It’s become a familiar sight: athletes dropping to their knees in prayer in the end zone or thanking God in their post-game press conferences. And books by and about sports stars who are vocal Christians have become an important part of many publishers’ lists.

That has been amply demonstrated by the success of Tim Tebow’s Through My Eyes (2011), which has spent 28 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list and 24 weeks on PW’s list. The book (now there is also a children’s version), which continues to dominate the Christian bestsellers lists, has 624,000 copies in print and sales of 53,000 in e-book format, according to publisher HarperOne. And now publishers are hoping for a similar success with Jeremy Lin, owing to his professed Christian faith and deft moves on the basketball court (see sidebar, p. 21).

What Makes a Winner

“People really want to know what makes their favorite athletes tick, how they rose to the top and what’s really important in their lives—like their faith,” says sports writer Mike Yorkey, author of Linspired: The Remarkable Rise of Jeremy Lin (Zondervan, Apr.). Yorkey has authored or co-authored more than 70 books, including the Playing with Purpose series for Barbour. “I like writing first-person autobiographies for sports figures because it’s fun to recreate the big moments in their lives,” he says. Of the rise in popularity of the genre over the past five years he says, “We are seeing more visible Christian athletes these days, and I think parents are looking to hand their kids books on great role models.”

After head coach Tony Dungy led the Indianapolis Colts to victory in the 2006 Super Bowl—a first for an African-American coach—publishers came calling. Todd Starowitz, senior public relations manager at Tyndale, says Dungy chose a Christian publisher to tell his story “because he felt he could have the quantity of Christian content he wanted.”

The result was Quiet Strength: The Principals, Practices, & Priorities of a Winning Life (Tyndale, 2007), a runaway bestseller and industry game changer, says Starowitz. “I think it was the first book of its type that sold like crazy. It spent 31 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, two weeks at number one, and sold over one million copies.” Tyndale’s 2012 sports title lineup includes several sports books, including a new one from Dungy (see p. 26).

Choose an Athlete Wisely

Due diligence when choosing a sports figure is critical, says Don Gates, v-p of marketing at Zondervan. “We look for a life that exhibits an authentic faith in words and actions.” Readers of these books are looking for heroes who aren’t going to let them down, agrees Yorkey, by “getting arrested at 3 a.m. for disturbing the peace at some nightclub or facing some paternity suit.” He carefully researches his subjects, adding, “I always ask those I’m interviewing if I can pray before we get started, and that’s usually a pretty good icebreaker.”

Zondervan is publishing Believe (Oct.) by Eric LeGrand, the Rutgers football player who was paralyzed from the neck down after tackling an opposing running back. “As well as a strong measure of faith throughout, we look for authors with a large fan base, a recent success, or evidence of overcoming a trial or a barrier,” says Gates.

Yorkey balances sports content with what he calls “the heart” of his subjects. “Yes, people want to read about winning the big game, but they don’t want to read about everything that happened in every game that season. They want the behind-the-scenes stuff, plus they want to see the struggles and the doubts that crept in.”

Thomas Nelson does not actively seek acquisitions in the Christian sports book space, says Matt Baugher, senior v-p and publisher. Nevertheless, Nelson has four titles for 2012. He describes one, Men of Sunday (Aug.), as a sleeper with tremendous potential. “It explores the astounding foundation of faith that exists in the NFL and couples that with honest and vulnerable accounts of how these people deal with life’s challenges on such a national stage.”

Invested in Promotion

Even with a hot story and a star author, promotion is still essential, says Baugher. “It is a mistake to think that just because someone is a household name, that will automatically translate to a high number of books sold.” But, he adds, devising a publicity campaign can be “a bit of a challenge” when players are traveling.

Starowitz agrees. “The author better be invested in the project, and even then there is no guarantee. With Tony Dungy, he gave us two full weeks for a comprehensive tour and it made a huge difference.”

Publishers are optimistic about the future of the genre. Says Gates, “Christian sports books continue to grow because of the increased exposure and power of sports in America, intersecting with the increased openness of Christian sports stars willing to share their faith.”

Christian Sports Books for 2012

Forthcoming Christian/inspirational titles feature past and present sports heroes.

Believe: The Victorious Story Behind the Greatest Sports Moment of the Year by Eric LeGrand (Zondervan, Oct.) tells the story of former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed from the neck down and became a symbol of hope when he was able to move again.

That’s Why I’m Here: The Chris and Stefanie Spielman Story by Chris Spielman (Zondervan, Apr.). Former NFL star Chris Spielman offers an inspirational story of hope and grace as he chronicles his wife Stefanie’s losing battle with breast cancer.

Game Plan for Life: Chalk Talks Devotional by Joe Gibbs (Zondervan, Aug.). A companion to the Game Plan for Life NIV Bible, Chalk Talks offers 40 readings written by Super Bowl champion coach and NASCAR champion team owner Joe Gibbs.

Playing with Purpose: Basketball—Inside the Lives and Faith of Top NBA Stars by Mike Yorkey (Barbour, Mar.). An updated and expanded version of the popular faith-based sports series that includes new content on Knicks star Jeremy Lin.

Playing with Purpose: Baseball—Inside the Lives and Faith of Major League Stars by Mike Yorkey (Barbour, Apr.). Mike Yorkey takes his faith-based sports series to the baseball diamond, profiling established and new Major League baseball players.

Playing with Purpose: Tim Tebow by Mike Yorkey (Barbour, May). A stand-alone paperback on NFL Denver Broncos quarterback and devout Christian Tim Tebow, with material from a book in the series published in 2010.

Uncommon Manhood by Tony Dungy (Tyndale, May). Super Bowl–winning coach and bestselling author Tony Dungy celebrates men of character, integrity, humility, and courage who know the value of family and faith.

Winning Balance by Shawn Johnson (Tyndale, June) is the story of American Olympic gymnast (and Dancing with the Stars alumna) Shawn Johnson, whose faith helped redirect her life after a potentially career-ending skiing accident.

Men of Sunday: How Faith Guides the Players, Coaches, and Wives of the NFL by Curtis Eichelberger (Thomas Nelson, Aug.). Inspired by what Eichelberger calls the NFL’s “systemic shift” toward embracing Christianity, Sunday shows how faith is a source of comfort when confronting challenges in sports, as well as the difficulties of maintaining strong families and building character.

Redemption: A Rebellious Spirit, a Praying Mother, and the Unlikely Path to Olympic Gold by Bryan Clay (Thomas Nelson, May). Clay overcame a childhood shadowed by drugs and violence to win the 2008 Olympic gold medal and the 2004 Olympic silver medal in the decathlon.

Running for My Life: One Lost Boy’s Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games by Lopez Lomong (Thomas Nelson, July). An orphan in war-torn Sudan, Lopez Lomong came to America as a “Lost Boy” and went on to compete on the American Olympic track and field team.

Hosoi: My Life as a Skateboarder Junkie Inmate Pastor by Christian Hosoi (HarperOne, June). Pro skateboarder Hosoi was a celebrity at age 20 and a drug addict by age 30. He found Christianity during a stint in jail, skated to X Games championships when released, and is now an associate pastor in Southern California.

Starting and Closing: Perseverance, Faith, and One More Year by John Smoltz (Morrow, May). The former Atlanta Braves pitcher tells of his career triumphs and setbacks, the power of faith, and what he believes will make the sport of baseball “great” once more.