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Faith and Football: At the Intersection of Two of the South’s Most Entangled Traditions

Texas Tech chaplain Bobby Dagnel is the local gatekeeper between two of the institutions that define life in Lubbock. As scrutiny over the role of chaplaincies at public universities has intensified nationwide in recent years, the Red Raiders’ volunteer has identified the stereotypes—and worked to combat them.

A collage of a football player kneeling in prayer, while a preacher raises a Bible toward the sky. Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The South Week at The Ringer. We’re celebrating — and reporting on — the richness of the region. You’ll find stories from all over the map, exploring topics such as the enduring legacy of Confederate monuments in Richmond and Montgomery, the evolution of Charleston barbecue, and the intersection of faith and football in Lubbock. We’re also ranking the best Southern rap albums, imagining the André 3000 mixtape we all deserve, and arguing about what even constitutes the South anymore. In the words of two great Southerners, nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever.

Nine sets of eyes lock onto Bobby Dagnel. A few of the men wedged around the wooden conference table in the Texas Tech football facility shuffle pages in their notebooks. A few sit perfectly still in their chairs, almost appearing to sleep. The coaches are all waiting for Bible study to start.

Dagnel dresses like a coach: For practices, he’s hat-to-shoe in team-sponsored Under Armour gear. Tech’s actual staffers treat him like a coach: He walks unfettered through the facility, and head coach Kliff Kingsbury sometimes calls him “Coach.” Dagnel also acts like a coach: At practice, when a referee tells the offensive sideline to step behind the two-foot-wide band of red grass bordering the field, only Dagnel and one defensive line coach stay put.

But Dagnel is not a coach. He is the Texas Tech football team chaplain, a Red Raiders volunteer who pastors full-time a few blocks away at First Baptist Church Lubbock. He is the local gatekeeper at the intersection of two of the South’s most prevalent and entangled traditions: faith and football.

Most of the men gathered around this table, and most of their coworkers throughout the football facility, played college football. Nearly all grew up in the South. They are older iterations of the players they now coach: To a man, they say that as children, football and religion were life’s first and second priority, in some order, much like they were for many other Southerners outside of this building. Many of them grew up saying the Lord’s Prayer before youth sporting events and hearing their pastors make tongue-in-cheek jokes about them Cowboys or the local high school team. That, Tech’s coaches say with a shrug, is how it is down here, as normal as going from first grade to second grade. Asked how real life compares to stereotypes regarding the importance of football and church in the South, strength and conditioning graduate assistant Lance Pace says, “The movies do a good job.”

This will be Dagnel’s seventh season as the Texas Tech football team chaplain, which even he laughs at considering he didn’t go to church as a kid because his family was “a Southern anomaly” and felt indifferent about church. Years later, this Bible study is the only offseason structure for Dagnel to preach to anyone in the Red Raiders football family. It’s voluntary and once every week. He surveys the room, grins, and says, “All right, I thought we would look at a passage from 2 Corinthians, chapter four, verses eight and nine.”

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

He crafts his messages around what he calls “the paralysis of ideals”: how so often people disregard present opportunities in anticipation of a perfect situation that may never come. Don’t wait to do whatever it is you want to do, he tells the coaches. Do it now. In this case, he emphasizes continuing to work hard during a tiring first week of camp. The assembled scratch notes into their notebooks or in the margins of a paper schedule.

As much as anything else, several coaches say, the team chaplain helps refocus their faith, because they can sometimes slip into using it as a “rabbit’s foot”: I’ll go to church on Sunday, and hopefully we win next Saturday. And hopefully no one in my family gets sick. And hopefully our finances are fine.

Losing sight of the purpose of faith is Dagnel’s biggest worry: what he calls the gap between religion and faith. “Religion, I think, is a man-made construct. You can go through religion and have it not inform your life. Faith is something that is deep, profound, and personal and informs your life.” He thinks about this when he sees the many players who pray before and after games, who run onto the field and toward the end zone to kneel, who score touchdowns, and tackle opponents, and point to the sky.

“There's a lot of religion in athletics,” Dagnel says. “There's a lot of praying that goes on, but I'm not sure how much that informs [players’] lives. … You just see the dichotomy between the religious expression and lives that are lived.”

The treatment of faith as a symbol, as a Jesus piece, rather than a relationship with God, Dagnel says, manifests uniquely on football fields in the South because the two institutions are so intertwined.

