The St. Marys Memorial Roughriders invited the Celina Bulldogs to take a knee for an after-game prayer last Friday. For more than a year, the Roughriders have invited every opponent to join them after the game in prayer. CONTRIBUTED

In rural Ohio, rivals take a knee -- for an after-game prayer

Before the Friday night lights dimmed last week on the latest installation of their fabled football rivalry, the St. Marys Memorial Roughriders invited the Celina Bulldogs to take a knee — for an after-game prayer.

For more than a year, the Roughriders have invited every opponent to join them after the game in prayer. Each team, including the Trotwood-Madison Rams, who beat St. Marys in the Division III regional championship last year, has accepted the invitation.

MORE: Trump again blasts NFL players kneeling over anthem

Though sports teams have long engaged in prayer at all levels of competition, photos of the public school rivals huddled together in after-game prayer quickly gained attention this week on social media amid the ongoing feud between NFL players and President Donald Trump.

“At the time you didn’t think much of it,” said Celina Bulldogs varsity coach Brennen Bader. “But looking back, with our society today … it just shows that high school kids can be the example.”

The St. Marys Roughrider tradition dates to Week 2 of last season, when St. Marys beat the Van Wert Cougars in an away game.

Voters guide: Your best local resource for Election 2017

Find information on races and candidates you care about, by using your location or browsing information on dozens of races and hundreds of candidates.

A day before, then-49ers player Colin Kaepernick and fellow San Francisco player Eric Reid first took a knee during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.

Already, Kaepernick had sat during the national anthems of several NFL preaseason games in a refusal to “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

“To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” Kaepernick said. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The ‘Battle of Grand Lake’

An hour-plus drive north of Dayton, St. Marys and Celina straddle respective, opposite ends of Grand Lake in Auglaize and Mercer counties.

The football rivalry — the “Battle of Grand Lake” — is fierce.

LOCAL: Squirt gun game drenches Ohio town — but not on school grounds

On paper, the two communities are similar. Both counties are more than 97 percent white, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, and the counties overwhelmingly voted for President Donald Trump, who is actively engaged in a head-to-head over anthem-kneeling with the NFL, its players and owners.

Both counties are also home to residents who practice organized religion with a frequency above Ohio’s average.

Out of Ohio’s 88 counties, Mercer County has the highest percentage of people who regularly attend religious services, according to 2010 data from the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. Of the county’s 40,800 residents who regularly attend church, nearly 60 percent of those church-goers are Catholic.

One county over, Auglaize ranks seventh of 88 counties ranked by church attendance, the data show.

SCORES: High School Sports

Roughriders assistant varsity football coach Michael Reams said in reality, fewer than half of his players attend church on Sunday. But plenty attend his Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings in the auditorium on Friday.

For Reams, his players kneeling in prayer is a highlight of every Friday night.

“It was — it is, especially in small, Midwest Ohio — us raising our young men to be quality young men,” Reams said. “I can’t tell you how many times we hear compliments about our young men. Now, granted, we have some men who still need refining, but they say it’s their favorite part of the night.”

Last week’s game — Celina’s homecoming — was a punishing loss for the Bulldogs against their top rival. But there was no debate about joining the victors midfield.

“I just told our guys, ‘let’s go over there and do it,’” said Celina’s Coach Bader. “We ended up losing the game, a tough loss. We have a great group of kids. They were willing and they understand the bigger picture, that we’re all on the same team.”

Roughrider players have started seeking out competing players who’ve been particularly worthy opponents.

“A lot of times, when you have an opponent, they’re your enemy,” Reams said. “We don’t just go out there to have fun, we go out there to win. Between the whistles, we want to be as tough as they’ve ever seen.”

But after the game, at the center of the field, the reconciliation begins.

“There’s always a pulse of faith in every team, whether they acknowledge it or not,” Reams said. “They go find that guy, take a knee and grab a hand.”

‘A knee for the right reasons’

Kaepernick, now a free agent, last year expressed a belief his actions could “unify this country.”

“If we have these real conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people,” Kaepernick said, “If we have these conversations, there’s a better understanding of where both sides are coming from.”

“I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country,” he said. “I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody.”

Neither the St. Marys Roughriders nor the Celina Bulldogs have had organized team conversations about Kaepernick or anthem-kneeling, though the topic is occasionally broached.

“It’s about taking a knee for the right reasons,” said Reams. “This country has seen all kinds of strife and tension.”

MORE: NFL commissioner says players will not be forced to stand for anthem

“Whether it’s with the players as players, or in my classroom, we always try to talk about certain topics,” Reams, an industrial tech instructor, told the Dayton Daily News by phone Wednesday after afternoon lunchroom duty. “It’s probably been brought up once or twice.”

“I hope these gentlemen in the NFL are doing it because they feel strong about what they’re doing,” he said. “I think everybody, if they feel strongly about it, they need to stand up for what they believe in.”

Later on Wednesday, NFL Commissioner Rodger Goodell announced the league would not require players to stand for the national anthem. He said the league is “not afraid of tough conversations.”

“I would tell you this,” Goodell said, “it’s unprecedented conversations and dialogue going on between our players and our owners, between our club officials and between our league, and that is a really positive change for us.”