Meet the Cherry Hill Pastor Who Hears the Eagles’ Prayers
Everyone knows the Eagles are a team of faith. Here’s how Kyle Horner became their spiritual leader.
He gets it. Which is no small thing.
Kyle Horner, pastor of Connect Church in Cherry Hill — the spiritual home to several Philadelphia Eagles, including quarterback Carson Wentz — was once a big-time QB talent himself. Which means that like every player who sticks with football, he got hurt. A lot.
In 1985, as a senior at Cherokee High in Marlton, Horner had a collapsed lung. It wasn’t caused by football, actually, but if he got hit a certain way while playing, he could die. There was, however, a small problem: The state championship game was coming up. And Horner was about to break Joe Theismann’s New Jersey schoolboy record for touchdown passes.
This wasn’t about the record, though, or his future — Horner, who had NFL aspirations, already had a college scholarship secured. It was about this game, this moment. There was another complication: Kyle’s father, Jim, was Cherokee’s coach, which made the dilemma a national story. “Do you put your son in a position where he could die?” Kyle says now. “People had opinions on both sides of that.” Kyle’s and his father’s were clear: “We’ve put in 17 years together to get to this point,” Jim Horner said at the time. “I feel he deserves to get in there, and that’s how he feels.”
Welcome to football. During the Super Bowl season two years ago, when Carson Wentz ruined his knee during a December game, teammate Zach Ertz, out himself with a concussion, went back to the locker room to console his friend. Together they called Kyle Horner, and the three men prayed.
Horner, who would win that state championship game in 1985, went on to the University of Tennessee — playing for Johnny Majors — then transferred to Richmond, and his NFL prospects were finally done in not by injury, but by a calling from God. He and his wife, Danielle, started Connect Church with a service at Haddonfield Plays & Players in 1998 attended by 32 people; the church now has three locations and hundreds of followers, and Horner and members traipse all over the world on humanitarian missions, sometimes with Eagles players in tow. Players started coming to Connect a few years ago with former Bird Trey Burton, who had heard about Horner’s preaching and then came to Cherry Hill to check out the church.
Faith isn’t new to football, of course. Christian belief, especially, is woven into the game as firmly as other American bulwarks like money and power and sex. But something is shifting. It feels like players of faith are having a bit of a coming-out party.
On the Eagles, it’s not just a few guys. Coach Doug Pederson is a devout believer. And mid-October, leading up to the team’s first game this year with Dallas, I talked to some 15 players in the locker room, trying to get a feel for how faith impacts them. Virtually all the men I talked to, at random, are Christians, many of them also devout. But I saw something else as well — the thing that had Tony Dungy, the former NFL coach and longtime TV commentator, sure that the Eagles were going all the way to a Super Bowl victory two years ago after he spent time with the team at the beginning of the playoffs. “I could sense their unselfishness — it was palpable,” Dungy says now. “Their bond and unity were incredible. These guys were going to win this game.” Dungy, open about his own fervent Christianity, was derided for picking the Eagles to go all the way because so many players are men of faith.
But making fun of the idea that God bestows goodies like Super Bowl rings on believers misses Dungy’s point, as I would learn over several hours of talking to Horner and Eagles players.
Faith does translate to the field, yes — everyone I talked to is sure of that. Just not quite in the way we may think.
When an Eagle makes a dramatic play, he points to the sky. Like a lot of people, I’ve always tried hard to ignore those moments, as if the player went temporarily brain-dead in thanking God for bestowing on him a touchdown or interception or sack or what have you. All I wanted was for the next play to cover up this hiccup of someone actually thinking there’s a higher power anywhere who gives a damn about what happens on a football field.
I’ve had it wrong.
The 15 Eagles I talk to all say, in one way or another, that players of faith are terrific at putting the fate of the team ahead of their own performances, but it’s the one nonbeliever in the Eagles locker room I come across who takes it a little deeper: “I don’t know,” center Jason Kelce says when I ask whether players’ faith affects what happens on the field. “But I do think that in general, a lot of guys that have faith in a higher being tend to be really secure and handle adverse moments really, really well. They have a lot of security in themselves as individuals and as men. And you kind of see that on the field.”
