New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, right, with his trainer Alex Guerrero on the sideline before the Super Bowl game against the Atlanta Falcons on February 5, 2017, in Houston, Texas, site of Super Bowl LI. (Damian Strohmeyer via AP)

Tom Brady, Alex Guerrero and Apocalypse Meow — when weird belief turns harmful

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, right, with his trainer Alex Guerrero on the sideline before the Super Bowl game against the Atlanta Falcons on Feb. 5, 2017, in Houston, site of Super Bowl LI. (Damian Strohmeyer via AP)

(RNS) — A few years ago I went to the grocery store and ran into some cultists.

They didn’t look like end-times cultists at the time. Instead, they appeared to be do-gooders — warmhearted local volunteers who were rescuing kittens.

They parked their mobile cat shelter outside the local Kroger and let kids inside to play with the kittens — in hopes those kids could pester their parents into taking one home.

(My daughter tried. It didn’t work.)

Still, they were nice cat people.

Not long afterward I talked to Rachael Gunderson. Rachael had joined the cat rescue group — known as Eva’s Eden — about a decade earlier, in Bellingham, Wash.

Back then, the group was called the Gates of Praise, a run-of-the-mill Pentecostal church, known for its exuberant worship and creativity. The church was like a family and made her feel welcome from the start.

Especially Pastor Sheryl – Sheryl Ruthven, the church’s tall, blond charismatic leader.

“I heard Sheryl preach that day, and I was hooked,” she told me.

At first, things went well. Rachael spent every spare hour at the church, soaking in Pastor Sheryl’s teaching. Pastor Sheryl showered Rachael with love – and told her that God had great things in mind for her.

But before long, things got crazy. Pastor Sheryl started claiming to be a prophet, then a reincarnated Mary Magdalene, and then a new Messiah. She made followers kiss her feet and drink her blood mixed with their Communion wine.

Then there were the cats.

Pastor Sheryl thought stray cats were angels in disguise — and that church members should dedicate their lives to rescuing them. When the end times came, those cats would transform back into angels and return the favor — saving church members from the end of the world.

In other words, Apocalypse Meow.

Gunderson bought it all.

“It’s like once you take one sip of the Kool-Aid, you keep drinking,” she said.

I met Gunderson while reporting on Eva’s Eden. She’d left the group by then and rebuilt her life. Still, she was haunted by her past.

How could this have happened, she wondered.

I wondered the same thing. How does a normal congregation turn into a cat-worshipping cult of personality?

Ben Zeller, assistant professor of religion at Lake Forest College, just north of Chicago, says that a charismatic leader is key. In a group like Eva’s Eden, follower members are often more tied to the leader than to theology, said Zeller, who studied the Heaven’s Gate cult in Arizona.

So they will follow their leader, even if it means betraying their own beliefs. After a while, they are too invested to leave.

“There are plenty of people who are along for the ride. It’s just that it’s amazing what people will do when they are along for the ride — if it means giving up their money or control over their lives or their finances, their romantic relationships or, in suicidal groups, their lives,” Zeller told me.

That line — “there are plenty of people who are along for the ride”— has come to mind recently, with revelations of a rift between the New England Patriots and the “cult of Alex Guerrero.”

Tom Brady’s friend and trainer Alex Guerrero on the New England Patriots sideline. Video screenshot


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Guerrero, a former missionary turned charismatic fitness guru, is Tom Brady’s miracle man, credited with allowing the star quarterback to play at a top level into his 40s. The two have teamed up to spread the Gospel of TB12 — in a best-selling book and TB12, a lucrative training and fitness brand.

In TB products and promotions, Guerrero shares almost every moment of Brady’s life — what he eats, how he exercises and rests, how he mentally prepares for games. He’s even godfather to Brady’s son.

He’s a “big part of what I do,” Brady said after news broke that Guerrero was banned from team flights and the sidelines during Patriots games.

As Sports Illustrated put it, they’re closer than most married couples.

