October 16, 2009

Faith, football and a fatherly instinct: Father John Hollowell knows joy and passion as a priest, teacher and coach

After a play during a football game against Park Tuder School on Sept. 25, Father John Hollowell shares a coaching moment with Eddie Cmehil, a sophomore wide receiver and defensive back for Cardinal Ritter’s varsity football team. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

After a play during a football game against Park Tuder School on Sept. 25, Father John Hollowell shares a coaching moment with Eddie Cmehil, a sophomore wide receiver and defensive back for Cardinal Ritter’s varsity football team. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Michael Timko couldn’t believe it at first.

Then a huge smile spread across the face of the varsity football player for Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis.

Looking into the offensive backfield, Michael focused on the unlikely uniform of the person who was lined up at the running back position for the practice drill.

The running back wore black running shoes, black pants, a black shirt and the white collar of a priest. Father John Hollowell also had his black baseball cap turned backwards—“for aerodynamics,” he said later.

As Father Hollowell took the handoff, the 30-year-old teacher, chaplain and assistant football coach at Cardinal Ritter High School sprinted downfield as the varsity defensive players swarmed toward him, working on their angles of pursuit. (Related story: A football Friday in the life of Father John Hollowell)

Fifty yards later, the former varsity football player at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis and Hanover College near Madison finally came to a stop. With the defensive players in their red jerseys still watching him and shaking their heads in amused wonder, Father Hollowell spiked the ball.

“I couldn’t believe how fast he was,” laughs Michael, a 16-year-old junior. “No one was sure if you could put a good hit on a priest. Everyone cleared out of his way. He split the Red Sea.”

Living the joy and the passion

Father Hollowell enjoyed the moment, too—even if it left him nearly breathless.

“Early in the season, as a coaching staff, we try to show them the discipline of the game and the need for developing good habits,” says Father Hollowell, who also serves as a sacramental minister at St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg. “Now, it’s our challenge to get them to play with passion and, at the same time, enjoy it.”

Discipline, passion, challenge and joy—all four words describe the priesthood of Father Hollowell, who was ordained on June 6. There’s also an element of “surprise,” at least in the way he has used his priesthood to connect with people in the hope of bringing them closer to God.

Consider the first meeting that Father Hollowell had with Ty Hunt, the head coach of the Ritter Raiders’ varsity football team. Hunt thought that Father Hollowell would be the chaplain for the team, a priest who would pray with them and celebrate Mass for them before every game. When Father Hollowell told Hunt that he also wanted to coach, the head coach had questions and doubts.

“I wasn’t exactly prepared for him wanting to take an active role as a coach,” Hunt recalls. “Then he and I talked about wide receiver and defensive back techniques, and I knew he had the knowledge. It has worked out great. The kids see the passion in him—not only for football but for a Christian life. He shows them that if you want something, you have to go for it wholeheartedly.”

Hunt laughs when he talks about how that approach surfaces on a football field.

“I have the philosophy of bringing the pressure, of blitzing during a game,” Hunt says. “He calls our defense at the JV [junior varsity] level, and he blitzes on almost every single down, from every angle. Sometimes I watch the coaches on the other teams, and it’s something to see them look across at our defensive coach, who is a priest wearing his white collar, and he’s blitzing every down.”

Father Hollowell’s passionate approach also leaves even deeper impressions.

“What he does transcends football,” Hunt says. “More members of our football team have stood up as altar servers this year and have been willing to help others.

“He has a great way of showing that a priest is not just someone you see on Sunday. He is a reflection of what God wants us to do in life. We don’t coach for wins and losses. We’re coaching to help young people succeed. He’s been wonderful. There was a question mark in the beginning, and that question mark has been replaced with an exclamation point.”

Not just a game, a way of life

It’s the kind of praise that Father Hollowell immediately downplays. After all, he’s always been a team player first, starting on a Catholic Youth Organization football team at his home parish—Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Parish in Indianapolis. Then at Roncalli, where he graduated in 1997. Then at Hanover College, where he graduated in 2001.

Yet while he is the ultimate team player, he also knows that every player on a team has a distinct role. And because he views his life as a priest as part of a greater brotherhood of Christ, he embraces his role of bringing young people closer to God as a teacher, coach and chaplain.

On football game Fridays, Father Hollowell not only teaches students in the classroom and coaches them on the field, he also celebrates a pre-game Mass with the team.

“I try to make the bridge between football and their life,” says Father Hollowell, who also coached football for two years at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis before entering the seminary. “I think sports, in general, teach them about life. I wouldn’t be out there—and Archbishop [Daniel M. Buechlein] wouldn’t let me be out there—if we didn’t believe that.”

At 16, Cardinal Ritter sophomore Matt Swintz recalls one of Father Hollowell’s homilies that left its greatest impression on the football team.

“He was talking about how a fist is much stronger than an open hand,” says Matt, a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Indianapolis. “He said if we were all together as a football team, we’d be much stronger.”

“I feel comfortable with him,” says Michael Birk, 15, a Cardinal Ritter sophomore, a Raider football player and a member of St. Malachy Parish. “I feel like I could go to him if I ever needed anything.”

It’s that sense of togetherness and passion that has always attracted Father Hollowell to football—a sport he describes as “a very Catholic game.”

“It’s oriented around discipline and family,” says Father Hollowell, the oldest of 11 children—a football team in itself. “If you don’t like the guys you are playing with—no matter how good you are—you’re not going to win. You’re not going to find success.”

Faith, football and a fatherly instinct

One of Father Hollowell’s favorite times on a football field has always been that moment just before the game begins—when all the hard work and preparation of a week of practice leads to the anticipation and excitement of the opening kickoff.

As a player, he couldn’t wait to get on the field to do everything he could to help his team win.

As a coach, he is just as intense, but his perspective has also widened.

“There’s a fatherly instinct that kicks in when the game is close to starting now,” he says. “You see these young men getting ready to perform on a stage in front of a lot of people. There’s always a deep concern for them to do their best. I want them to be able to do as well as they can for themselves and each other.”

He also hopes that when the young athletes look at his life, they will look beyond his intensity for football and see his passion for his faith—and the priesthood.

“There’s such a need for priests,” he says. “If we just had more holy guys who were willing to help, it would make such a difference. I want to encourage other guys to be part of our team. If someone became a priest because of me, that would be the ultimate compliment.”

So Father Hollowell keeps teaching, coaching and serving as a chaplain. He gives everything he has while knowing he has been given the greatest blessing of his life.

“For me, being a priest is truly a gift,” he says. “For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m doing what I truly should be doing.” †

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