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Former Bengals chaplain Scott Wright discusses faith in the NFL

For some Bengals, the “Hail Mary” is more than just a desperation passing play.

Sundays in America belong to the NFL, though some would say the same about Sunday’s belonging to church. About half of all Americans are NFL football fans, and about half of all Americans are weekly churchgoers. Those two groups are not mutually exclusive, as many people begin their Sunday mornings with church services, and follow that up with watching the NFL.

With many NFL and Bengals games played at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, it is difficult for members of the Bengals who would like to attend church services on Sunday mornings to do so. Because their Sunday mornings are filled with pregame activities, Bengals players are provided with an opportunity to attend religious services via team chaplains.

We recently had an opportunity to interview Father Scott Wright, who served as a chaplain for the Bengals for four years, from the 2012 through 2015 seasons.

Growing up in the Dayton, Ohio area, Wright has been a Bengals’ fan as long as he can remember. That fandom followed him to the seminary, and into his priesthood. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s seminary, the Athenaeum of Ohio, is less than a dozen miles from Paul Brown Stadium. After being ordained a priest in the archdiocese, Wright learned that the archdiocese provided priests for the members of the Cincinnati Reds and Bengals to participate in a mass (Catholic religious service) when their game schedule would otherwise keep them busy on a Sunday morning.

“I was immediately intrigued and asked a priest friend of mine if I could sub for him at one of his Bengals masses,” Fr Wright said. “That was the fall of 2012 and I assisted the team until the end of last season.”

Fr Wright’s role with the Bengals was to celebrate the Catholic mass for the players and coaches who wished to attend. He would arrive early for mass and eat dinner with the Bengals’ staff. Over the years, his interactions grew with some of the players and coaches who would ask him questions about faith and family. There were enjoyable episodes of bantering with various players such as Jermaine Gresham who would often address Fr Wright as “the future pope” when he donned his mass vestments.

The mass was open to staff members and players on the team. Coaches such as Ken Zampese, Paul Alexander, David Lippincott, Mike Zimmer and his son Adam, as well as players such as George Iloka and Giovani Bernard, “would always be friendly, would arrive early for mass and just talk,” Fr Wright said.

Washington Redskins v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

One of Fr Wright’s assignments after ordination was serving as an associate pastor at the Church of the Incarnation in Centerville, Ohio. Former Bengals kicker Mike Nugent is from Centerville, and Fr Wright’s position at the church gave Nugent’s mother a unique opportunity to check up on her son and ask if he was attending Fr Wright’s masses for the Bengals players. As Fr Wright said, “How do you answer that question?”

These masses took place in a meeting room of the team’s hotel on Saturday night before game day. This gave Fr Wright the opportunity to practice his homilies before delivering them the following morning to his church parish.

”They were the same homily, just shorter due to time,” Fr Wright said. “Actually, they weren't, they were sometimes worse. If I had a particularly brilliant idea for Sunday, I would test it out on the team“.

In addition to the Catholic mass, the team offers a general Protestant service, which was at the same time as the Mass. LaMorris Crawford serves as the Chaplain for that service, which was actually held by former Bengals’ lineman Ken Moyer about a decade ago. Head coach Marvin Lewis, and other Bengals players, including Andy Dalton, attend those services.

From his firsthand experience, Fr Wright got to see the significance that faith has for the team.

“I believe that Marvin Lewis sets a great example by attending the Protestant service,” Fr Wright said. “I would say that religion and faith is very important to the team... from the casual conversations with players, I began to see that faith and family is the most important thing in their lives, at least that is what they told the man in the Roman Collar.”

Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals

One perk of being a Bengals chaplain was that the team gave him game tickets. Since he usually did not finish up with his duties at his Dayton-based parish until around 12:45, if the tickets were for a 1pm game, they usually ended going to a lucky parishioner, friend, or family member. Free Bengals tickets is probably not a good reason for one to become Catholic, but it sounds like a nice perk for being part of Fr Wright’s parish. Another perk of being part of his parish was game updates after mass. When the a Bengals’ Saturday night playoff game in January 2016 conflicted with the Catholic vigil masses, Fr Wright had his parishioners covered. “I had my iPhone under the Altar on ESPN gamecast constantly updating. Not that I was distracted during mass, but when I gave the updated score during the announcements at the end of mass, I think some people were caught off guard.”