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Inside the Bills: Team chaplain Len Vanden Bos blends faith and football

Jay Skurski

Faith and football have long been intertwined. From players pointing toward the sky or taking a knee to pray after scoring a touchdown to the postgame prayer circle at midfield, examples are easy to find.

In times of adversity, which the Buffalo Bills most certainly are going through now, players and coaches turn to their faith for answers and strength.

“Sometimes you just don’t really understand why things happen,” quarterback Nathan Peterman said last week, following a five-interception debut as the team's starting quarterback against the Los Angeles Chargers. “I’ve got to trust in a higher power. I think my relationship with God helps me a lot with that.”

Again when it was announced this week that Tyrod Taylor would replace Peterman as the starting quarterback against Kansas City, the rookie made reference to how he leans on his faith.

"My relationship with God, I think that’s the biggest thing; the trust in God no matter what happens, good or bad," he said. "That’s kind of how life goes sometimes, there’s bad things that happen to people. It’s what you’re going to do with that, how you’re going to turn it into a positive. That’s what I’m focused on."

Peterman's resolute faith is not a surprise. His father, Chuck, started the Creekside Christian Church out of their home in Florida in 2002. For players who might not be as far along on their spiritual journey, however, the Bills this season became one of the few franchises in the NFL to hire a full-time chaplain. Len Vanden Bos, a former college coach, was brought on in March by coach Sean McDermott.

“When you talk about providing the resources for our players and our staff – when you do that, there is mind, body and spirit involved,” McDermott said. “There is an element of that that players need, both on and off the field. Len's been a valuable addition to our staff. … We're fortunate to have him.”

Building a foundation

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Matthew 7:24.

That Bible verse is given to each member of the Bills who is new to Vanden Bos’ chapel services, and is at the heart of the message he is trying to spread.

“Our theme, in a word, is foundation,” Vanden Bos said. “What's the foundation that coach McDermott and his staff are building? I wanted to dovetail with that.”

The coach has talked often about building a culture, and Vanden Bos' message, which he builds upon each week, is tied directly to that.

"We talk about how you apply that to your everyday life as a player or a coach or a wife," he said. "When I came to work here, with a new staff, and with everything that's going on in the building, we felt like some foundation was needed. When we talk about servanthood or forgiveness or prayer, relationships, reconciliation, all these different words that are foundational – that's this season's theme."

Regardless of a player’s religious affiliation, he is there to serve them.

“Guys that don't have the same beliefs, they're always welcome,” he said. “I love to hear what they believe and why they believe that. If I had to boil it down to a word, I'm trying to help them grow. As a father, as a husband, as a teammate. That's one of the messages I try to get out early.”

Each week, Vanden Bos sends a text message to each player on the team, reminding them of the services he offers. That includes a Bible study for players on Mondays and coaches on Tuesdays, as well as a “family night” on Thursdays that is mostly for couples, but open to anyone who wants to attend. He also leads a chapel service Saturday nights before games.

"Len's been awesome. He's a mentor. He's a spiritual leader, not just for games, but in the locker room," fullback Patrick DiMarco said. "He's in here a good bit talking with guys. He's also been ears to listen sometimes when we need to get something off our chest. ... This is the most proactive chaplain I've had from a team standpoint. For Bible study we have at least 15 or 20 guys, and chapel it's more than 30."

Leading those sessions is the easiest explanation of Vanden Bos' role, but it goes far beyond that.

"I provide pastoral care for the entire organization," he said. "I feel like I'm always on call if somebody needs something. While I primarily focus on the players and coaches, I'm here for anybody in the building if they need some kind of support.”

During those smaller group sessions during the week, Vanden Bos ties whatever he talked about during his chapel session into the Bible study.

“Len gets us thinking. He always has stuff prepared for us, and is ready to ask us questions,” said safety Micah Hyde. “He’s somebody we can talk to, not just about the Word, but about life.

"I don't think people understand – this is a very long season. You come in here every day, you see the same people. It gets really repetitive. So guys kind of get frustrated every now and then. Somebody like Len can keep you sane."

The postgame prayer huddle, which Vanden Bos directs, includes members of both teams. It is perhaps the most outward sign of faith displayed on a group level in pro sports. Given that a player is literally putting his body on the line each time he takes the field, prayers of protection are offered before every game.

"It's their livelihood. It's how they make a living,” Vanden Bos said. “Their desire to feel like they're protected, or they can ask God for that, ‘OK, my mind is free, because I've asked God for protection.’  ... You can go out and play hard and physical, but do it safely, right, and and in a way that honors God. I really believe that, and these guys do, too.”

Protection isn't the only reason faith is such a big part of the NFL, though.

"For a lot of guys, they've overcome so many things to get here and have grinded so hard," DiMarco said. "They know there is a greater being and a greater purpose. There's a reason why they're here. God created them to be explosive and fast and strong."

Throughout the league, several players identify themselves first as Christians and second as athletes.

"Being in those huddles, I’m so impressed with the maturity of a lot of the men in the NFL who have their identity other than a football player," Vanden Bos said. "I think that's grown over the years. That's just my opinion. There is a community of believers in this league, on every team, that I think is really strong.”

The role of a chaplain on an NFL team is not new, although it’s rare that an organization makes it a full-time position. Vanden Bos knows of just a few other teams – the Ravens and Patriots among them – that do so. Most of the chaplains in the league, more than 50 percent, according to Vanden Bos, work for either Athletes in Action or Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“They have other jobs that they're doing,” he said. “They're not full-time, in-the-building chaplains.”

In that way, Vanden Bos is truly living out a dream. Being around football isn’t new to him. In fact, it was his life when he was young.

