Herbie Kuhn at training camp with quarterback Trevor Harris. (James Paddle-Grant photo)

How I discovered Toronto’s God Squad

As the beat reporter covering the Toronto Argonauts, I kept noticing this short, kind of stubby guy talking to the players at training camp.

His face was familiar. I didn’t know his name, but he looked friendly, and he would wave at me whenever we crossed paths.

Finally, after several days of training camp, I asked around. Who is this guy talking to the players?

I was told his name was Herbie Kuhn. Yes, of course, the voice of the Toronto Raptors. It all began making sense. Sort of.

What is he doing here?

Curiosity got the better of me, and I approached him one day in the stands to introduce myself.

He told me he was the team chaplain.

It was an important job because many of the players from the U.S. are lost when they come up here.

They may have been raised with God’s presence in their household, and they look for the reassurance of someone who can lead Bible study.

Well, I knew that Swayze Waters and Trevor Harris were among the players on the Argonauts “God Squad,” players who prayed together and played together.

I wanted to tell this story. I got permission to sit in on one of the prayer sessions at the team’s training camp last spring at York University.

Here is their story.

It is No. 3 on my top 40-list of stories I wrote over a 35-career at the Toronto Star as I count down the days to early retirement.

Off field, some Argonauts tackle issues of faith

By Curtis Rush

It is a Friday at Toronto Argonauts training camp.

Lunch is wrapping up inside a cafeteria at York University, but not everybody is leaving.

A group of about 15 — including quarterbacks Trevor Harris, Mitchell Gale and Logan Kilgore, and kicker Swayze Waters — are pulling a few tables together for a 45-minute study session.

Bible study.

“If football is your backbone,” Herbie Kuhn, the Argos’ chaplain, tells the group, “your life is going to crumble. I’m here to say that God is good.”

Faith and football have long been intertwined, from the player dropping to a knee to celebrate a touchdown to the opponents gathering at midfield for a post-game prayer.

The message is not for everybody, of course.

Some have told Kuhn, also a co-chaplain and P.A. announcer for the Raptors, that they’re not buying what he is selling. It is hardly surprising in a sport that can be violent, and in a career that can be turbulent.

Others, however, find comfort in religion, a place of calm that comes from their faith.

Waters, the CFL’s best kicker last year, writes about the subjects of faith and sports in his blog at www.swayzewaters.com.

Like many gifted players, he was told how great he was from a young age, and he started to believe the hype.

“Everybody in this room was that guy, “ Waters said. “You become that guy, even to yourself.”

Waters struggled with his identity after he was cut by the NFL’s Oakland Raiders in 2010. He went home and took up a landscaping job.

“There was a time, I was like, ‘Man, a couple of months ago I was an NFL player and now I’m a landscaper.’ I had to wrestle with that.”

He might always have to wrestle with it. One bad game could have him looking for work again, regardless of what he has accomplished in the past. So he can’t let the game control his life.

“There’s a quote that I heard and it stuck with me,” Waters said. “Football is a great sport, but it makes a terrible God.”

Harris, who will round up players for chapel two hours before a game and co-ordinate with out-of-town chaplains when the Argos are on the road, offers a similar sentiment.

“As important as football is, all of us are humans,” the quarterback says. “We have families and I have my relationship with Christ, and that’s a monstrous priority for me.”

Harris, raised by his parents to understand the importance of Christ in his life, still talks to Sandie Starr Everhart, who is the bible study leader at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, where he played football. The quarterback returns to speak to student athletes at the university.

“He wants other people to experience what his faith does for him,” Everhart says, “but he’s not some crazy evangelist.”

Nor is Kuhn. The chaplain isn’t a pastor, and he hasn’t attended a bible college. “I’m just a people person,” he says.

He is also a married, 46-year-old father of one who is paid by Athletes in Action, an organization founded in 1966 using sports as a platform to answer questions on faith.

“Herbie’s there to talk to us about things on and off the field,” Harris says, “and it’s a big-time relief that there’s someone who cares for you as a person.

“The coaches do as well, obviously, but Herbie does a good job of talking about things that aren’t football-related, because we’re in such a football mindset all the time.”

“The consistent theme, “ Kuhn says, “is encouragement and belonging because everybody has tough days. Everybody has days when they feel they can walk on water. And everybody has days when nothing is going right. Part of my role is to help be a bridge there.”

Come game days, chapel can be a delicate undertaking, the calm before the storm of a football game.

“They are professional football players,” Kuhn says. “They don’t need me to get them fired up. And they still have two full hours from the time I say ‘Amen’ until kickoff.”

Sometimes, though, his message can be enthusiastic.

“When the Holy Spirit moves, the Holy Spirit moves, and I may get excited and they may get excited,” Kuhn says, his voice rising, “and there may be a resounding ‘Amen’ that they might hear down at the corner of the locker room.”

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