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Rams chaplain Kevin Nickerson to play supporting role on Super Bowl Sunday

‘I don’t pray for wins or losses, I pray for victory.’

On Super Bowl Sunday, Los Angeles Rams chaplain Kevin Nickerson won’t be praying for his team to win.

“I don’t pray for wins or losses,” he said over the phone, “I pray for victory.

“I also pray that we represent who we say we serve. If you say you are a man of God, I hope you play that way.”

For Nickerson, victory means that everyone on the team coaches or plays with everything they have against the New England Patriots on Sunday in Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII.

Although the Rams are more than 2,000 miles away from their training facility in Thousand Oaks, California, the goal is to eat, sleep and train like they would for any other game. The only thing that will be different, said Nickerson, is they will hold a worship service before the game on Sunday.

The suggestion to host the family gathering was initiated by Brandin Cooks. The Rams wide receiver was inspired by a similar event at last year’s Super Bowl, when Cooks played for the Patriots.

Nickerson has never met Patriots chaplain and character coach Jack Easterby in person, but the two connected over the phone the week before the Super Bowl. Easterby shared tips on orchestrating the faith and family event.

“We help each other out,” Nickerson said, referring to the team chaplains in the league. All 32 NFL teams have a chaplain.

Nickerson was hired by the Rams shortly after the team’s move to Los Angeles in 2016. The 38-year-old former CFL and arena football player did not lead a church like some other NFL chaplains. He’d been immersed in faith and football since childhood and continued into high school and college. At Central Missouri State University, he held the NCAA record for kick return touchdowns from 1998 to 2001.

His call to ministry came when he was 25 years old.

While still playing for the CFL, Nickerson served as a youth pastor in the offseason. He also volunteered for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), a nonprofit Christian sports ministry. Nickerson is currently the Los Angeles County director for the FCA and says he receives funding through FCA by fundraising his salary year-round. (The NFL does not pay chaplains; they work as volunteers.)

Nickerson said he isn’t really sure why he was chosen as the Rams’ chaplain. Each team determines the job qualifications for its chaplain. He suspects it was because the players liked him and the Rams were pressed for time. The team had a 4-12 record that year and arguably needed some prayer.

“There was a lot of losing,” Nickerson recalled.

Still, he took the job because he loves football and enjoys helping young men grow. The position also seemed to fall in line with the life he felt called to live.

“The Lord told me, ‘You’re going to be a nobody, but you’re going to reach somebody,’ ” he said.

Serving as a chaplain in the NFL is indeed one of the more under-the-radar positions on a team. Nickerson, who is a husband and father of four children, starts his day around 4:30 a.m. during the season. He spends the workday praying, eating and building relationships with coaches and players.

And he expects his performance to be evaluated not by how many Bible studies he leads or how he preaches but by how well he interacts with coaches and players.

“My role is to help the players and coaches be the best men they can be, on and off the field,” he said. “I work to make sure they are spiritually cared for.”

Members of the Los Angeles Rams are joined by Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr after their NFL game at the Coliseum on Sept. 10, 2018, in Oakland, California.

Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/Mercury News via Getty Images

One of the most powerful interactions he has with players happens on game day. He’ll walk through the locker room before a game and round up players for what he calls the “pre-prayer.” A small group, usually led by Cooks, forms a circle near the showers, locks arms and prays for things like protection and health. Later, more players gather to say the “corporate prayer,” or the universal Lord’s Prayer. This ritual, which is often initiated by punter Johnny Hekker, is not mandatory — not everyone on the team is Christian — but Nickerson said all players on the team have recently been in attendance.

“I don’t care what someone believes or doesn’t believe,” he said. “I’m here to serve.”

Nickerson said he does not impose his beliefs on others. He said he makes it a point to learn how he can best serve his non-Christian colleagues. One such player experienced a death in the family and welcomed Nickerson’s offer to support him emotionally. Nickerson said he was happy to provide a listening ear and shoulder to lean on.

For players and coaches who are receptive, Nickerson has led Bible studies, couples ministries and baptisms. One of his proudest moments this year was when he baptized left guard Rodger Saffold and his wife. The ceremony, which was the first he’s performed for someone on the team, was held at Hekker’s house.

The tasks that allow Nickerson to see the players grow are most rewarding, he said, but the job comes with its share of challenges.

“The hardest part is not knowing what’s going on in the hearts and minds of the players and coaches,” he said. “The pressures of the game are so heavy; most of the guys are performance-driven. If your heart is in a bad place, you’ll do things not in your character.”

Another challenge is making sure the guest speakers he brings in to encourage the players are there to actually help the players, not advance personal agendas.

Come Sunday, Nickerson’s focus will be on encouraging the players and “winning the touch battle.”

“People play better when they are touched,” he said.

So Nickerson will be at the 30-yard line, the place he stands at every game, ready to give hand slaps and hugs to anyone coming on and off the field.

Whether the Rams win or lose the Super Bowl, the chaplain’s plan is to be consistent.

“I will still come in with a smile on my face, hug the same people that I hug, speak the same language,” he said. “I will celebrate with the players if we win. l’ll try to encourage them in whatever way we see fit if we lose.”

The final score is only part of the story for Nickerson. A true victory for him won’t be represented by a Super Bowl ring.

Eryn Mathewson is the editorial coordinator for the Rhoden Fellows program. She enjoys coaching young journalists, writing and producing podcasts. When she's not working, she's probably running or watching "bad" TV.