Coaches urged to model virtues, faith to win the highest prize

Photo Caption: Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, gives the homily during a Mass at the first Diocesan Coaches Retreat Aug. 5 at the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria. Nearly 120 coaches and athletic directors attended.

By: By Tom Dermody

A former Major League Baseball player, an Olympic skier, two Catholic priests and a bishop were among those encouraging athletic coaches in Catholic schools around the Diocese of Peoria Aug. 5 to use their influence to guide young people beyond sports to the highest prize of heaven.

“Everyone in this room has a tremendous influence over somebody,” said Darrell Miller, a catcher for baseball’s California Angels in the 1980s who was among presenters at the first Diocesan Coaches Retreat. “The question is what kind of influence are you going to be. Are you going to be a holy, Christlike influence, or an unholy, unChristlike influence?”

The retreat brought nearly 120 coaches and athletic directors to the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria to set priorities before the beginning of the new school year and its athletic seasons.

“Our schools fundamentally exist to announce Jesus Christ,” said Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, celebrant and homilist of the retreat’s morning Mass. To that end, the bishop acknowledged the witness of coaches — as well as teachers and school administrators — can play a larger role in the faith of a young person than that of even priests or bishops.

“It’s important to take the opportunity to witness to your faith, to be somebody who regularly worships almighty God,” said Bishop Jenky. He recalled the ways former University of Notre Dame head football coach Lou Holtz did just that — including with the 1988 national championship team, of which Bishop Jenky was chaplain.

“The young people will see, imitate and believe,” assured Bishop Jenky.

The retreat was planned by a committee including Joe Walters, varsity football coach at Peoria Notre Dame. Last August, Walters and his team took part in a spiritual retreat day that greatly impacted a season in which the Irish went 12-1 and reached the state championship semifinal game.

“It’s incredible what’s changed,” said Walters, since the school’s football coaches began to more openly share their faith with players. Players now attend Mass prior to each game, have the opportunity for the sacrament of reconciliation, and every Thursday night discuss Scripture, faith, and the challenges of their week during gatherings in the school library.

“We made it cool to talk about God,” said Walters, who shared his own conversion story and described coaching in terms of ministry. “Now faith formation is what it’s all about, not x’s and o’s,” he said.

Also on the planning committee was Father Chase Hilgenbrinck, a former Major League Soccer player who was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Peoria in 2014. Father Hilgenbrinck’s opening talk set the tone for the retreat.

“As a coach, you are maybe the most influential people in our students’ lives,” said Father Hilgenbrinck, a Bloomington native who played soccer professionally in Chile as well as with the New England Revolution before entering the seminary.

“They want to hear what you have to say,” he continued. “We need men and women in their lives who they look up to to give them a context of how sports fit into their lives, and how the Gospel fits in their lives as well.”

Father Hilgenbrinck — who is on the chaplain team at Alleman High School in Rock Island and is parochial vicar of three area parishes — quoted St. John Paul II, who called sports “the school of moral virtue.”

“That’s what sports are meant to be,” he and other speakers said, noting how sports teach fortitude, self-sacrifice, perseverance, and working as a team toward a greater good on a daily basis.

“Our mission is to make them incredible persons, Catholics and Christians who display these Gospel values in their life, who are ready to make a change in the world,” said Father Hilgenbrinck, who served as moderator for the day. “That’s the opportunity we have.”

Offering practical advice on how to do that was Rebecca Dussault, a Colorado native who took part in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, as a cross country skier.

She suggested coaches stick to a hierarchy of faith, family and fitness — in that order.

“Sports are good, but faith is great, beyond even words,” said Dussault, whose Olympic moment came years after she gave up competitive skiing to marry and begin her family.

“We’re here today partly to re-establish the priority structure in case in any of your programs it has gotten out of whack,” said Dussault. “I challenge you to holiness. We’re going to build our cakes around virtue, and ice them with victories.”

Among Dussault’s suggestions:

— Teach chastity. “In your locker room, do you have an icon of Our Lady where the women dress? Do you have St. Joseph in the men’s locker room?”
— Create a faith-based team shirt.
— Reward character above athleticism.
— Adopt a player code of Catholic conduct, and
— Make sure they have a patron saint of athletics.

“When you see all the little seeds of virtue blossom, then you know you’ve done something right,” she said.

Both Dussault and Miller lamented how school and club sports have invaded Sundays. Dussault said she just took her 13-year-old son out of soccer because the coach consistently scheduled games for 10 a.m. on Sunday.
Mass, she told the group, is “arguably the most important team meal any of us will ever take part in.”

Miller urged the coaches to take the lead in telling educators and schedulers “we ain’t playing on Sunday.”

“It’s really important,” said Miller, who after his playing days helped found Major League Baseball’s Urban Youth Academy. He now works with 6,000 inner-city youths in the Los Angeles area. “If we can’t do this, what are we? We can’t be mamby-pamby Christians. We either are or we’re not. We’re either in or we’re out. If we’re in the middle, we embarrass God and we make the nation confused.”

Dussault and Miller both recommended that coaches in Catholic schools show the 2014 film “When the Game Stands Tall” to their teams prior to the start of the season to show “why we play the game.”

Father Patrick Henehan, pastor of St. Jude Parish in Peoria and vocations director of formation for the Diocese of Peoria, sounded like a coach drawing up a play when he encouraged those who teach athletics to “go deeper” in their prayer life and relationship with Christ.

“You can’t share what you don’t have,” said Father Henehan. “The deeper you go with Christ, the more effective you’re going to be to give a different philosophy, a different vision, to coach more than just a game, but to coach life lessons, to live in virtue, and ultimately be led to heaven.”

The theme of the retreat was “Coach to Win . . . not a perishable crown, but an imperishable one,” taken from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Father Henehan said that “the greatest coach teaches Christ.”

“The only victory that matters is not on the court, but the victory of heaven,” he said.

Also among the retreat’s planners were Father Adam Stimpson, chaplain, and Sister Sara Kowal, SCTJM, theology teacher, both of Peoria Notre Dame. Giving welcoming remarks was Dr. Sharon Weiss, diocesan superintendent of schools.

“Part of our strategic vision is how to integrate Gospel values into extracurriculars,” said Dr. Weiss. “We’ll start with athletes and coaches. Sometimes you have more impact than the teachers in the classroom.”

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