“The whole thing about ‘the Bible Belt’ is misleading,” Dagnel says. He sees church affiliation (according to the Association of Religious Data Archives, 57.6 percent of people in Lubbock are affiliated with some religion), but doesn’t always see action. “... What do you consider of a population [like Lubbock] of 300,000 when less than 6 percent are in church [on Sunday]?” He pauses. “It's a post-church culture that we live in. Most people in the South don't know that yet, they're still running off the old tapes that we're the Bible Belt. But we're really not.”

And that is exactly why Dagnel is here.

Bobby Dagnel on the Texas Tech sideline
Bobby Dagnel on the Texas Tech sideline
Texas Tech Athletics

Five days before that Bible study, at what he calls “my paying gig,” Dagnel tells FBC Lubbock’s congregation a story about two women. There’s Martha, an energetic woman who externalizes her faith by sharing His word with everyone she knows, and Mary, a reserved woman who internalizes her faith by sitting and listening. “If you asked the Lord, ‘Should I be a Martha or a Mary?’” Dagnel says to his parishioners, “He would say, ‘Yes.’”

Though God calls him to be a Martha, spreading His word as much as possible, Dagnel finds no conflict between that role and the subtler one he’s chosen to also occupy at the university. He stresses, as many team chaplains do, the importance of being a “voluntary resource” for “student-athletes of any religion.” He wants to be there for the kids, but he doesn’t want to preach to them. He withholds his beliefs until they ask him. He knows the line he must toe at a public school.

“I'm very much aware of the Establishment Clause,” Dagnel says, referencing the portion of the First Amendment that forbids school-sponsored prayer and other religious activity.

Though faith and football play an important role at numerous colleges across the South and across the nation alike, many chaplaincies are far more opaque than Texas Tech’s. Dagnel knows this; he also knows that chaplaincies at public institutions have begun to receive intensified scrutiny in recent seasons, and that negative image is part of what Dagnel wants to combat: Bad publicity for the union of faith and football hinders his larger goal of getting people to stop thinking about religion as an institution and start embracing real faith.

Critics say chaplains are cozying up to football programs, sometimes receiving offices at team facilities and other school-funded perks, introducing an inappropriate peddling of Christianity upon often impressionable young men. A 2013 Chronicle of Higher Education story detailed Clemson star DeAndre Hopkins’s baptism on a practice field at the public school. A 2015 Freedom From Religion Foundation report pressured public-university football teams to drop their chaplaincies. While the report has likely yet to impact public-school chaplaincies’ staffing, teams and schools are now more guarded with what they reveal about these practices, says FFRF staff attorney Patrick Elliott.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes employs many team chaplains in the South and beyond, including at least two public-school football team chaplains in the Big 12, five in the SEC, and six in the ACC.

While schools elsewhere in the country have team chaplains as well, Texas Tech director of speed and power Scott Salwasser was surprised by the attendance at and impact of team chapel at Southern schools. Before moving to Tech in 2016, he worked primarily on the West Coast with a short stint in Louisiana. “On the West Coast, we had charismatic men of God,” Salwasser says, “but … [at TTU] when that many people showed up [at team chapel], that blew me away when I came here. I was like, ‘Man, this is almost everybody on the team,’ which had not been my experience.”

I emailed the FCA, and the public relations firm that represents the organization eventually said that no employees would be available for an interview. In lieu of interviews, the FCA said in an email: “There are no repercussions for students who decline to participate [in FCA programs]. FCA maintains that every student-athlete has the right to participate in activities according to their religious convictions.”

Before the FCA’s refusal, Randy Price, the FCA-employed team chaplain at Northwestern State University in Louisiana, and I had independently agreed to do an interview. When we spoke on the phone to set up a time, he said, “I have a great story for you,” about his journey to becoming a team chaplain. After the FCA sent me its statement, Price canceled, texting, “Any further question need [sic] to be referred to [FCA public relations].”

In April 2016, the University of South Carolina parted with its team chaplain, Adrian Despres, and today the team says it no longer has a team chaplain. Four months later, though, the Gamecocks made Charles Jackson Jr., a local Baptist pastor not affiliated with FCA, their “director of player development.” Texas (this year), Texas A&M (in 2014), Duke (in 2009), and others have hired former FCA employees in roles with the same or similar titles. Georgia Tech’s FCA chapter calls its employee, Derrick Moore, “football chaplain,” but the Georgia Tech Athletic Association says football does not have a team chaplain; it refers to Moore as a “Student-Athlete Adviser & Mentor.” At Clemson, a “life coach.” At TCU, a “character coach.” Hands without fingerprints.