“This season marks Year 13 for Brady and Guerrero, a pair who spend more time together than most married couples, swearing to remain faithful in health and in better health,” wrote Greg Bishop. “They opened their TB12 Sports Therapy Center up the hill from Gillette Stadium in 2013 and started selling products last year, peddling lemon protein bars made with Himalayan pink salt, resistance bands built with ‘surgical-grade dipped latex tubing’ and athlete recovery sleepwear that fits ‘next-to-skin without the squeeze.’”

But Guerrero also has issues.

“Tom Brady’s Personal Guru Is a Glorified Snake-Oil Salesman” is how Boston magazine put it.

He was twice investigated by the Federal Trade Commission. Claimed to be an MD when he’s not. Marketed a juice he claimed would cure cancer and another that was supposed to stop concussions.

He was also accused of defrauding investors. And of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from another client — a client who also made Guerrero godfather to his son.

In other words, he sounds a lot like a cult leader.

Now he’s tied at the hip with probably the greatest quarterback ever and one of the wealthiest and most powerful star athletes in the world.

And he’s using that fame to spread the Gospel of TB12, recruiting other players to join their cause and spreading the message around the world.

Some of it works.

Brady's exercises, which stress flexibility, and his healthy eating habits have helped him remain at the top of his game at 40, a rare feat in the NFL.

But the questionable claims about Guererro’s methods remain — especially the high profile they get from their ties to Brady.

Given Guerrero's history, there’s cause for concern, says Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy.

Guererro reminds Shaughnessy of Dr. Eugene Landy, the quack doctor who nearly destroyed Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

After recounting Guerrero’s past sins and alleged misconduct, Shaughnessy issues a warning.

“If it works for Tom, that’s great. But Belichick is wise to put some space between the Patriots and the cult of Alex Guerrero,” he wrote, referring to the Patriots coach.

“We all love QB12, but Tom Brady is becoming Tom Cruise right in front of our eyes. It’s only a matter of time before he jumps on the couch with Oprah in defense of Alex Guerrero. Go back to last year’s Brady interview on WEEI about the perils of Western medicine, and last summer’s bottom-feeder appearance with Tony Robbins.”

Back to the cat cult for a moment.

Most of its adherents ducked me as I reported on their group. But I eventually reached Georgia Snow, Ruthven’s mom, one of her daughter’s most devoted followers.

Why don’t you leave us alone, she said. Isn’t there religious freedom in America?

“We do nothing but good,” she told me. “And yet we have people who try to destroy that.”

Brady seems to be doing much of the same. Guererro’s ideas work for him. So why knock them?

This is the hard part of religion reporting. And this story is definitely a religion story.

Brady’s ties to Guerrero are based on belief and his own experience – not science. And the two are closer than most trainers and athletes. Guerrero is, in effect, Brady’s spiritual adviser and guide.

There’s a difference between beliefs that are weird and beliefs that are harmful and abusive. Guerrero seems to dance on that line and has crossed over it more than once.

Now Brady’s boss is threatening his beliefs.

When that happens, all hell can break loose.

For 17 years, the Patriots — and full disclosure, I am a big fan — have been nearly unstoppable. Five Super Bowl titles and more wins than any other football team in that era. And they seem poised to add a sixth.

But the ties that bind the team’s quarterback and coach are fraying.

And a snake oil salesman may bring the whole thing crashing down.

Get your popcorn.

This will be interesting to watch.

(Bob Smietana is a veteran religion writer based in Nashville, Tenn., and former chairman of the Religion News Service board of managers. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of RNS.)

Comments

  1. “Pastor Sheryl thought stray cats were angels in disguise…”
    As a cat person myself, I had to laugh at that statement. In fact, for years (decades really) when interacting with my own cats sometimes I would ask if they were angels in disguise, since only angels have such pretty eyes. Yes I know, a little bit on the cat nut side, but you can’t discuss economics or politics with your pet so what else is one to say ( and they do have beautiful eyes). The difference however, is that I knew they were not angels in the real sense (perhaps more of in the my little angel sense) and for someone to actually come out and state this is a grade A nut job ( me being a grade D nut). I hope she is being told she needs help and people realize the cult qualities that make no sense, have no religious foundation and is all about deceiving people. Keep on saving those kittens and cats as they need a loving home which is very much in keeping with the spirit of God.

