September 6, 2019


Youth camp a reminder faith must be at the center of all we do

Imagine a group of athletes hearing bells ringing and dropping to their knees. They reverently become silent as a priest processes onto a practice field with a monstrance containing the Eucharist.

For the next 15 minutes, the football players and Father Michael Daly, associate pastor of St. Odilia Parish in Shoreview, Minn., are silent, offering prayers on a summer afternoon.

The act of faith took place in August at the start of an afternoon session during the inaugural Faith and Football Camp at Cretin-Derham High School in St. Paul, Minn.

According to a story from Catholic News Service, the three-day camp featured football drills and scrimmages mixed in with Mass, the rosary, Stations of the Cross and adoration. There also were speakers. Father Daly also heard confessions on the camp’s final day. He set up two chairs along a chain-link fence at the edge of the field.

You would think boys in third- through eighth-grade would be intimidated to take part in reconciliation in front of their peers. Organizers, however, watched 30 boys line up to participate in the sacrament.

“I really wasn’t expecting that many kids to step up” for confession, said retired NFL football player Matt Birk, 43, who is a member of St. Joseph Parish in West St. Paul with his wife and eight children. “It really warmed my heart because that’s a sacrament that none of us really like going to, in a certain way. It’s intimidating, but these kids popped up and did it. For them to do that just showed a lot of courage.”

Birk, who played for his hometown Minnesota Vikings and won a Super Bowl in 2013 as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, was among the parents who came up with the idea of a camp for youth combining faith and football that is part of a youth sports initiative that he launched in 2018. He wasn’t sure what kind of response a camp that combined faith and football would receive, but 85 boys signed up.

The turnout, Birk said, demonstrated some parents want a different kind of youth sports experience for their kids. Three of his sons attended the camp.

Like many parents, the retired NFL player sees some youth coaches who put too much of an emphasis on time spent on the practice field and in competition, not allowing players to take weekends off to spend time with family. And as we are seeing in some of our communities in central and southern Indiana, sports competitions take place on Sundays. Sadly, some families are putting their children’s sports schedule ahead of weekend Mass.

“I mean, these are 10- and 11-year-olds,” Birk said. “We’re just spending too much time, we’re putting an inordinate amount of time and energy into sports. … It’s a race to nowhere, if you ask me.”

He also said “80 percent of kids are dropping out of organized sports by middle school. And, the number one reason is they’re not having any fun.”

Faith and fun were the overarching themes of this endeavor. Camp was held six hours each day, with plenty of breaks and free time. Birk and other adults played quarterback, and during scrimmages score was not kept. Near the end of the day, parents showed up in the bleachers to watch. The spiritual component, they said, was a draw for them in registering their sons for the camp.

The faith component comes from Birk’s own journey. He was brought up Catholic, but fell away from the faith. His road back began in 2002, just after he had signed a $31 million, seven-year contract with the Vikings, which at the time was the largest-ever NFL contract for a center.

“I had worldly success beyond my wildest dreams, yet I was still empty inside,” said Birk, who came back to the Church when his wife, Adrianna, was pregnant with their first child. He said playing in the NFL showed him that “football is a very spiritual game.”

In a culture obsessed with sports, Father Daly said the camp was an important way to spread the Gospel.

“Bringing Jesus onto the sports field is a great sign and witness to them that we can integrate our faith in all that we do, including sports,” he said, adding that sports are a “training ground for learning virtue.”

“I think if the boys aren’t coming to the Church,” the priest said, “we’ve got to go to them and meet them where they’re at—literally, on their football field.

The camp offers a reminder to all of us, especially parents nurturing younger children, that faith must be at the center of all that we do.

As we tackle this all-important task of helping form our children, let us never forget that.

—Mike Krokos

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