A former SEC player, who spoke with me on condition of anonymity for fear of backlash from his school’s fan base, described his team’s chaplain as “very preachy. He'd tell players that evolution wasn't real. … [His approach] went past the whole, ‘Hey, I'm here to help with the whole spiritual side.’ It went way too far past that.”

Dagnel fears incidents like these will perpetuate a stereotype, the caricatures of team chaplains as Bible-brandishing zealots, like Bubba Davis, the scripture-spouting “spiritual adviser” from the latest season of Last Chance U, the Netflix documentary series. In a world of team chaplains behaving like Marthas, Dagnel wants to be Mary when he’s with the Red Raiders.

“I want to break that stereotype,” Dagnel says. Not because he believes he’s less self-righteous than Martha, or because he fears scrutiny for preaching too loudly, but because he’s found Mary’s approach—what he calls the “ministry of presence”—a more effective path for solving the greater problem, often magnified on football fields, between lives professed and practiced.

Dagnel drops by the team facility early one morning carrying a copy of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. He was on his way to FBC Lubbock when he spotted a headline in the sports section: “Texas Tech’s Barnes trying to finish up strong,” referring to defensive lineman Zach Barnes. Dagnel detoured from his morning commute because, if there’s ever a positive story in the A-J about a player, he leaves it in the player’s locker. When they see the paper, they know who put it there.

“Bobby lives the right way,” says defensive lineman Talor Nunez. “[He] shows us what it takes to be a godly man all around. We see that in him. … It [also] works, because football is biblical teachings without scripture. It legit always go hand in hand.”

After dropping off the paper, Dagnel passes by the front desk. He says to the receptionist, laughing his laugh, “I’m on my way to my paying gig.” But on the way out, he runs into a group of players. Even if he hasn’t met each individual player, he knows them by sight, because before every season, Dagnel prints out the roster and tests himself on how many faces and names he can match on each page until he breezes through the entire packet. The players and Dagnel are suddenly deep in conversation about offseason muscle gains, the Texas Rangers, and the grind of camp.

Texas Tech Athletics

This moment encapsulates why coaches think Dagnel adds value to the program. They appreciate his religious background, but he is also what the staff calls “good people,” providing another trusted voice in the locker room. This, coaches say, helps the nine assistant coaches manage Tech’s more than 100 players. Players think he’s valuable because he can offer guidance as many of them live away from home for the first time. When it comes to football matters, he keeps their frustrations confidential; they can vent to him because Dagnel has no control over playing time.

In 2012, after former head coach Tommy Tuberville’s second season, he let go of the then-team chaplain, who had an office in the building. Sensing the need for a new chaplain, a former TTU assistant who also attended FBC Lubbock told Dagnel to swing by. He never stopped showing up.

Current head coach Kingsbury, hired in December 2012, observed a few pre–bowl game practices after he was hired but before he took over, and saw Dagnel’s interactions with players and coaches. He decided that Dagnel should keep coming around. Now, in the offseason, Dagnel schedules his day around the team’s three morning lift sessions and, during the season, he attends practice every day for at least 15 minutes, roams the sidelines at home games, travels to road games with the team, and delivers a seven- to eight-minute sermon at the voluntary team chapel hosted at the hotel the night before the game.

“It’s a little different because he’s here every day,” says running backs coach Jabbar Juluke. “I've never had a guy available at your leisure.”

His consistent presence builds trust, players say. They seek advice about struggles with school, football, relationships, or, sometimes, their own beliefs. Dagnel sometimes meets with prospective Red Raiders when they visit campus. Jesus, among other things, effectively recruits the South. When a recruiter promises a parent to not only make his or her son a great student, football player, and citizen of the world, but also a better Christian, Dagnel’s presence helps legitimize that claim.

“The players we recruit are from the South and, most of the time, pretty heavy religious backgrounds,” Kingsbury says. “I’d say even similar churches. … It's definitely big for a parent to see [a team chaplain], a man of that character and religious background, that their child can lean on.”

Holy questions rarely arise in the public, group conversations like Dagnel is having now in the middle of the facility entryway. They occur in more private settings. But the team chaplain believes these conversations lay the foundation for those other moments, and that’s invaluable to Dagnel, crucial to his mission.