Guard Brandon Brooks, a man of faith, has been listening to Kelce and says that he has it just right: “You can see it where at times of deep adversity, the guys who have really deep faith, it seems to affect them less. You’ve heard the line ‘Let go and let God deal with it.’ They can really just let it go.”
Which is a good thing, because a lot goes wrong in football. And as I write this, just after two bad Eagles losses to Minnesota and Dallas, this team is being sorely tested. Which is where, at least for some of the players, Kyle Horner, now 51 and still built like a football player, comes in.
Growing up, Horner was a straight-and-narrow kid, involved in the First Baptist Church of Mount Holly. “But it was empty,” he says. “I was trying to be a good boy.”
That would change in college. He washed out of Tennessee after a run-in with Coach Majors — in practice his sophomore year, Horner mimicked an opposing player who’d gotten in trouble, pasting his jersey with signs reading PLAGIARISM, CONVICT, and CHEATING IS FUNDAMENTAL. It was a bit of internal fun that put Horner in Majors’s doghouse when it got written up in the local paper. So Horner transferred to Richmond. He studied pre-med and began, for the first time, to read the Bible carefully. It transformed for him from a rule book, he says, to a love letter. A dozen players on the team were going through similar spiritual quests and began gathering once a week at a campus amphitheater to talk and sing. The first meeting was maybe 20 guys; then it got bigger and moved to a chapel. Almost all the team started coming, along with scores of other students, mushrooming to several hundred, including professors. Of course, as the quarterback, Horner paid a price. “The school newspaper made fun of me, calling us ‘The Freak Show,’” he says, laughing as if even then, he thought it was no big deal. More to the point, the unity and collective force that faith created on the Richmond team, he says, “changed everything about it.”
Which is exactly where his conversations with Eagles players end up going. “Unity is the thing we talk about with them all the time,” Horner says.
There’s a certain hallmark the past couple of years with the Eagles, one that’s been easy to see: They got down in a game or a season, and they seemed to invariably fight through it and come back.
Horner smiles. “It’s a little crazy, isn’t it? I think it is exactly what brotherhood does. Even when everyone doesn’t believe the same thing, when we believe for each other, it’s a unifying moment. What we saw in the Super Bowl year was ‘Next man up’ and ‘All we got is all we need.’ We’re all in this together. It’s the power of unity.”
In the wake of those two bad losses, however — just as this Eagles year is on the brink of slipping away and the team’s unity is being questioned — the Super Bowl win seems to be fading into the past, which puts in stark relief just how hard this collective endeavor really is.
Back at Richmond three decades ago, the NFL, Horner’s dream since he was a little boy drawing up plays on napkins with his father the coach, was still a possibility. Though there was a roadblock: Senior year, he blew out his throwing shoulder, and the NFL Scouting Combine, where prospective draftees get tested, was coming up. There was possibly still time for surgery and recovery. This is where Horner’s story gets a little … well, here’s the story:
New Year’s Eve, at home in Jersey, he gathered a few friends together. Pre-surgery, his arm was still in a sling — he couldn’t even brush his teeth — and he asked his friends to pray for him. They knelt. Suddenly, the house shook. His father yelled, “What’s going on?” His shoulder, Kyle Horner says, was instantaneously healed. When he was examined two days later, the doctor discovered a completely healthy shoulder, with ligaments and tendons intact, and wondered, “What did you do? How did this happen?”
“You don’t want to know,” Horner said, and then told him.
“I don’t believe you,” the doctor said.
This is one of those moments that glaze over the minds of nonbelievers, like when a player points to the sky after he scores. But I keep listening.
Horner says something had already complicated matters before the shoulder was miraculously healed: He had realized he needed to devote his life to a ministry. Horner bargained with God — think what he could give as an NFL player! But after this miracle, he really knew that football, even with a strong shoulder, was over. Today, he not only oversees a growing church with three branches; Horner goes to Haiti twice a year on humanitarian missions, just as he has gone all over the world giving aid to the poor and destitute for three decades. “I love Africa,” Horner says; Kenya is his favorite country there. On the home front, Horner’s church supports various charitable endeavors in Philly and Camden; last year, he started a food-truck program with Carson Wentz’s foundation to pass out free meals all over this city.
