August 31, 2007

Living on a prayer: Marian College football coach eager to open inaugural season

Linemen lock shoulder pads during a drill to improve blocking as the Marian College football team prepares for its first game on Sept. 1.

Linemen lock shoulder pads during a drill to improve blocking as the Marian College football team prepares for its first game on Sept. 1.

By John Shaughnessy

Ted Karras keeps hearing that his football team won’t have a prayer as it begins its first season in the 71-year history of Marian College in Indianapolis.

He keeps hearing that his team—made up of mostly freshman and sophomore students who have never played in a college game—doesn’t stand a chance of winning even one game in a 10-game schedule that begins on Sept. 1 at William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa.

And every time that Marian’s head football coach hears those predictions and doubts, he instinctively reacts in the same way that the Karras men have always responded to a challenge in football: his muscles tense, his eyes sear with passion, and his whole body pulses with the knowledge and the belief that he will give every ounce of energy to overcome the doubters and their predictions.

After all, this is a man whose father played on the 1963 Chicago Bears world championship team, a man whose uncle is the former all-intensity, all-pro Alex Karras, a man whose favorite moment as a player came when he played for Northwestern University in 1984 and sacked the Indiana University quarterback in the end zone for a safety—points that ended up being the difference in the game.

“I wasn’t recruited by IU,” Karras, 42, recalls. “I felt I was overlooked. I can identify with the kids I’m trying to recruit at Marian. I look for heart and the hunger to want to continue to play.”

Besides, anyone who wants to say that Karras, his coaches and his 100 football players at Marian don’t have a prayer definitely doesn’t know them. In fact, Karras now lives his life by a certain prayer—a prayer that his father, a convert to the Catholic faith, insisted that his son use before a game he coached in 2003.

Karras was coaching for Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology then and his team was preparing to play Washington University in St. Louis, a team that Rose-Hulman hadn’t beaten in 11 years.

“My dad asked me to say the prayer in front of the team before the game,” Karras recalls. “I wasn’t sure about doing it, but he was emphatic. He got mad at me. He said, ‘You have to.’ I gave my pre-game speech, said the prayer and I had everyone repeat it before we took the field. It was an extremely tough game. We ended up winning in the last minute. It was a big upset. I’ve been saying the prayer ever since.”

The prayer is known as “the prayer of Jabez”—“Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, ‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request” [1 Chr 4:9-10].

“He explained how God wants us to ask for his blessings and that’s what we have to do in our lives. I truly believe that,” says Karras, a member of St. Matthew the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis with his wife, Jennifer, and their two children. “I’ve prayed the prayer of Jabez, and I’ve taught it to my team. This whole process of starting a football team has definitely enlarged Marian in terms of enrollment, in terms of diversity, in terms of the geographical areas where Marian is known.”

When Karras was hired 18 months ago, the idea of Marian College football was just a plan on paper, a dream. Now, the dream has become a reality.

The football team has added 100 students to campus, exceeding the 60 that Marian officials had hoped for in the program’s first season. Groundbreaking on a new multipurpose field on campus also occurred this summer, a field that will benefit the football, soccer, track and softball programs. The football program has also had the desired effect of increasing male enrollment at Marian and having more students live on campus.

It’s all part of what Marian officials consider the continuing resurgence of the college that began this school year with a record enrollment of 2,010 students—compared to 1,798 students last year and 1,427 five years ago.

Marian administrators often tout the advantages of getting a great, faith-based education in the city of Indianapolis—a combination that Karras has used ever since he and his first assistant coach, Martin Mathis, began recruiting students.

“We had nothing to show here when we first started,” Karras says. “We had to sell them on the benefits of Marian—getting a great education in a great city and getting the chance to play football. We were on the road a lot and made a lot of phone calls trying to get them to campus. Looking back, it’s been a long, challenging road, but it’s satisfying to have 100 kids in the program.”

Starting a football program from scratch is a difficult proposition, says Joseph Haklin, Marian’s athletic director.

“Ted is doing a terrific job,” Haklin says. “He’s put his heart and his soul into this. The program has just been hitting one benchmark after another. We don’t look like your typical start-up team. We want to do things the right way, and we want to have discipline through the program. We want to build the program for the long term.”

The foundations of this year’s team have been built in recruiting players from such states as Illinois, Ohio and Florida, and from Catholic high schools across Indiana. The team includes graduates from Cathedral High School, Roncalli High School and Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School, all in Indianapolis.

The heart of this year’s team has been tested and forged during one of the hottest Augusts in Indianapolis history.

“The football team has generated a new spirit and a new growth at Marian,” says Billy Cobb, a defensive end, before the team practices on a steamy afternoon when the temperature hits 95 degrees.

“Coach Karras is definitely a great leader,” says Cobb, a 2005 Roncalli graduate and a member of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis. “He’s there to talk to you when you need it. He’s tough on the football field, but whenever you need to talk to him, he’s there. He also talks about academics first, which is important at a school like ours.”

Will Roush also appreciates that faith is a part of the football program at Marian, including the prayer of Jabez.

“It was the first time I’ve ever heard that prayer,” says Roush, 19, a 2006 graduate of Roncalli and a member of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood. “It’s short and to the point. It’s nice to have prayer as a constant in the football program just like it was in high school.”

Assistant coach Wayne Racine shares this insight about Karras: “A lot of coaches lose that sense of humility. He doesn’t.”

Maybe that explains one of the answers Karras gives when he is asked to share one of the highlights of the football program so far.

He refers to an e-mail he received from a college administrator who parked her car illegally in a grassy spot on campus, a grassy spot that turned into a muddy swamp during a torrential downpour that day. When she tried to leave her makeshift parking spot that night, her car became stuck in the mud until a group of football players came to her rescue. The administrator wanted to let Karras know how “chivalrous” his players were.

That’s just exactly what Karras wants to hear about the off-field efforts of a team named the Knights.

On the field, he will expect—and demand—their best, too. That starts with the first game in the school’s history on Sept. 1. It will continue with the team’s first-ever home game at 2 p.m. on Sept. 8 at Pike High School in Indianapolis—against McKendree College.

“I have a true sense of urgency, and I try to stress that to my team in everything I do,” Karras says. “My approach is we’re going to take the field expecting to win. I think anything can happen on a football field. I’m real excited. It’s going to be interesting to take the field for the first game.”

He knows that his team has a prayer.

“It’s been a long journey,” he says. “My faith has helped me. There have been some down days. There have been great days, too. In any process like this, you have to be strong in your faith. I’m trying to motivate them to believe that anything is possible.” †

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