Christian and Missionary Alliance chaplain, Eric Simpson, ministers to the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts in Team Spirit

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Team Spirit

An interview with Eric Simpson, Alliance pastor and NFL chaplain

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When anyone asks Eric Simpson how he got to be a chaplain for the Indianapolis Colts, his only explanation is “the Lord put me in a certain setting at a certain time.”

Eric preaches at Eagle Church (Alliance). (Photo by Tom Marron)
In the early 1990s, Eric moved from Iowa to Indiana to begin a career with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Company. Then God redirected his path toward the pastorate when Kerry Bowman (founding pastor) asked him to come on staff at Eagle Church.

At that time, the start-up church was fairly close to the Colts’ practice facility, so several of the players, coaches, and staff worshiped at Eagle in the off-season. Eric’s path eventually intersected with Ken Johnson, the Colts’ chaplain, who invited Eric to help give pastoral leadership to the team.

Now in his 20th season with the Colts and third year as lead pastor of Eagle, Eric continues to pour out his life for the sake of others.

AL: Why is a chaplain necessary for a sports team?

Six months of the year, it is very difficult for professional football players to be directly connected with a local church. Most of the time, it’s the wives and kids who are connected to the churches in the communities they live in. But the players and coaches are gone. So they’re the main focus of my time and ministry, and secondarily, some of the other staff.

AL: How is pastoring a football team similar to or different from pastoring a church?

Though his name may not be emblazoned across his shoulders, Alliance pastor Eric Simpson (pictured with Colts punter Pat McAfee on the sidelines of a recent game) is an integral part of the Indianapolis Colts football organization, serving the team as a chaplain.
I think the similarities are much easier to speak to because the team includes real people with real lives. So the context of chaplain ministry with the Colts is very similar to the context of local church ministry in Zionsville, Indiana.

One of the things I pray about being is “a pastor as a parable of Jesus,” which David Hansen describes in his book The Art of Pastoring. It means you’re present with people in everyday life, whether everyday life in Zionsville or everyday life in “Colts world.” I try to be present and represent Christ in whatever setting He places me in.

AL: And that includes the NFL.

My whole life as a pastor could be consumed with local church life. It’s probably not too hard for that to happen. But I think one of the ways the Lord has kept me pressed beyond the walls of Eagle Church is that He put me in this 250-person organization 20 years ago.

The environment that these young men are trying to grow up in has some challenging elements to it, so it’s the role of a chaplain to try to remind them of life beyond the scoreboard. I try to talk to them a lot about the kind of men they are becoming while they are with this team and in this league, and that is why we have Bible studies and chapels and prayer times.

AL: How have you seen a young man’s life changed through your ministry as chaplain?

I can think of several, but one example is Jeff Saturday, a former center. He is a great friend. We met for years at six o’clock Wednesday mornings in my office, and we would get into the Scriptures and get on our knees and pray. My job was helping him become a man of God and become the kind of husband and father God wants him to be. He had such a great career here. He and his family worshiped at Eagle their last several years in Indy, and now he’s an analyst for ESPN and lives in Atlanta.

Jeff sends me a text every now and then about what is going on in his life and how he is trying to put into practice the stuff we talked about. That’s worth it all when you have those moments and see the ripple effect from their lives. Jeff is really trying to pour into others like I attempted to model for him.

AL: Does being a chaplain feel like you’re on the mission field, or is it more about discipleship?

I think it is a little of both. I’m sensitive to what journey someone is on. Some of them come from really strong spiritual backgrounds and just want help walking with God. And others don’t have much spiritual background at all.

At a Bible study earlier this fall, a young man named Brian came. I noticed when everyone left, he stayed at the table and wanted to talk. He said, “Hey, Eric. I grew up Catholic my whole life, and what we just experienced in the last 20 minutes I have never experienced in my life.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, we actually, like, opened the Bible, and we talked about how the Bible is going to make a difference in my life today and tomorrow. I’m going to put into practice the stuff we just talked about.”

Forty-eight hours after his first Bible study and his first chapel service, Brian was cut from the team. Now he is in another part of the country, and I don’t know that we will ever be in the same room again. So I pray that maybe the seeds that were planted in our brief time together will grow. Who knows—that’s maybe why the Lord brought him for the few weeks he was here.

AL: What other opportunities for ministry has God provided?

Surrounded by family and friends, Ann, a Colts cheerleader, is baptized by Pastor Eric Simpson. (Photo by Tom Marron)
A couple of years ago, the leader of the Colts’ cheerleaders, who is a Christian, asked me if I would come and do a chapel for them on game days. I thought, What would that look like? She said, “You would come to the cheerleaders’ locker room at the stadium. I’ll make the service voluntary, and you can preach a short message from the Bible and talk to the ladies about what it means to know Christ and walk with Him.” Who would have thought that?

I talked to my wife about it first, and she was super supportive.

The first time I did a cheerleader chapel, I thought there maybe would be five or six gals; I had no idea how many would come. But there were, like, 35 cheerleaders! They’ve all come every time. And recently, one of the cheerleaders, named Ann, was baptized. She had a half dozen of her cheerleader friends around the tank with her.

I don’t know where all this will go. I just try to be available to serve where the Lord plants me and to be faithful. Kneeling beside Ann at the baptism tank, I was overwhelmed. Look what the Lord can do with simply saying yes to a strange invitation!

AL: Being an NFL chaplain seems cool and all very fun. But what does loving the people of this organization actually cost you?

Eric (right of center) prays with members of the Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams after a game.
Well, it’s a lot of work. It’s exhausting. I got home at 3:00 a.m. from a Saturday night playoff “road game,” and the alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. for Sunday service.

Every team wants to be playing in the Super Bowl in February, but I’m really grateful when we get to the week after the Super Bowl. It feels really good to be at the end of a season, because it’s a long run. There are Bible studies every week to put together. Chapels. Mentoring meetings. And it’s all in the midst of staff meetings and sermon prep and all the local church-life stuff.

So I regularly say at the start of every season, “Lord, do You want me to keep doing this?” And each year He answers, Flourish where you’re planted, and I’ll make sure you can get done what you need to get done.

The flip side of all the wonderful fruit of the ministry is the investment in the work, the sacrifice, and the laying down of your life for the sake of others. I do it because someday I want to stand before Jesus and say, “Lord, here is every ounce of life that has been rung out of me for You.” That’s what I think Paul meant when he said he poured his life out like a drink offering (2 Tim. 4:6). I want to pour every drop of my life out for His glory.

2 responses to Team Spirit

  1. I met Eric several years ago and really appreciate what he does. I am a Colts fan who lives just outside of Rockford, IL (Strong Bears Country). I am also an Alliance Pastor currently not serving in a church. This is a wonderful article and it is very nice to know that there are Christian men and women on the football field.

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