I’m A Christian First
It may just look like a patch of smeared-on eye-black to some, but to Tennessee Titans’ lead running back Derrick Henry, star wide receiver A.J. Brown, and free safety Kenny Vaccaro, the crosses displayed underneath their helmets and on their cheeks serve a far greater purpose than the conventional use of blocking out the bright Nashville sun.
“I’m a Christian first, before anything,” the 23-year-old Brown told reporters in early 2020. “When I step out on the field, I want to say ‘thank you’ for the blessings, for everything. Because in my mind, I don’t have to do this, I get to do this. So I always wear a cross.”
“When I step out on the field, I want to say ‘thank you’ for the blessings, for everything. Because in my mind, I don’t have to do this, I get to do this.” A.J. Brown
For Vaccaro, 29, it’s a way of displaying his faith to others, indicating that he has been marked with the cross of Christ – something he proudly displays every game.
“Just understanding that I go into battle asking God to watch over me, from the crown of my helmet to the sole of my feet,” Vaccaro said. “I say it all the time when I pray. I kind of remind myself it’s already written. Just go out there and play. Go play free. Don’t fear anybody.”
As for Henry, displaying a visible cross seemed like a better way to show his faith to others, be it teammates, fans or the competition.
“I always thought, ‘What can I do to basically show off God?’” Henry said on the Faith on the Field podcast. “’What can I do more than just a celebration or things like that?’ So I just thought that maybe I could put the cross on my face. It’s like he’s out there with me playing and doing the things that I’m doing.”
The three players are on the same team, and serve in prominent roles; however, the ideas came to them separately, and even the application process of the eye-black is a little different for each. Henry alternates cheeks each week, while Brown and Vaccaro sport a double cross every game day.
“In all honesty, it just kind of came to mind,” Vaccaro said of his decision to shift from a simple stick-on patch to painting on his own eye-black. “We always put the one line on our cheeks, so I just thought, well, I’ll just put two.”
Backing Up Words With Actions
It may seem like a simple act, but for the three Tennessee Titans stars, it is a way of backing up their words with actions, or faith-based decision-making. And this isn’t the first time that actions have backed up the spiritual beliefs of these three combatants.
For Vaccaro, tattoos have always been one way that the eight-year pro can continue to show off his love for artwork, his family and God. Sporting various Bible verses, crosses, angels, names and dates, 10 of Vaccaro’s 24 tattoos stem from his faith. Many of these are also on display on the gridiron on a weekly basis.
For the NFL’s newest record-setter, Derrick Henry, a strong high school career led to a dominant three-year stay with the Alabama Crimson Tide, where he put up a masterful 2015 season of 2,219 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns. Following that performance, the then 22-year-old beat out Deshaun Watson and Christian McCaffrey for the Heisman Trophy as the most outstanding college football player in the United States. His acceptance speech began like this:
“God is everything,” Henry told the Heisman brotherhood and invited guests at the awards ceremony. “Always keep God first. Always pray. Don’t be afraid to pray. He’ll always hear your cry. If you have dreams, go chase them. If you believe it, you can achieve it. God will be there every step of the way. I’m a living testament, man. … I never thought I’d be up here, but, you know, God is good. I get on my hands and knees every night and pray. I’m thankful for everything. Keep God first, always pray, and you’ll always chase your dreams.”
Following his breakout 2019 season in which Henry led the league in rushing yards (1,540) and touchdowns (16), the two-time Pro Bowler became the eighth player in NFL history to amass 2,000 yards on the ground in a single season (2,027), while once again leading the league in touchdowns (17). Amongst his single-season records, Henry also holds many NFL records, including the longest rushing touchdown recorded (99 yards), as well as becoming the first player with 180+ yards in three consecutive games. Henry also became the first player since LaDainian Tomlinson (2006-07) to lead the league in rushing yards in consecutive seasons.
Although Henry tends to draw most of the attention, Brown and Vaccaro also put together strong 2020 campaigns. In 14 games for Tennessee, Brown had 11 touchdowns to go alongside 70 receptions for 1,075 yards, including two games of 150+ yards. Vaccaro played a strong defensive season for the Titans, collecting 62 solo tackles, 86 combined tackles, six tackles for losses, one sack and one fumble returned for 53 yards. He never saw less than 86 percent of all defensive snaps in a single game on the season, while taking 100 percent of the defensive snaps upon six occasions.