Sunday, July 16, 2000

Teen-agers find God in locker room




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        You have to wonder what God was thinking when Daniel Knapp got fouled.

        Daniel was going in for a layup. Some kid hacked at him. Down went Daniel, breaking both arms. He was in casts for weeks.

        All this came after the basketball team at Tichenor Middle School had said its usual, pre-game prayer, which goes something like, “Dear Heavenly Father, can you bless us with the luck and the skills to beat this team and make sure no one fouls out or gets hurt?”

        Oh well. It wasn't God's fault that Daniel's right arm looked like a freak show.

        “He did what he could,” Daniel says.

        “He gives you all the strength you need,” says his brother, Keith. “It's up to you to pursue it.”

        With that, the Knapp brothers confirmed my faith in two things: Young people can find their own way through a thicket of court rulings on school prayer. And athletes can be spiritual without making me gag.

Instilling confidence
        I met Daniel, 13, and Keith, 14, as they worked on a service project with their youth group from Erlanger Christian Church.

        We fell into a discussion of school prayer. On June 19, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Texas high school could not have a public prayer before its football games. A student, the daughter of a Baptist minister, had been saying the prayer into a microphone. The context suggested school sponsorship, which is forbidden, the court said.

        In the privacy of the locker room, however, nothing stops students from pep talks with the Almighty.

        Last school year, Daniel and Keith played on separate teams at Tichenor, a public middle school in Erlanger.

        Before every game, Keith's eighth-grade squad would stand in a circle, hold hands and say the Lord's Prayer as a “lively chant.”

        “I think it gives us confidence that someone's backing us up — not just our parents and stuff — because we're a horrible team,” Keith says. “We only won two games this year.”

Students' decision
        The students decided themselves to say the prayer.

        “We're all pretty religious guys, so we asked around to see if anyone thought it would be a bad thing, and nobody thought it would be a bad thing,” Keith says.

        Daniel's seventh-grade team had its own ritual. Prayers usually were ad-libbed by Keenan Kruskamp, a 13-year-old who got the job because his nickname was “preacher man.” This because he liked to wear a black suit and white shirt on game days.

        With the coach usually waiting outside, the teammates would bow their heads and put one hand on a basketball and one knee on the floor. Then Keenan would ask for a safe, clean game.

        Keenan looks at it this way: “If we trust our game in God's hands, he'll protect us and give us victory.”

        Keith and Daniel downplay the winning part. The Lord's Prayer doesn't say anything about shooting threes or driving the lane. It does mention forgiveness.

        “If somebody fouled you, you don't want to just get in there and hack at them,” Keith says. “You don't want to get technical fouls, cuss at the ref and stuff. You just want to play the game the way it's supposed to be played.”

        If 14-year-olds can see all this in the Lord's Prayer, they can make up their own minds when and where to say it.

        The Supreme Court is right. In public schools, authority figures ought to stay out of it.

Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at ksamples@enquirer.com

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