Religion in the Workplace: Conversion of Enis puts New Onus on Christian Atheletes

Chicago Tribune/July 29, 1998
By Melissa Isaacson

Showing the passion and intensity any football coach would welcome, a group of Bears players stood united Tuesday, preaching a gospel they are hoping will spread to their teammates.

But as a growing number of athletes integrate religion into the workplace, the presence of a new Christian faction within the team has some inside the organization wondering if it will create a divisive force in the locker room.

"It's getting annoying with some of these guys," one veteran player said. "You can't even go out and have a beer without someone busting you for it."

The discussion was sparked by recent developments surrounding Curtis Enis, the Bears' unsigned No. 1 draft pick. His recent off- field troubles, contract holdout and religious conversion have touched a nerve among a group of Bears players who call themselves Champions for Christ. The Bears' group consists mainly of former Jacksonville players, who apparently enlisted Enis last month.

The former Penn State running back and No. 5 overall pick in the draft was named in a sexual assault complaint filed in late May by a woman in Irving, Texas. On Tuesday, prosecutors in the Dallas County District Attorney's office said they doubted whether Enis would be charged, citing a lack of evidence. However, Enis remains embroiled in a contract dispute that has kept him out of the first 10 days of training camp. The Bears contend that Enis' recent switch in agents, to Dallas-based Greg Feste, set back the negotiations. Feste's affiliation with Champions for Christ has called into question whether Enis was recruited as a means of raising money for the organization.

That contention, and the suggestion Enis isn't thinking for himself, infuriates Bears defensive end Mark Thomas, a Champions for Christ disciple who attended a CFC conference with Enis in late June. "People should be happy, because some of his agents got him in trouble in the first place," Thomas said, referring to Enis' being ruled ineligible for the Citrus Bowl after an agent bought him a suit. "Now he's with Christian athletes who do things the right way, and with all the things going on with this team in the past, everyone should be jumping for joy because he's living for God.

"He's going to make this team better, and there's great things happening on this team because of Champions for Christ."

Reserve offensive linemen Greg Huntington, who signed as a free agent last season, and former Jaguar teammate Jimmy Herndon, who was acquired in a trade from Jacksonville last year, started the Bears' CFC chapter. In the off-season, Enis began attending team Bible study groups, consisting of CFC and Athletes in Action members.

"He showed up with a bunch of rookies," Huntington said, "but Curtis Enis is the only one who has been changed by the power of God."

Thomas said Enis "was seeking a change in his life anyway," and he resents suggestions there's something suspicious about the rookie's conversion.

"This whole thing is blowing me away, because if someone said Curtis started going to church, no one would say anything," Thomas said. "Champions for Christ is just a group of believers. It's not a cult." Huntington describes the group as a "college and professional outreach" that tries to spread the gospel of Christ. Its tactics, however, drew criticism from some Jacksonville players who were not affiliated with the group and believed it promoted divisiveness within the team.

"There are definitely factions," tackle Jim Flanigan said of the Bears' various religious groups, "but I wouldn't say it's tearing the team apart. Those guys in their free time can talk about whatever they want to talk about."

Still, Flanigan heard of some resentment on the Jaguars and other teams and acknowledged it could become a concern here.

"That would be a little uncomfortable," he said. "You just want to feel it's a normal situation, just a work environment. You wouldn't have that in any other office.

"If that's what they want to do and that's what they believe in, that's great. But they shouldn't be trying to force other people, and they're not. I just hope it never gets to that point."

Bears offensive lineman Todd Perry voiced similar concerns. "Yes, there may be some alienation if guys aren't communicating and don't understand where guys are coming from," he said. "But as long as it's in the open and guys are communicating, it shouldn't be a problem."

Bears coach Dave Wannstedt admitted he wasn't familiar with Champions for Christ but said he has had no hesitation promoting the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as well as Athletes in Action, groups Thomas and Huntington describe as similar to CFC.

"We're a little more charismatic," he said. Wannstedt, a devout Catholic, is affiliated with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. "I've done some things in Texas, and since I've been in Chicago I've flown down and spoke to help them raise money," he said. "I totally support (team chaplain) John Mauer and Athletes in Action here. I was the one who helped instigate getting him on road trips and in the locker room and at practices. I think all that stuff can be good for players.

"I think the players and public know where I stand on my faith, but I don't push it on anybody and I haven't witnessed any of that on our team. You try to improve the character of your football team all the time." Thomas, Herndon and Huntington say they are hoping to persuade the entire team to join Champions for Christ.

"We don't want to alienate, because we want everybody to know the truth that we know," Huntington said. "I see guys on this team who talk the talk and walk the walk, and it can be a much better team if the majority of the guys are like that.

"When Curtis gets here, people are going to see a change in that guy's life, and he's going to be a positive role model in his community. It's about accountability. The bottom line is, this is a good thing."

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