Prep sports captains huddle up for lessons on team leadership

| August 13, 2014 | 0 Comments
Fabian Oberg of the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield reacts to a humorous remark by former NFL player Matt Birk during the Sports Captains Leadership Summit at the University of St. Thomas Aug. 8. Oberg will be a senior this fall and a football team captain. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Fabian Oberg of the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield reacts to a humorous remark by former NFL player Matt Birk during the Sports Captains Leadership Summit at the University of St. Thomas Aug. 8. Oberg will be a senior this fall and a football team captain. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

When Matt Birk grabbed the microphone on the morning of Aug. 8 at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, he took command of his audience the way he took command of the offensive line for the Minnesota Vikings and, later, Baltimore Ravens.

But this was a younger group than the men Birk shared NFL locker rooms with for 14 seasons. They were high school male athletes, 90 of them, and all team captains.

The boys, most of whom attend Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, were invited to be there for a day of teaching, inspiration and fellowship by one who used to be part of their ranks — Michael Daly.

A graduate of St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights and a former football team captain himself, he now attends the St. Paul Seminary and is on the path to the priesthood. Near the end of the upcoming school year, he will be ordained a transitional deacon, with ordination to the priesthood — pending approval — to take place the following year.

Daly was able to convince the young men to take one of their last days of summer and spend it thinking about what kind of leaders they want to be on their teams.

The teens focused their attention on Birk as he told stories about life in the National Football League during the event’s first talk. Birk then recounted his own high school days and talked about missed opportunities for deepening his faith that he later cashed in on with the help of Catholic mentors like Rich Chapman. The two co-authored a book about how to make the right choices in life, called “All-Pro Wisdom,” and Birk drew from the book during his presentation.

“It took me a long time to figure it out — my identity comes from being a Catholic,” Birk told the young men. “You are a child of God. You can deal with any situation if you know that.”

Birk’s captive audience was filled with boys playing a variety of sports for their schools, including football. One of the boys, senior Fabian Oberg of the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, was happy to be on hand to hear Birk and the other speakers, including University of St. Thomas football coach Glen Caruso and former college and National Hockey League player Brian Bonin.

“I just love being here,” said Oberg, who plays offensive guard and is entering his third year as a starter on the offensive line. “I just want to help [the other players on the team] be better men.”

The emcee of the event was Brooks Bollinger, former NFL quarterback who played two years for the Minnesota Vikings and also was the varsity football head coach at Hill-Murray School in Maplewood in 2011.

He has been back in Minnesota since March, and immediately jumped on board when Daly asked him to come.

“I was just so inspired by Michael and his vision and his purpose and what he’s done with his life,” said Bollinger, who belongs to Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul along with his wife, Natalie, and their four children. “I said, ‘I’m on board, man. Whatever you’re doing, let me know how I can help. I want to be a part of it.’”

The captains summit, with the theme “Reckless Abandon,” grew out of an initial conversation between Daly, Birk, Bollinger, Chapman and Daly’s brothers. Eventually, Daly’s sister, Tricia Borg, also got involved and planned a lot of the event.

Daly had attended Archdiocesan Youth Day last fall and felt there weren’t enough boys in attendance. He went back to the seminary and “began to pray and ask how we can involve more young men,” he said.

Daly and the other organizers knew they would be up against the busy schedules of high school athletes, but came up with a day they knew wouldn’t conflict with any practices or games.

They also got bonus appearances from not one, but two bishops — Archbishop John Nienstedt and Bishop Mike Byrnes from the Archdiocese of Detroit. Bishop Byrnes was invited several months ago and worked it into his travel plans for the week.

From left, former NFL player Brooks Bollinger and Matt Birk take turns at the microphone during the captains summit. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

From left, former NFL player Brooks Bollinger and Matt Birk take turns at the microphone during the captains summit. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

“This is the kind of thing we need to do,” said Bishop Byrnes, who was a captain of his Detroit Catholic Central football team in 1975. “We’ve got to re-center our sporting activities. They serve a higher purpose.”

Participants like Nick Motzel agree. He is a senior football captain and running back at

St. Thomas Academy, and was one of four football captains on the team to attend.

He has heard Birk speak before, and was drawn back to hear another inspiring message about bringing faith to the field.

“I think it’s awesome,” he said of the captains summit. “It’s a really good learning experience for all of us. They [speakers] have so much to teach us. They’re so well rounded and mature.

“I think it’s great to be a man of faith. My dad’s very Catholic, his dad was very Catholic, our whole family is. I’m also very Catholic, so it’s something that I hold near and dear.”

With the first successful captains summit now completed, two important questions are: 1. What about next year? and, 2. Will there be one for girls?

The answers are yes and yes, Daly said.

“We hope to do it each year,” he said. “There was a huge turnout [for this one], which was great.”

As for a similar summit for girls, “some of my female friends who played D1 [Division One college] sports are already planning it for next year,” he said. “Our society is in need of strong, masculine male leaders and strong, feminine female leaders.”

One person who will, no doubt, be happy to hear about future captains summits is Mike Streitz, athletic director and varsity baseball coach at St. Agnes School in St. Paul.

He was there at St. Thomas along with eight of his school’s team captains. He is glad to see an event that focuses on the other — and more important — side of sports.

“Truly, the message here is, ‘You’ve got to lead a good life,’” Streitz said.

“Every coach and every player believes their ultimate goal is to win. . . . But, ultimately, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s the journey you take and who you take it with. That’s what this [summit] is teaching us.”

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