April 8, 2022

As a coach, priest gets a running start to help youths focus on a different finish line

Father Jonathan Meyer, a track and cross country coach at East Central High School in St. Leon, offers advice to runners. (Submitted photo)

Father Jonathan Meyer, a track and cross country coach at East Central High School in St. Leon, offers advice to runners. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories about priests in the archdiocese who use their love of physical activity to connect with their community in the hope of drawing people closer to God. See the first story here and the second story here.)

By John Shaughnessy

Father Jonathan Meyer had a defining choice to make when he first started coaching high school athletes in track and cross country 12 years ago.

The choice started with the way he dressed for the team photo at the beginning of his first season. Even more, the choice was about his approach to coaching at a public high school.

“When I first started coaching, I had to make a decision,” he says. “Am I going to be a man who coaches who happens to be a priest? Or will I be a priest who happens to coach?

“I decided the latter. The first day we had team photos, I was wearing a Roman collar. The head coach said, ‘Are you going to wear that?’ I said, ‘I’m a priest. It’s who I am, isn’t it?’ He said, ‘Yes, Father.’ ”

Beginning in 2010, Father Meyer coached for four years at Jennings County High School in North Vernon. For the past eight years, he has coached track and cross country at East Central High School in St. Leon in southeastern Indiana. It’s another commitment in a schedule already filled with them as he serves as the pastor, along with Father Daniel Mahan, of All Saints Parish in Dearborn County, St. Lawrence Parish in Lawrenceburg, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Aurora, and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross Parish in Bright.

Yet coaching—like being a priest—is another commitment that brings him great joy.

“I really see it as the ability to help people strive for greatness,” he says. “When I became a priest, I wanted to help people know Jesus, change their lives and become saints. I became a coach to help people change their lives, strive for greatness and oftentimes introduce them to the Gospel.

“In the past few years, I’ve had athletes who have become baptized. I’ve had families of athletes come back to the faith. Every single day, I have the opportunity to be a witness to the Gospel—what it means to be a priest, a person of faith—at a public school. That’s powerful. Every day, I have the potential to impact people’s lives. It’s been a crazy, crazy journey.”

‘They want something more out of life’

At 45, Father Meyer not only coaches the boys’ and girls’ distance runners, he trains with them.

On a six-mile run, he averages about seven minutes a mile. He also lines up with the high school athletes for a series of speed drills that includes runs of 100 meters, 200 meters, 300 meters, 400 meters, 300 meters, 200 meters and 100 meters.

“All at race pace,” he says.

Still, the pace that Father Meyer ultimately seeks to set is by his example—and with a focus on a different finish line.

“The most influential people in a young person’s lives are their parents and their coaches,” he says. “There are really bad coaches who have made life miserable for kids. There are a lot of good coaches who challenge young people physically and mentally. I have the opportunity to also challenge them spiritually, to be a witness to the faith.

“I’m blessed to have other young parishioners who are part of the team who do the same. Young people who don’t have a church home ask questions. They want what we have. They want faith, purpose, meaning. They want something more out of life.”

Travis Bender was one of the runners searching for more in his life when he first met Father Meyer. The 2019 graduate of East Central says he found it with the help of the priest.

“What really stands out to me about Father Meyer as a man of faith is that he truly lives it,” Bender says. “Whenever Father walks into a room, he really grabs everyone’s attention. Father has built up a great deal of respect, and you can feel it. He does not shove his faith in your face either. He would pray for us consistently. And whether you are religious or not, you could feel his deep love for you as a person. This applied to all of his athletes.

“Father had and still has an immense impact on the way that I live my own faith. I was not born a Catholic, and only recently, as of April 3, 2021, was I baptized and confirmed. Father Meyer played a humungous role in my conversion and helped to teach me in the ways of the Catholic Church.”

‘I’m a priest for everyone there’

The priest also makes a difference through his coaching style.

“He would always encourage you no matter what,” says Bender, a member of All Saints Parish. “He would take the time to get to know you personally as well. I distinctly remember walking with him at a cross country race one time, and he had asked me what I planned on doing in the future. It meant a lot to me that we had talked at length about me.

“Another great thing about him is that he runs the workouts/practices with the team. He is there side-by-side with you every step of the way, encouraging you to keep going. He would not just tell us what we had to do, he would come and experience it with us.”

For Father Meyer, it’s all part of being a priest who coaches.

At meets, he wears his Roman collar. He prays with the runners who want that connection. He talks with parents and families who seek him out for a conversation. And he is open to sharing these outreaches with runners, parents and families from other high schools who compete in meets against

East Central.

“Even though I’m a coach for East Central, I’m a priest for everyone there,” he says.

“For me, it’s all about spiritual fatherhood. At this point, I see coaching as an extension of my priesthood. I have the ability to be a father to the children I coach every day. It’s a tremendous blessing.” †

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