The spotlight cuts through the dais’s blue ambient lighting and finds Dagnel, dressed in white robes, standing waist-deep in a clear tub of water. It’s Sunday and everyone in First Baptist Church is silent. In front of Dagnel, a young man sits on a stool. Dagnel dunks him. The crowd, dotted with more than a few TTU polos, erupts in applause.

“Father,” Dagnel says, “we do remember at a time like this, what it was to be without Christ, without hope in the world.”

Dagnel remembers well.

It is 1977. The teenage Dagnel drives his date to a Tyler, Texas, high school dance home early so he can spend Saturday night sitting by the lake, drinking in a car under the moon with a couple of buddies he played baseball with. Around 2 a.m., his friends in the front seat suddenly scramble. They have to get back to town for church the next morning. He does not go to church, because his parents are indifferent. One friend wheels around. “Really? Bobby, you better get straight with the Lord. He’s coming someday.” He doesn’t know a lot about Christians, but he knows these guys weren’t living what they were now preaching.

It is 1981. The young man, who used to play college baseball but says he was suspended after two semesters at the University of Oklahoma because of poor grades, is working at a shop. One day, his older supervisor asks, “Are you a Christian?” The younger man is so surprised, he lies. “I am,” he says. The expression of relief on the older man’s face is so powerful that the younger man decides he can’t live without whatever the older man has in his life.

“I decided right then that by the time I go to bed tonight,” Dagnel says, “I’m going to have in my life what that guy has in his life.”

That night, he visits a high school friend’s father, who is a pastor. Inspired, he attends night school while working 60-hour weeks in the shop until he earns his undergraduate degree. Then, he enters seminary.

First Baptist Church of Lubbock
First Baptist Church of Lubbock
Sam Fortier

It is 2009. Dagnel, now middle-aged and the pastor of his own church, tells his story to his parishioners. How, after finishing seminary, he worked in churches in Alabama and Texas and became a pastor before eventually, in 2002, he ended up in Lubbock; how an assistant coach approached him after one service and asked him to get involved with the football team. (One parishioner approaches after the service and asks if he ever told the older man from the shop that story. He hadn’t, so he tracks down the older man and calls him. The older man answers. The younger man tells him about the moment that changed his life forever. The older man cries. He tells the younger man he does not remember him.)

Now, the pastor stares out at his congregation. He looks different here than on the football field. Here, he wears glasses, not Ray-Bans. He tucks a Bible into his right arm, not a football. He is Martha, not Mary.

Even after more than 30 years of working in churches, he says, it still haunts him to think his congregation hasn’t fully grasped the difference between religion and faith. That the people he calls “church family” perform as much as anyone else.

“There's still all these kinds of institutional thoughts out there,” Dagnel says, “even in a post-church, post-institutional culture in which we find ourselves. This is something that is highly personal and intimate.”

He surveys his church family. Faces peer back, expectantly, from three sides and two floors. You are not a Christian, he tells his congregants, because you were born in the United States, or your family goes to church, or you served in the military, or you voted Republican, or you joined a congregation, filled out a membership card, got baptized.

The same performative divide between words and actions can be present in a pew or on a football field.

One afternoon, Dagnel stands in a group of five in the grass between Texas Tech’s two practice fields, watching coaches pinwheel their arms toward the team’s second-string offense and defense. One of the five men is a strength-and-training intern whose stint with the team ends the next day. After a few minutes of the other four asking questions about the experience, everyone falls quiet. Tupac’s “Picture Me Rollin’” thunders from two large speakers at the end of the field.

Can you picture us rolling?
Can you see me, hoe?
Is y'all ready for me?
We up out this bitch

Hearing “cussin’” in the music played at practice and in the locker room bothered fullback Mason Reed in the first few days after he arrived at college in 2014, but not any more than he expected. However, his teammates’ sexually explicit discussions surprised him. At high school in Cisco, a small, central Texas town, Reed didn’t have a team chaplain, but he and his friends sometimes met up before school for Bible study. “We held each other pretty accountable,” Reed says. “We're deep in the faith together.”

