Gridiron Gospel opens doors in Portugal

07/08/2011 19:49

Baptist Press:  LISBON, Portugal (BP)--The bright Portuguese sun illuminated the makeshift football field. In the distance, Atlantic waves beat the shore. Players for the Lisbon Crusaders took the field for their pre-game routines, which include, among other things, marking the field's yard lines with sand.

The football field was only a converted soccer pitch, and the crowd only consisted of a few friends and family members. But for Emanuel and his Crusader teammates, the excitement reached NFL proportions in the moments before kickoff against the Galiza Black Towers.

For Crusader player/coaches Brady Nurse and Grant Shields, the excitement was more than pre-game nerves. For them, the football team is both a competitive outlet and an incredible inroad for sharing the Gospel.

"Football has been a great way for us to get into the lives of the Portuguese people," said Nurse, an International Mission Board missionary who has been in Portugal for four years and has played with the Crusaders for three years.

"It is a spiritually hard state here in Portugal," Nurse said, noting that less than 2 percent of Portuguese have any kind of relationship with Christ. "There is a big spiritual dryness."

In spite of this, Nurse and Shields -- a volunteer with the IMB's short-term Hands On program for college students -- have seen nearly 30 football players in Portugal come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

One of those players is Emanuel, 21, who has played center for the Crusaders for three years.

Like most Portuguese, he was raised in a Roman Catholic family. However, by the time Emanuel was a teenager, he had grown disillusioned. He saw the poverty around him and could not fathom why the priests kept asking for more money.

"They would [spend money on] cathedrals that were so pretty and well constructed and lined with gold," Emanuel said, adding, "I realize now that it's not about the place [of worship] but what you do while you are in it."

Emanuel's resentment toward religion grew during his college years as his life took a downward plunge. His mother battled cancer and his longtime girlfriend left him. Emanuel's grades fell and depression set in.

"I had never talked to God during the good times [of my life], so I was ashamed to come to Him during the bad times," Emanuel said. "I felt like I was being punished and was alone."

One day Emanuel saw a flier advertising tryouts with the Lisbon Crusaders. He enjoyed watching American football games on TV so he decided to try out. He made the team and fell in love with the sport.

The Crusader team became family for Emanuel, and his friendships with Nurse and Shields grew as their ministry to the team deepened.

"I knew Coach Grant did a [regular] Bible study, and one day he asked me to be a part of it," Emanuel said. "I remember being surprised. It was really different [from my Catholic upbringing]. The Catholics prayed to many different saints. The saints are not God, but in those [cathedrals] they were. One thing I realized with Grant was that it's all about God and He is the only one who matters."

Emanuel accepted Christ as his Savior and continues to meet with Shields and other members of the team for weekly Bible studies.

"He begs me to have more Bible studies," Shields said. "He is hungry to learn."

The Crusaders team has opened the door for Shields and Nurse to pour the Gospel message into these men, among whom competition and teamwork have forged a camaraderie that makes open and honest conversation possible.

"Football has had a big role in opening my eyes," Emanuel said. "I don't feel empty like I did a few years ago."

American football is steadily gaining popularity in Europe. University and community teams are being formed in many larger Portuguese cities. Currently Portugal has six teams, and Nurse hopes four new teams will be added to the league in the next few seasons.

"I did not know about football in Portugal until I saw some guys practicing in a field … ," Nurse said. "I asked if I could join them and a few months later ended up being asked to be the head coach."

Since then, Nurse has brought some gridiron savvy not only to the Crusaders but also the entire Portuguese league by helping organize football training camps with ex-NFL and collegiate players.

"The camps have not only been a way to increase the sport's visibility, they have also been the greatest way to share Christ with these guys," Nurse said. "Christian football players and churches from the States come over and teach not only football but also the Gospel to these Portuguese guys."

The Lisbon Crusaders team has been instrumental for Nurse and Shields to gain access into the lives of players who, otherwise, may have been closed to a friendship.

"Before practices [began], I spent a month here without being able to meet anybody," Shields said. "If I could just get someone to say 'hi' to me, I would consider that day a success."

Now success looks different -- and not always a win on the football field, even when those come.

In the game against the Galiza Black Towers, the Crusaders quickly found themselves struggling to overcome a 14-0 deficit -- a margin wider than any the Crusaders had come back from. But the Crusaders dug deep and fought back. They beat the Black Towers 38-34, keeping their hopes for the championship alive.

Nurse and Shields celebrated with the rest of the team after the game, but their hope -- and now Emanuel's too -- is for something far greater than a gridiron championship.

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