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To every preseason, there is a holdout. This year’s model, Sean Gilbert, is a little more intriguing than his predecessors: He’s got God on his side.

Gilbert, bless his soul, wants to be the highest-paid lineman in the league, and, through agent Gus Sunseri, testifies that God has told him to play for nothing less than top dollar. On the advice of highest counsel, Gilbert swears that unless the Redskins answer his prayers—and that means putting about $6 million per year into Gilbert’s collection plate—he’ll sit out not just the exhibition games but the regular season as well.

Gilbert’s pious stand has fans speaking in tongues all over local sports radio, but it seems nobody in the Skins’ flock is in the player’s choir. Callers blast the franchise player’s religious retreat, pointing out that the team has performed better without Gilbert during the preseason than it did last year with him: In 1996, the Skins’ defense ranked dead last in the entire NFL against the run (yep, worse than the Jets). Let him spend all his Sundays in church, they wail.

At 6-foot-5, 313 pounds (in playing shape, that is), Gilbert cuts a poor David. Other numbers also work against him: In his first and only season with the club, Gilbert produced just three sacks. All of those came in the first three games. Where was Gilbert’s earthquake dance when the Skins were fighting for a playoff berth? Fans at RFK were the ones with the unanswered prayers while Boomer Esiason threw over 500 yards’ worth of Hail Marys against Gilbert and his mates in a dispiriting overtime loss to Arizona.

To get Gilbert, Washington gave St. Louis its first-round pick in last year’s draft. The Rams used it to get extremely troubled and extremely talented running back Lawrence Phillips. Three sacks hardly justify what it took to get Gilbert, let alone what he says it will take to keep him.

Contrast Gilbert’s stats with Rich Owens’: Owens, a third-year defensive end making the league-minimum salary, bagged 11 QBs last year—or just half a sack fewer than Gilbert has had in his last three years. Owens has been in camp from the start. The Redskins have offered Gilbert $3.2 million.

The fans and the facts be damned, says Mr. Three Sacks. He’s listening to a higher authority, and that voice keeps telling him to rest on his laurels up in Aliquippa, Pa.

In the player’s defense, Gilbert didn’t invent the concept of the religious holdout. David Koresh tried one a couple of seasons ago, didn’t he? And truth be told, Koresh might have gotten a deal he could live with had Janet Reno stayed out of the negotiations. And as far as sports goes, well, Sandy Koufax passed over pitching in the World Series to observe Yom Kippur, and Muhammad Ali praised Allah and stayed out of the ring for three years rather than participate in our government’s Vietnam venture.

God only knows what’s really going on between Gilbert’s temples, but his current crusade sure seems to be based less on principle than on one or more of those deadly sins. Recent history has shown that pure greed, even when tarted up as something spiritual, can benefit a player. Reggie White got a lot of attention when he vowed he’d play only where God wanted him to after his contract with Philadelphia ran out a few years back. As luck would have it, God told White to sign with the Green Bay Packers, who just happened to be tendering the highest offer. White, however, never held out, and never registered a piddly three-sack season before or after taking the Packers’ devilish dollars.

Neither Redskins management nor Gilbert has yet asked team chaplain Lee Corter to divinely intervene in the negotiations. Corter says he isn’t sure when or if the situation will be resolved, but adds that Gilbert is hardly the first player to covet his employer’s cash and to ask God for help in getting more of it.

“This comes from a strain of theology called ‘the health and wealth gospel,’” Corter says. “That strain says that God wants you to prosper, that he’s going to give you peace and wealth and material possessions. It’s the kind of stuff you hear all the time from late-night televangelists. I don’t know if Sean is dealing from that standpoint, but that’s where that teaching comes from. I’m glad that I’m not involved in this. I’m leaving it up to Sean, his conscience, and his agent.”

Corter, who isn’t paid by the Skins for his services, says that in his 10 years with the club he has counseled against material or selfish prayers, with just one exception.

“I was at a bible study at Charles Mann’s house one year, the week before we were going to play the Giants,” Corter recalls. “The Giants at that time had beaten the Redskins something like eight times in a row, and at the end of the night Charles asked me, ‘Do you mind if I pray for a win?’ I’d always been opposed to that sort of prayer, but that one night I said, ‘Go ahead, Charles! Pray for a win. See if it works.’ A few days later, we got beat again by the Giants. The message there is, you can pray for anything, but that doesn’t mean it will always get answered the way you want.”

Gilbert hasn’t sought guidance from Father Ron Rhodes either, even though he’s a devout football fan and priest at the Imani Temple on Capitol Hill. But if Gilbert should stop by the church, Rhodes already knows what fatherly advice he’d give the player.

“I think I could tell [Gilbert] what God would say to his prayer,” Rhodes laughs. “He’d say, ‘Son, your stats don’t warrant that big of a contract!’ I mean, c’mon! This certainly doesn’t sound like a spiritual matter.”

So far, Gilbert’s holdout hasn’t cost him a dime—players’ contracts only cover regular-season games. But based on the Redskins’ last offer, beginning Sunday, Aug. 31, Gilbert would lose at least $200,000 for each week he stays out.

That event may not come to pass in this year of our Lord; even though Gilbert says he’s waiting for a sign from God, look for hell to freeze over before he misses one of those fat paychecks.

—Dave McKenna