Without that support system, in an unfamiliar environment, the sexual play-by-plays made Reed uncomfortable. When he learned the occupation of the man always spinning the football on the sideline, he felt relieved. He asked Dagnel that first summer if they could talk. Dagnel mostly listened as Reed vented, and ultimately the conversations led Reed to the conclusion he “had to trust God’s plan.” After those conversations and time praying, Reed decided he’d do what he could to surround himself with “good music,” so he pre-set the radio in his car to 90.9 FM. Even now, when he turns on his car, it blares Christian radio station K-Love.

Dagnel turns to the group watching practice. It’s moments like these that other coaches reference when explaining why Dagnel is so approachable, why the facility-wide scouting report on the chaplain simply goes: “One of the guys.” In perfect sync with Tupac, Dagnel drawls to the intern, “Any time y'all wanna see me again, rewind this track right here, close your eyes, and picture me rollin'.”

Offensive quality control coach and former TTU player Jared Kaster snares the 40-yard toss in stride just as it turns over and Dagnel raises his arms above his head. Touchdown. The pair plays catch together every day during the preseason as players stretch before practice. Dagnel plays catch throughout the afternoons with every coach willing, as part of what Dagnel calls “the fellowship of the ball.” It’s what helped eventually fill the void in Kaster’s life that he once described as “a big, empty hole.”

In 2016, the then–Red Raiders center graduated and, though he stayed at Texas Tech as an offensive assistant, he felt a deep emptiness in his life without playing. He’d gone to church with his family as a kid, but grew away from it in college, even though Dagnel was there in his playing days. He’d still go, but just to go.

As a coach, he interacted with Dagnel more often and came to appreciate when he would drop by a room and crack a joke in the midst of long, tense days. Kaster related to Dagnel and found him to be not at all like he thought a pastor would be. Dagnel shared his story with Kaster, of being a former college baseball player, the first in his family to go to college, only to bungle the opportunity. Kaster grew to trust Dagnel as he saw Dagnel consistently in the facility and on the field. He was always there, spinning a football on his finger and socializing. They started playing catch.

Over the months, while they threw and talked about anything but faith, Kaster found himself increasingly curious about Dagnel and how a pastor related so well to players and coaches alike. Kaster couldn’t ignore the hole anymore. One day, after growing comfortable with Dagnel, Kaster found himself asking about church.

“You can just come Sunday and check it out, if you want,” Dagnel said, and Kaster did.

One person at a time, Dagnel tried to close the gap. He chose to be Mary until someone asked him to be Martha.

At Bible study, Dagnel tells the coaches: You don’t need the “niceties” to do your job, really. You can dream about a bigger school with more resources, but once you get there, all those things that you once considered niceties become necessities.

“At the end of the day,” Dagnel says, “who's going to control the line of scrimmage? I don't need all the amenities. All the nice surroundings we have, the nutrition bar, that's real nice, but at the end of the day, [those things are] not necessary to line up and control the line of scrimmage.” A few coaches nod. A few eyes drop to the floor. Texas Tech, as much as any other team, glitzes up the facility to attract top-tier talent.

“In Jesus’s name, I pray,” Dagnel says, “amen.”Notebooks thud shut and chairs scrape unevenly against the carpet. Hands rub at eyes. “I’ll send y’all this if y’all don't have it,” Dagnel says, motioning at the scripture. Feet shuffle around the table and toward the door. One coach stays seated, hands still clasped upon the table.Dagnel pushes his chair back to leave. “Bobby,” the remaining coach says, and Dagnel looks up, smiling. “The conundrum in what we're saying about having stuff ...” the coach says. “The kids in recruiting, they're so used to seeing, everywhere they go, all these excesses. We—”“Well,” Dagnel interjects, “even with the showcases, we need to put it in their mind, this is what’s necessary.”

By “this,” Dagnel means having faith. Here he is Martha, calling on the coach to focus not on the growing mass of amenities, but on the people and the program that he’s helping to guide.

“But I've never seen anything like [these facilities],” the coach says. He lowers his voice. “You can tell overall. ... We're just switching things around, putting in some LED lights ...” He trails off.

Within about 100 yards of this room, there’s a recently remodeled locker room, a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility under construction, and a newly renovated weight room. Football coaches need lavish facilities to recruit dynamic players, to field a competitive team, to win, to please fans and boosters, to make money, to keep their jobs, to recruit more dynamic players. “Yeah,” Dagnel says, softly.The coach laughs shortly and scratches his head.“Right,” Dagnel says, brow furrowed. “It just looks nice. But I mean, at the end of the day, everybody in this room understands …” He pauses. “It’s about the line of scrimmage.”

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