For some Illinois athletes, religion is a central part of their identity

After competing on Saturdays, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase spends his Sundays going to church and giving thanks to God. He often uses his Twitter account to air his views and talk about his experiences with Christianity.

Three Sundays ago, Scheelhaase was expressing his feelings about his religion before a reply from one of his followers surprised him and caused him to send out another tweet that read: “Some1 just told me ease up on the Jesus tweets, smh… S/O to all those who are open and firm in their faith.” That tweet received a lot of reaction from his followers, including 48 retweets.

Scheelhaase makes no apologies for his tweets and he doesn’t plan on it. He said most people usually love his messages about religion and that some people have told him they are inspirational.

“Twitter’s a pretty open airwave, and what I want to say usually has to do with my faith, and if some people don’t like it that’s not something I’m going to change at all,” Scheelhaase said. “So it does surprise you, but in a way it doesn’t because there are always naysayers in life no matter what you do.”

Since coming to the University, religion has played a big role in Scheelhaase’s life, and he wears it openly. He is now a member of Stone Creek church and said it has opened his eyes to a new part of his life.

“As a Division I athlete, I could be talking about anything,” he said. “And as a quarterback, there’s a lot of things you can get involved with, and I want to show people this is the thing I’m involved with.”

Scheelhaase has to combine the stresses of being a Division I athlete, maintaining a good grade point average and trying to do right by his religion, a task easier said than done. But to deal with the pressure, he has help from people going through the same thing.

Scheelhaase is involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or FCA, and has met athletes from other sports, including wrestlers Eric Terrazas and B.J. Futrell and volleyball player Jazmine Orozco. They are just a few of the Illini athletes who are very open in their faith.

They aren’t going to bars to celebrate after games and they aren’t smoking anything. Terrazas said the key is finding a balance to trying to staying connected to your team.

“I’m definitely there for my teammates, but there is that fine line of isolation that you kind of have to draw for yourself,” Terrazas said.

“If they start drinking or going out to bars, that’s not a place I want to be seen, especially being open about my faith.”

Terrazas shows his faith in numerous ways. He posts similar things as Scheelhaase on Facebook often about things he is learning and what is inspiring him. He is involved with FCA, posts some inspirational things inside of his locker, wears an ankle band with a cross during competitions and has an FCA sticker on his headgear. Together with Futrell, they host a team Bible study every Thursday, which they said attracts strong turnouts.

“Whenever you bring in religion to your sporting arena it’s definitely going to be a little bit controversial to some people but it’s not controversial to me, BJ or Nate,” Terrazas said. “For us, it’s just our livelihood and what we believe in.”

Orozco’s biggest challenge deals with time. With so much on her plate it is difficult for her to spend the time she’d like with her church, to read and pray. She is unable to be an FCA leader this semester because of her volleyball schedule.

Despite her busy schedule, Orozco has actually become more involved in religion since arriving on campus. She said she’s the only person in her family who is very religious, so moving from home gave her a fresh start without some of the temptations she would’ve had back in Lakewood, Calif. She added that Champaign has its temptations as well, but she’s better equipped to deal with them here.

“I’m not perfect, but the biggest thing I’ve found here is that I have a lot of friends who are going through the same thing,” Orozco said. “People like Tessa (Adams, diver) Eric, B.J. and Nate have things they struggle with that are similar. I can hang out with them if I’m starting to feel tempted to do things that don’t go along with my beliefs and to support me if I make mistakes too.”

None of these athletes said they experience much backlash for their openness about religion, and none would care if they did.

“Being a Christian, we don’t fit in with the norms,” Terrazas said. “So I guess if we do get attacked from other teams, fans, Twitter, Facebook or whatever we don’t really worry about it.”