Billy Graham and Christian Athletes, from Gil Dodds to Louis Zamperini

I just learned that Billy Graham has died.

In the coming days and weeks, there will be no shortage of tributes and commentaries on his significance, influence, and legacy. Many of these will be written by Very Qualified People. I am not, by any measure, one of those people.

And yet, here I go...

When I talk about Graham in the context of religion and sports, I like to point to his relationships with famous Christian athletes. Bill Baker's Playing With God tells the story of Graham inviting world-class miler Gil Dodds—aka, "the Flying Parson"—to a 1947 Crusade crusade in Charlotte, North Carolina. Dodds dazzled the crowed as he ran an exhibition race and gave his testimony. A high-profile Christian athlete, Dodds’s presence at the event no doubt drew spectators. At a symbolic level, he also solidified a marriage between sports and evangelical Christianity in the South—a marriage that would go on to produce such notable offspring such as "Tebowing."


I recently came across another Graham/Christian athlete intersection while reading Laura Hillenbrand remarkably compelling book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.

It's the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic distance runner who would become an airman during World War II.  When his bomber crashed over the ocean, Zamperini survived on a life raft before becoming a prisoner of war. There, he was exposed to a level of human cruelty that exceeded anything that one could imagine in their worst nightmares.

In the concluding chapters of the book, we witness Zamperini struggling to return to "normal" life in the United States. He was, to put it mildly, a mess. His wounds were physical and spiritual, leaving him awash in a darkened landscape of alcohol and depression.

And then, in 1949, underneath a circus tent in Los Angeles, he heard Billy Graham. This would prompt a turnaround—a conversion—that would help Zamperini to quiet the demons of his past. The two would form a relationship, with Zamperini being featured at Crusades for years to follow.

In hearing this story as Hillenbrand tells it, it's hard not to see how deeply meaningful and transformative this event was for Zamperini. I am reminded of Martin Marty, who in describing his own relationship with Graham, remarked:
I've often said, 'If Billy Graham had been born mean, we'd be in terrible trouble,' because he had so much power, so many gifts and so on. One of my distinctions in religion is not liberal and conservative, but mean and non-mean. You have mean liberals and mean conservatives, and you have non-mean of both. But he's not a mean. And I think you'd have to say that's just been an enormous influence on many people.
Indeed. Rest in peace Billy Graham.