  2. I know just enough about American Football to know that Tom Brady is a bit special.

    However – sportsmen and women are notoriously superstitious. The stories of “left boot first” because it is thought they put the left boot on before the right prior to a special performance are legend. Similarly, players who cross themselves on reaching the pitch, have a particular training routine or diet fad are performing superstitious rituals.

    A decent education which explains the difference between co-incidence and cause-and-effect, that explains confirmation bias and encourages analysis of all the data rather than a subset would benefit not only those who achieve high regard but also the rest of us. Too many people have an interest in manipulating the masses for it ever to happen – but I can dream can’t I?

  3. I have had many cats over the years. Most were more devilish in their nature than angelic!

  4. You’re talking about the future Sen. Brady, aren’t you?

  5. My missy was an angel. Her beother, Sparky, however, was known to several of my friends as Satan Cat.

  6. Is the medical system itself a form of religion? Should its connection to churches be a “religion story”?

    How does fasting fit into medical system? https://twitter.com/drjasonfung Where does Dr Fung fit?

    I lost medical privileges when I ordered fasting as prayer for patients at #ELCA hospital. Is fasting always prayer? Medical staff called it “unproven medical therapy”.

  7. Medical staff called it “unproven medical therapy”

    Fasting? – may perhaps be therapeutic for some specific conditions (obesity?) under strict medical supervision.

    Prayer? – they were being gentle.

    There is evidence (from a major, well-conducted, study by the Templeton Foundation) that prayer was at best irrelevant to healing and that knowing one’s recovery was being prayed for delayed recovery and increased the incidence of complications amongst believers. Perhaps they relied on their deity too much and paid too little attention to their doctors’ recommendations?

  8. Is religious freedom important to you?

    Is the medical system part of a national religion?

    Templeton Foundation is quasi-religious, I believe.

    Fasting as therapy was considered “unproven”. Most of what goes on in medical system is by “faith” in the doctor. Would allow “prayer”, but not fasting in church related hospital.

    Fasting for diabetes. https://twitter.com/drjasonfung/status/950884673646833664

    Think Brady’s situation is “special”. He was never that good at Michigan. Think he has benefited by supporting cast at Patriots.

  9. “Is religious freedom important to you?”

    Depends on what is meant by “religious freedom”
    – Freedom to hold whatever beliefs you may have – yes, of course, how can we not have thoughts?
    – Freedom from religion – yes, but then I’m a humanist.
    – Freedom to harm others because of our religious/lack of religious belief – no.

    “Is the medical system part of a national religion?”
    – Not in the UK, though I understand that hospital management endorsed religious dogma has caused unnecessary death in both the Ireland and the USA. Religiously-based belief also means that some patients in Northern Ireland have to travel to Great Britain to obtain appropriate treatment. “Part of” no – “subject to” – sometimes. We also have situations where pharmacists have refused to dispense legally approved medication due to their dogma.

    “Templeton Foundation is quasi-religious, I believe.”
    – I’d agree

    “Most of what goes on in medical system is by “faith” in the doctor. ”
    – In my experience –
    yes(ish) – in that we tend to take the doctor’s qualifications and knowledge on trust (which is not really the same as faith)
    no – in that we expect the treatment to be scientifically validated and soon point out if the expected results don’t occur.

    “Fasting for diabetes”.
    OP – Fasting? – may perhaps be therapeutic for some specific conditions (obesity?) under strict medical supervision.
    – Am not qualified to be more precise – there is a lot more evidence than 1 claim I assume?.

    As to Brady – I really don’t know enough about American Football to comment beyond the fact that he apparently has some unusually impressive statistics. I grew up debating Fulham FC v. Fulham Broadway Wanderers FC!

  10. Depends, i imagine, on chosen definitions of “medical”, “religion” and “Lutheran sociologist”.

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