Horner helps his cause as we talk by force of personality; he’s the best kind of enthusiast, selling me nothing. And in the presence of a man of myriad good works, to question Horner’s path to faith seems not just uncharitable. It really feels wrong. Because Kyle Horner clearly believes what he told me about God healing his shoulder — not to mention he’s living a life that demonstrates that belief in spades. Which is exactly what has been happening in the Eagles’ locker room and on the field. Belief pays dividends.
Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor, a lifelong Christian, says there’s something powerful about a team featuring men who are essentially at peace. “It’s good for other young men to see, in dealing with the different turmoils this position can bring: temptation, frustration, doubt, things like that.”
“My walk [with Christ] is in doubt sometimes,” tackle Lane Johnson says, “but being around Zach [Ertz] and those guys, it’s definitely on the rise. It helps the team a lot.” Two years ago, during the Super Bowl run, Johnson says, “There was a calmness among the team. There were trials and tribulations — at the same time, there was a peace and calmness among us, that everything is going to be all right.”
Back to the annoyance of a player pointing skyward after a big play, or giving praise to Jesus in a postgame interview: I realize it’s not a thanks for the touchdown bestowed on him, but a sort of partnership, a nod to a connection that allows the player to perform at his best.
That mirrors what Kyle Horner is up to as well. He believes in a particular brand of Christianity, flipping the abiding concern of the Baptist church his family went to: What Horner learned as a child was what he couldn’t do. What he teaches his congregants now, including Carson Wentz and a few other Eagles — often through services that include music and light shows and dancing, the point being that traveling in faith should be fun — is how to fulfill who they can become.
There is one thing, at any rate, that emerges from all this as tough to refute: Faith is a powerful thing.
Broadway Joe Namath is dead. Well, not literally, but fans of a certain age who cut their teeth in 1969 on the long-haired, fur-coat-wearing womanizer with the arrogance to not even stand up straight — no way today. Social media would kill him, given that we’d know far too much. Not to mention that Namath’s behavior — his boozing and chick-hopping — wouldn’t fly anymore.
So much of the criticism of social media revolves around the harshness of the broad online conversation, but here’s the other side: We can zoom in on a podcast of Zach Ertz and Carson Wentz bearing witness to their faith. Troy Vincent, an Eagles cornerback back in the ’90s and now an NFL executive, says faith has always been big in pro football. Remember Reverend Reggie White? The difference now is the platform.
“I think what has happened,” says Horner, “all around in sports, public branding has become private branding. Before, you were, say, a Jets fan. Fans are much more connected with individual players, and players have a much wider expression of who they are through social media. Not just on a Sunday — there’s a picture into their world: They go hunting, or there’s a concert they go to.”
Or they talk about their faith.
It’s an amusing irony, how the demand of accepting alternative lifestyles cuts both ways. That means it includes this one, too, courtesy of social media: Carson Wentz’s tats are biblical references; several Eagles have been baptized in the pool at the NovaCare Complex; coach Doug Pederson, careful with how much he talks religion with his team — though they all know about his walk with Christ — professes his deep faith online, in interviews. It’s a whole new way of getting to know our heroes, in this age of authenticity.
Still, it’s such a tenuous ecosystem, a team at this level, with so much scrutiny, so much at stake. Before the first Dallas loss, in October, an unidentified player was quoted criticizing Wentz’s quarterbacking. Lane Johnson says the team would certainly like to know who said that — “It’s like the Salem witch trials: Who said it? Who did it?” Though Johnson himself, after the disastrous Dallas game, told the media there were cracks in the team’s discipline, that guys were coming late to meetings and practice. Which points to how a team’s unity needs constant caretaking.
The morning of the Super Bowl, two seasons ago, some 20 players showed up for a chapel service. They had asked Kyle Horner to preside. “To me,” he says, “that was one of the greatest moments, because these guys wanted to start their day with what they thought was most important — spending time with God. On a day there were a thousand reasons not to have a chapel service. It’s Super Bowl morning! And that wasn’t going to church so that they win; it was, This is what we do.
“Watching them worship Jesus then, then worship Jesus when they stood up on a platform” — after winning the game — “it was a powerful moment. For me, it’s who they are.”
Published as “Is God An Eagles Fan?” in the December 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.