Faith at play on the field

In the coming days and weeks, football programs from grade school to pro-level will kick off their seasons. While football has a prominent place in America’s secular culture, many Catholics affiliated with the sport also have found God on the gridiron.

‘Take God with you’

As head coach of the football team of Roncalli High School, a Catholic school in Indianapolis, Bruce Scifres tells his players to “take God with you on every play.”

“I always say, ‘Don’t pray for victory,’ because I don’t think that God cares who wins football games,” he said. “But I do think that God cares if we’re giving the best that we can.”

Using one’s God-given gifts to the best of one’s abilities is a basic belief of the Catholic faith. And it’s one that Scifres believes has helped his teams win six state championships.

“Kids who are strong in their faith are going to be courageous,” Scifres said. “They’ll feel obligated to make God proud and make their parents proud by giving all that they have.”

Faith is very much at the core of one of his former players: Father John Hollowell.

The pastor of Annunciation Parish in Brazil, Ind., Father Hollowell also sees a broad connection between the Catholic faith and football. The sport, he believes, helps its players become good men. Sacrifice is a big part of both, he said.

“A Catholic kid [who plays football] grows up hearing about sacrifice every time he goes to Mass,” Father Hollowell said. “So that Catholic kid will grow up thinking, ‘That’s what we do. We put ourselves on the line for each other.’”

Likewise, Scifres sees the necessity of having all 11 players working like a well-oiled machine on every play for it to succeed — an image of the Church as the Body of Christ.

Guided by God

Coaches and players aren’t the only people involved in football who bring God with them to the field.

Michael O’Shea, a lifelong Catholic and longtime head athletic trainer for the University of Houston’s football team, drew on his faith when two Houston defensive players collided during a practice last fall. One player, D.J. Hayden, was hit in the chest and fell down like he’d had the wind knocked out of him.

But O’Shea saw symptoms that made him know the injury was much more serious. Hayden was transported to a hospital, and it was determined that he had torn his inferior vena cava — the large vein that brings blood from the lower body back to the heart.

The injury, which usually happens in major car accidents or in combat situations, has a 95 percent death rate. But because of O’Shea’s alertness, Hayden survived. In fact, the player made such a full recovery that he was picked 12th in the first round of the NFL draft last April.

“I felt like God put his hand on my shoulder,” O’Shea said of the incident.

“For some reason, somebody told me something,” he added. “I felt like it was the voice of God that did that.”

Back to the faith

Football has even been known to lead athletes back to the Faith. That’s what happened to Jack Del Rio. He walked away from the Catholic faith as a teenager shortly before becoming a standout linebacker in college and in the NFL. After retiring as a player, he became an assistant coach for the New Orleans Saints. That’s when fellow assistant and devout Catholic Danny Abramowicz challenged him about his faith and helped him return to it.

“God kind of inspired him to challenge me,” Del Rio said. “And here we are, years later. I take pride in being a strong Catholic.”

The former head coach of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and current defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos, Del Rio sees the connection between his faith and football.

“There’s no greater team sport than football because of the importance and the need to sacrifice, the need for commitment, the need for discipline,” Del Rio said.

All those same qualities also are necessary to live a life of faithfulness. 

Sean Gallagher writes from Indiana.