Sunday, January 29, 2023

Rams leader Jalen Ramsey opens up about his spiritual foundation, refuses to take credit for his stardom

The Rams pay Jalen Ramsey $20 million per year to be the best cornerback in football. They just gave him a 20-carat diamond ring for helping them win Super Bowl LVI. And they watch, each fall, as pundits league-wide feast on his every comment, building headlines around a confidence that’s earned him titles like “master of trash talk” and “most relentless” on-field instigator.

At 27, Ramsey is an almost-impenetrable brand in and of himself. In a passing era, with wide receivers now approaching quarterback money, it’s easier to dominate stat sheets and fantasy lineups than cover the guys who do. He does it anyway. And when the slip-ups do occur, his reputation remains: aggressive, physical, talkative. The shutdown NFL cornerback.

None of it properly defines him. Not the labels. Not the contracts. Not the awards. Ramsey is one half of the Rams’ historic defensive duo, the other being future Hall of Famer Aaron Donald. But he’s frankly more concerned with his other, more important partner. If you haven’t picked up on who that might be, he reasons, then you probably just haven’t been listening.

“Personally I’ve never cared what people think (about me),” Ramsey told CBS Sports in a recent phone call. “Because most of the time, their perception is wrong. And also, like, I just don’t play for humans. I play for all glory to God.”

Ramsey’s social media following — 1.4 million on Instagram, 430,000 on Twitter — gets a daily sprinkling of his faith. If he’s not reposting devotionals or prayers, he’s asking fans for their favorite Bible verses. Grandma would be proud; she’s a retired pastor who helped oversee his church upbringing, which extended to high school, where he studied different religions at private Brentwood Academy in Tennessee.

Still, for many, the first thing that comes to mind with Jalen Ramsey is not “child of God.” Maybe that’s because his athletic prowess is an easier conversation. Maybe, more likely, it’s because he’s not the stereotypical Christian athlete, more notorious for picking fights with wideouts than spouting inspirational cliches. This is a guy who essentially forced his way off the lowly Jaguars three years after they drafted him No. 5 overall, who once openly called opposing QBs “trash,” and kept approaching Tom Brady, egging on the greatest player of all time, in an AFC Championship Game.

In one sense, Ramsey is simply playing a part; the minute he steps onto the field, unmatched bravado is basically a prerequisite for eliminating the best pass catchers in the world — for doing his job, earning his paycheck, satisfying the thousands who wear his No. 5 jersey. There’s also, he suggests, a fundamental misconception among outsiders about what it means to be humble. The world sees him play with visible confidence and says: Cocky! He elects to view his abilities, including confidence, as gifts.

“It’s not like an arrogance thing, like, me, me, me, me, me,” Ramsey says. “I know that this is all God. Like, there’s nowhere in the Word, in the Bible, that says humility is thinking less of yourself. But if you look up ‘humility’ in the Webster dictionary — I don’t know where the disconnect was — it says thinking less of yourself. And that’s not — personally, I don’t want that type of humility, I don’t think anybody should think less of themselves. I don’t agree with that, I don’t live my life like that. I will not think less of myself, because thinking less of myself is also going to be doing a discredit to God.

“Like, why would I think less of myself when God’s blessed me with so much?” Ramsey continues. “Like, nah, I’m gonna praise God. … I’m gonna shout all my blessings, I’m gonna let the world know, because at the end of the day I know … all these (gifts) came from Him and I’m doing the best of my ability to put (them) on showcase. … So when people try to put that on me, like, ‘Oh, he’s arrogant,’ or, ‘He’s not humble,’ they don’t even know me, they don’t know who I’m doing it for.”

Ramsey knows the perception: every time he pounds his chest, points to his nameplate or jaws with an opponent, he is further entrenching “Jalen Ramsey” as a superstar. He insists, however, that those who know him personally, not from TV or even the social media he inhabits, know he doesn’t claim to be self-made: “It’s never me,” he says. “It’s all God. It’s God putting me in the best situations, around the best people, blessing me with the work ethic. Like it’s literally all God.”

