PHILADELPHIA—The play was 48 Toss, and 30 years later, Dick Vermeil remembers it as if he called it last Sunday. Herb Lusk took a pitch from Ron Jaworski, headed around left end, and breezed unscathed 70 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown. Four steps over the goal line at Giants Stadium, the Philadelphia Eagles’ running back rewrote the playbook. Alone in the end zone, with a crowd of 48,824 looking on, he celebrated with a gesture in what has since become a watershed moment in American sports.
With little ceremony and no advance warning, Lusk kept his eyes straight, dropped to his left knee, and bowed his head in prayer. A few seconds later, he stood back up and returned to the sideline, his legacy sealed.
The end zone prayer seems like such a football cliche now. But Lusk was an original, and his act garnered little attention. For a while.
The gestures went unremarked upon, for the most part, that Sunday, Oct. 9, 1977. A couple of reporters asked Lusk about it after the game, but didn’t make mention of it in their stories, instead focusing on how Lusk’s 117 rushing yards helped the Eagles win. Nobody, not even Lusk himself, thought such a seemingly quiet, personal moment would eventually become apparent today at every level of competitive sports, whether it be a pitcher pointing skyward after a save, a hitter offering thanks to a higher power after a home run, or a basketball team joining for a prayer at midcourt after a game.
While historians have pointed to prayer being fused with spectator sports as far back as the early 20th century, Lusk was the one credited with making on-field prayer a mainstream act 30 years ago, so much so, it earned him the nickname “The Praying Tailback,” according to Sabol and Lusk’s former Eagles teammates.