Brett and Michael. They are considering putting together a Web site that will allow for more communication among high school wrestling teams and allow them to share their stories of God’s involvement in their tournaments.

But as fathers, Harry and Doug cannot help but be proud of the role their sons have had in creating Wrestlers for Christ.

“Even though wrestling is a physical and intense sport, wrestlers can still carry the qualities of Christian athletes,” said Doug. “You can feel God’s presence there and know they are doing something to carry the Lord’s work forward.”

Harry agrees.

“What they are doing is helping kids by teaching them how to pray — letting them know it’s Ok to talk to God — and creating leadership skills,” said Harry. “It’s very emotional and fills you with pride.”

“Brett is a very good wrestler,” said Harry. “But this will be his legacy.”

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