Ramsey has some theological backing in his approach to biblical humility: The Gospel Coalition (TGC), a network of evangelical churches, argues that humility is often wrongly associated with insecurity, indecisiveness and inactivity. The five-time Pro Bowler is defiantly none of those things. But TGC also argues that Christian humility includes “unconcern for power, prestige and position.” Where and when, exactly, is Ramsey putting others before himself, his $100M career and all that comes with it?

You might start back home, where Ramsey’s father, Lamont, has been serving as an emergency medical technician with the Nashville Fire Department since Jalen was 5. Fifteen minutes from Ramsey’s hometown, a K-4 charter school is still reaping the benefits of the Rams star’s $1M donation. On past Thanksgivings, he’s spent tens of thousands surprising area high schoolers with gift cards to local grocery stores. In 2021, his foundation helped donate more than 345,000 meals to Los Angeles-area food banks.

“You gotta put action with your beliefs,” Ramsey says.

And that doesn’t account for what happens in his own home. The All-Pro takes tithing very seriously, but he’s equally serious about parenting. Of his countless tattoos, only two aren’t direct symbols for his faith. They are the names of his daughters — Breelyn, 4; and Brooklyn, 2 — and they’re inked among flowers along his ribs, always within reach of his heart. He sends his girls, along with their young nephew, to a pre-K program at a private Christian school, where they learn the basics of not only reading and writing but what Scripture says about God’s love for them.

“I’m trying to raise my kids the right way,” Ramsey says. “They know that without Jesus Christ we’re nothing, but with Jesus Christ, we’re everything. They pray every single night with me. Things like that, people don’t know, but I don’t really broadcast or care to broadcast, because that’s not really why I do it, that’s not who I do it for.”

Faith, if you haven’t noticed by now, is the one thing Ramsey does care to share. People used to ask him about it more — he’s been posting verses and partaking in Bible studies since his Jaguars days, encouraged by his grandma, team chaplain and close teammates — but it’s often “overshadowed by so much of the football, football, football stuff.” From the outside, sports are synonymous with his life. From his eyes, sports cannot sustain life. Only his creator can. Ramsey’s go-to reminder: John 1:12, which promises that anyone who accepts Jesus as Lord is welcomed into God’s family.

The paradox of Ramsey prioritizing spiritual status over his earthly one is that this stuff comes full circle: one of the things that makes him so lethal — the NFL’s most zealous cover man — is his beliefs. So at peace with an identity that lies beyond the game, he lines up with transcendent mettle. So thankful for the physical abilities he did not earn, he doubles as an in-house mentor for his peers. Coach Sean McVay calls him a “magnetic personality,” and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris joked this summer that it’s “terrible” trying to compete with Ramsey’s teaching, since he already has “all the answers.”

“You can ask my teammates,” Ramsey says. “I take on a lot of different roles during the games, I play a lot of different positions, I usually take the toughest downs away from my teammates. I work extremely hard to make sure I’m prepared for them.”

The hope, inside the Rams, is that his presence on the field and in the locker room will allow L.A. to repeat as world champions. Ramsey’s resume suggests his impact could still expand, with a career-high 77 tackles, four interceptions and nine tackles for loss powering the club’s title-winning secondary in 2021. But what happens after all that? What happens once the unmistakable football career comes to a close, and another chapter awaits? Might we, someday, witness the dreadlocked superstar further ascend into the spiritual realm? Perhaps even following in family footsteps, and becoming Pastor Ramsey?

“Uh,” he laughs, “nah, I don’t think I’ll go down that path. In essence, though, I think anybody can encourage others. Anybody can kinda be a pastor, right? I’ve always wanted to do it in a little bit of a different way.”

No one would deny that.

Truth be told, Ramsey has his sights set on the youth: once his playing days are over, he wants to coach a high school team “the right way, encouraging the kids with not only my knowledge about the game of football but about life and about Jesus Christ.”

Until then, he’s got his own receivers to blanket, his own games to win, and maybe, if it’s that kind of a day, a little trash talk to dish out. Just rest assured, when it’s all said and done, that Jalen Ramsey — the magnificently unbothered celebrity that he is — will be bowing down, eyes closed and fingers intertwined.

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