His first calling

Vanden Bos was a college coach for eight years, from the time he was 22 years old on the staff of the legendary Jack Harbaugh at Western Michigan. He worked as the defensive graduate assistant, while Jack’s son, John, was the offensive graduate assistant.

“I was going to be a high school history teacher and a high school coach. That was kind of the plan,” Vanden Bos said. “But I got introduced to Jack. He gave me the opportunity to be a GA for him and that plan changed. I said, ‘I don't want to be a high school coach, I want to be a college coach.’ "

The elder Harbaugh helped Vanden Bos land a position as a graduate assistant at Rice University, and from there he became the defensive coordinator at Albion College, a Division III school in his native Michigan. When Jack Harbaugh went to Western Kentucky in 1989, he offered Vanden Bos a position as his defensive backs coach a year later.

“So I was about seven or eight years into college coaching, 28 years old, just climbing the ladder,” Vanden Bos said. “You know, just loving everything about it. Couldn't get enough of it.”

As he pursued his passion, though, Vanden Bos came to realize his priorities were out of whack.

“My relationship with God really had become several rungs lower on my priority ladder than it should have been,” he said.

When Vanden Bos and his wife, Char, had their first child in 1990, he reached a crossroads.

“That really triggered me, because I was torn. I wanted to be a good dad, but I was spending all my time coaching football,” he said.

Vanden Bos confided in his brother, Tim, who had started him on his spiritual journey, about his internal struggle. Tim Vanden Bos worked at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, running a camp for fathers and sons.

“He called me one day early in 1992. He said, ‘They're looking for a guy to run the sports ministry. I gave him your name, and that's all I'm saying.’ And he hung up,” Vanden Bos said. “I wrestled with it. Finally, I called them and they said, ‘We’d love to have you come up and talk to you about what we're trying to do at the church.’"

Vanden Bos had no desire to leave coaching, but after visiting the church a second time with his wife he “felt like God was saying, ‘This is what you need to do.’ ”

That meant going into Jack Harbaugh’s office and quitting on the coach who had given him his start.

“He taught me everything about football,” Vanden Bos said. “To this day, the guy I look up to most in coaching is Jack Harbaugh. So that was a hard decision. It was the first spiritual decision that really cost me something. It cost me my job.”

The first few years in Chicago were difficult for Vanden Bos. He missed coaching, and building a ministry through sports was not easy. More time at home also revealed some uncomfortable truths.

“I realized for the first time that our marriage was not great," Vanden Bos said. “I had spent all this time, our first eight years, giving all my best energy to football. But what it allowed us to do is it really take a hard look at our marriage. … We ended up putting it back on really solid footing, and we both began to really grow spiritually."

Today, Vanden Bos pays tribute to his wife for her support throughout his career. On Wednesdays during the season, Char leads a Bible study group for the wives and girlfriends of players and coaches.

A ‘gift from God’

With his home life on solid footing, Vanden Bos’ ministry began to grow. At the same time, he got an opportunity that changed his life.

Wheaton College, a Division III school not far from where he worked, was looking for a part-time defensive backs coach.

“They said, 'You can come down in the afternoons, just help during the season,” he said. “I could still coach, but not give my whole life to it. That was a real life-saver for me. It really answered a prayer. ... I still desired to coach. I loved everything about it. I loved the relationships with the kids, strategy, competition.”

"You can tell he loves the game," DiMarco said. "He doesn't push it upon you to talk football, because we get enough of that. But if we want to talk football with him, he knows his stuff. He understands the time and effort that comes with it from coaching."

Vanden Bos ended up spending 16 years coaching on a part-time basis.

“Division III football are great kids to coach,” he said. “They're not on scholarship. They're playing for the love of the game. We were a very successful program as well. ... I was able to do that and give my best to those parenting years that are so critical. We were able to be all together, which I would never trade for any number of Super Bowls.”

Vanden Bos’ first job in the NFL came with the Chicago Bears in 2013-14 as a part-time chaplain on former coach Marc Trestman’s staff.

“That really exposed me to the idea of being a chaplain,” he said. “When I got my head around what that job was, even though it was part-time, it was like, this is the best of both worlds. It allowed me to be in football, but also be in ministry.”

When Trestman and his staff were fired after the 2014 season, Vanden Bos had another decision to make. His brother was planning to retire, meaning Vanden Bos could take over but would have to leave football. That wasn’t something he was ready to do, so he placed a call to John Harbaugh, the coach of the Ravens.

“He said, ‘Why don't you come out to Baltimore and just help me out? Do whatever I need you to do,'” Vanden Bos said. “So that’s what I did.”

Vanden Bos assisted Ravens chaplain Johnny Shelton with ministry, and also helped out in the defensive backs room – a natural given his background. It was there that he got to know Leslie Frazier, the Ravens’ defensive backs coach.

“We built a really nice relationship last year,” Vanden Bos said. “After he left for Buffalo, he called me and said Sean was looking for a full-time chaplain and asked me if I was interested, which of course I was.”

Vanden Bos’ support can take many different forms, not all of which have to do with anything that happens on the field.

“I try to build trust with the whole team,” he said. “One of the things I really have enjoyed, and I was thrilled when I interviewed and asked Sean questions, is I'm allowed to sit in on the meetings with the defensive backs. When they do individual drills, I get to throw the ball a little bit.

"I’m a part of it other than just sitting in a room going, ‘OK, I'm going to show up on Saturday night for my chapel and I'm going to show up to Bible study.' I'm able to be a part of it as much as I can.”

The next couple of verses following Matthew 7:24 talk about how a house built on rock did not fall because its foundation was strong, unlike that of "foolish man who build his house on sand."

"I do believe if you're grounded in your identity, if you have a foundation underneath you, you can handle the storms of life," Vanden Bos said.

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