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Strong faith binds Eagles, attracts new fans
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Seventy-two-year-old Susan Collesidis was never a football fan until she heard Carson Wentz talk about his faith.
Then she was hooked on the Philadelphia Eagles.
When Wentz found out his newest fan was fighting an advanced stage of cancer, he sent her an encouraging message with inspirational Bible verses.
''How much joy I get from watching him and his team play supernatural football every week,'' she said after reading it.
Two weeks later, Collesidis lost her battle with cancer the night before Thanksgiving.
''The message meant so much to Susan because she admired Carson as a person and believer more than a football player,
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,'' son-in-law Doug Horton said. ''He's the reason she
started caring about sports and she couldn't wait to watch the Eagles every week.''
Wentz isn't playing in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots because he tore his ACL in Week 14. But backup quarterback Nick Foles also is a ''brother in Christ'' and
one of the leaders in a locker room filled with guys who have formed a strong bond because of their faith.
'' Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz said. ''Those guys are holding me accountable. Off the field,
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,''It truly is a brotherhood, I'm holding them accountable. We truly care about each
we truly care about the growth that each individual has in the word,
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, as believers,other,
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, as well as friends and family. There are a lot of guys who are truly trying to boost me
up and keep me focused on the main thing, which is obviously the word. ...''
Kurt Warner, Tim Tebow,Christian players openly expressing their faith is nothing new in the NFL: Reggie White, Ray Lewis and Russell Wilson among many others. But these Eagles
are an unusually close-knit group.
'' said defensive end Steven Means,''There is a stronger connection here, who played for three other teams. ''It's another level because we push each other in certain areas that
we are flawed at and open ourselves up to each other. We text each other throughout the day making sure that everybody is on the right path and doing the right thing.''
Torrey Smith played with Lewis on the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in 2012. They had a solid core of Christian players who used their faith for inspiration during their
journey. Smith also spent two years in San Francisco before the wide receiver came to Philadelphia this season. He said it's different here.
''I've been lucky to be part of three organizations that do have a very strong Christian presence,'' Smith said. ''The difference here is a lot of younger guys lead.''
It starts with Wentz, the face of the franchise.
Wentz went on a mission trip to Haiti last May with former teammate Jordan Matthews and a group led by Kyle Horner, lead pastor of The Connect Church. He delivered a sermon a
month later at a church back home in North Dakota and launched his Audience of One Foundation in July. Wentz and several teammates even created a devotional video series for the
Wentz and teammates Trey Burton and Stefen Wisniewski spoke at a faith event in front of a crowd of 2,Four days before the season opener,000 people who sat in the rain for a
couple hours to hear their favorite players share their testimony.
But before he had an MVP-caliber season and led the Eagles from worst to first, Wentz received plenty of criticism from some media and fans because he openly talked about his
faith on social media .
He wasn't deterred.
''Jesus was persecuted everywhere he went, who is our ultimate example,'' Wentz said. ''So if Jesus, endured that, then I can endure a couple tweets. I can endure a little
riff-raff here and there.''
A large group of players meet for Bible study on Thursdays and hold a study for couples on Mondays. They get together for prayer and devotionals the night before games. They've
even gathered for baptisms in some unusual places.
In October 2016, Burton and pastor Ted Winsley baptized six players in a cold tub at the team's practice facility.
''It was crazy,
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, the team's longtime chaplain. ''The guys were just hungry,
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,'' said Winsley,
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, wanting their lives changed.''
Before a Thursday night game at Carolina last October,
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, second-year pro Marcus Johnson was baptized in a hotel pool.
''Since I've come to Philly,
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,'' Johnson said. ''As a rookie last year coming in,
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, I've grown in my faith so much, you always hear about the locker room and how dysfunctional it
can be and people playing for money and this and that, but when I got here, everyone was so supportive and I knew it was something special.''
Having strong faith doesn't make players immune to adversity, but it helps them deal with it. The Eagles (15-3) have overcome numerous injuries to important players on their way
to winning the NFC championship.
Nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, running back/return specialist Darren Sproles, special-teams captain Chris Maragos and kicker Caleb Sturgis suffered season-ending
injuries along with Wentz and Jordan Hicks, the playmaking linebacker and quarterback on defense.
Instead of anger and resentment, they've leaned on their faith to maintain a positive attitude.
''Character is always revealed in times of testing, who pastors several players. ''For these men,'' said Horner, Christ is not a crutch to lean upon, he is the foundation which
their life is built upon. For them, faith is not an intellectual acknowledgement of truth, but a day-by-day expression of their love for God. This is where it all starts.''
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