This year’s Super Bowl–bound San Francisco 49ers remind Earl Smith of the family-like unity the Golden State Warriors had when they won the NBA Finals in 2015.
And Smith would know. He serves as the chaplain for both teams.
From society’s perspective, Smith has ministered to the greatest and the least. His work as a chaplain started in California’s San Quentin State Prison, where he witnessed 12 executions and played chess with prisoners including Charles Manson. More recently, it has brought him to the sidelines of professional sports at its peak, celebrating big wins beside celebrity athletes like the Warriors’ Steph Curry.
“By virtue of who these guys are, they are the best of the best,” Smith said in an interview with CT, calling from Miami, where the 49ers play the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday. “They’re famous, yet if you allow yourself to be locked in on the fame, you might negate the opportunity to present Christ in a proper way.”
Most weeks during the season, Smith’s work resembles the work of any pastor. He prepares and leads the team Bible study, goes through a book study with the 49ers coaching staff, conducts a Saturday night chapel service, and makes himself available for counseling. Meanwhile, he’s spending his own daily time reading Scripture and meeting with his pastor.
Smith said people will often ask him about which players on the 49ers team are Christians, and in response he likes to ask them which people in church are Christians. His point is clear: “Only Christ knows the true commitment of the heart.”
A graduate of Bishop College and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, he focuses on spiritual themes that tap into the players’ interests: hope, trust, and accountability. He studied portions of the Lord’s Prayer with them, looked at different ways that David expressed his relationship with God in different Psalms, and talked about what the Lord can do with faith as small as a mustard seed. At the beginning of the season, he gave each player a tiny glass bottle, and with each victory he gave the players a mustard seed to put in their bottles.
This is the 49ers’ seventh Super Bowl appearance, and their second since Smith became the team’s chaplain in 1997.
Chaplaincy is a ministry of presence, of faithfully being there through the highs and lows. While there have been a lot of highs in a winning season, it’s not always a bad game or a bad record that hits the team spiritually.
During his years on the sidelines, Smith has seen losses far more devastating than failure to advance in the playoffs. He recalled a 2005 preseason game when he escorted 49ers lineman Thomas Herrion off the field after a win and prayed with the team in the locker room. When the prayer concluded, Herrion collapsed and died of heart failure. Smith stepped up to support a traumatized team and coaching staff after an unimaginable loss of one of their own.
As team chaplain, he makes a point to get to know a player’s spouse, parents, and children. He inquires about babies who have been born and family members who are unwell. And Smith said he always makes sure players’ parents have his phone number if they ever need him.
“I believe that in any ministry, it’s important not to just focus on the individual with the spotlight, but also those in the shadow,” he said in an interview with CT.
Just last month, third-string quarterback C. J. Beathard learned that his brother, Clayton, had been killed outside a Nashville bar. “There was nothing I could do other than hold [Beathard] while he grieved. I believe that is the presence that you have,” he said. “It’s not what you say, it’s just your presence, and how you’re there.”
Team officials permitted Smith to accompany Beathard to the funeral, where Smith ministered to Beathard’s family. Smith said their faith has buoyed them as they continue to mourn Clayton’s death.
The minister worked as a Protestant chaplain at San Quentin from 1983 to 2006—a calling that came to him after a near-death experience in a gang-related shooting when he was young (which he chronicled in his book, Death Row Chaplain).
A few years ago, Smith brought players inside his old stomping ground to meet the inmates.
The players heard about experiences in the criminal justice system and exhortations on how to leverage their fame.
In 2019, Smith spoke with CT about the importance of giving inmates access to a chaplain in the moments before their executions. “[An] inmate was looking for a way to say ‘bye’ in peace, and because you said, ‘No, you can’t have [the chaplain],’ even in his death, there was no peace,” said Smith. “We often say that when they’re executed there’s going to be closure. Executions don’t bring closure. They just mean someone has died.”
Spending the bulk of his ministry career in prison chaplaincy led Smith—a member of San Francisco Christian Center—to develop a great sense of patience and trust in God to work through him and beyond him. “My role is to share in my faith Christ, and in sharing Christ hope that that person comes to a relationship and grows from that relationship,” he told CT in 2019.
When it comes to ministering to professional athletes, Smith knows the Lord has been at work in their lives before they put on a San Francisco uniform and that the Lord will continue to work in their lives after they leave the team. “Someone plants the seed, someone waters, and God gives the increase. That’s what sports ministry is,” he said.
As the season comes to an end, Smith said some players have kept their bottles of mustard seeds and said how much they mean to them.
“I have seen guys really grow,” he said. “I’ve seen young men who came in searching, who have gone from searching to helping other men that were searching, guys mentoring the walk for others.”
Now he’s ready to hand out one more seed.