Camp combines faith and football

| August 9, 2019 | 0 Comments

Father Michael Daly holds a monstrance with the Eucharist during Faith and Football Camp Aug. 7 at Cretin-Derham Hall high school in St. Paul. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Young boys dressed in T-shirts and shorts gathered on the sideline of the football practice field at Cretin-Derham Hall high school in St. Paul Aug. 7.

Their chatter fell silent as they waited for the football camp’s afternoon session to start.

What they heard next was not a coach’s whistle, but small bells being carried across the field by Jim Weiland of Sts. Joachim and Anne in Shakopee. Walking right behind him was a priest, Father Michael Daly of St. Odilia in Shoreview. He was not holding a football.

He was holding the Eucharist. With the 85 boys attending the inaugural Faith and Football Camp kneeling on the artificial turf, Father Daly placed a consecrated host in a gold monstrance on a plastic folding table. He recited a few prayers, then circled around the table to kneel down with the boys.

Fifteen minutes of silence followed. Several boys remained just a few feet from the table, while others pulled back a football’s throw away. Observing the boys — and preserving the silence — was Matt Birk, former Minnesota Vikings center and Super Bowl winner with the Baltimore Ravens who played football for Cretin-Derham Hall in the 1990s.

Birk and several others came up with the idea of a camp for youth combining faith and football. It’s part of a youth sports initiative Birk launched in 2018 called For His Glory in partnership with Catholic Schools Center of Excellence and Catholic United Financial. They wanted to make a concrete connection between the athletic life and the spiritual life.

“Matt Birk and some of us realized it was time to reinvest in our sports in our Catholic schools,” said Weiland, who has three children and has coached them in youth sports. “There’s so many of the virtues that we learn through the Catholic faith that can be taught really well through sports.”

The three-day camp that began Aug. 5 featured football drills and scrimmages, mixed in with Mass, rosary, Stations of the Cross and adoration. There also were speakers, including Glenn Caruso, head football coach at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Brooks Bollinger, retired Minnesota Vikings quarterback, and Chad Greenway, retired Vikings linebacker. Father Daly heard confessions on the camp’s final day. He set up two chairs along a chain link fence at the edge of the field. Organizers watched 30 boys line up to receive the sacrament.

“I really wasn’t expecting that many kids to step up” for confession, said Birk, 43, who belongs to St. Joseph 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. I was just so pleased.”

Matt Birk prays during eucharistic adoration at Faith and Football Camp. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

The camp was planned just six weeks before it happened, Birk said, and he wasn’t sure what kind of response it would get. He was pleasantly surprised to have 85 boys sign up, a sign that parents want a different kind of youth sports experience for their children.

Birk does, too, which is why three of his sons came to the camp — Grant, 11, Cole, 9, and Brady, 7. His children play youth sports, and he says winning often is the driving force. He recalls getting emails from coaches explaining that when kids commit to playing on their teams, they are not allowed to take weekends off for family activities like going up north to a lake cabin.

“There’s pressure,” he said. “You have to commit to four or five times a week. … I mean, these are 10- and 11-year-olds. We’re just spending too much time, we’re putting an inordinate amount of time and energy into  sports, which is the focus. It’s a race to nowhere, if you ask me.

“And statistics show that. Kids are dropping out — 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.”

In response to this shift, Birk and camp organizers tried to dial up the fun and dial back the intensity. They kept the drills light, and did not have the boys wear pads or helmets. Scrimmages were held, but without keeping score. Adults, including Birk, would play quarterback and have all of the boys on offense go out for a pass. Birk smiled often as he scanned the field and tossed passes to the boys. It resembled the sandlot games the boys’ parents and grandparents played when they were young.

Jack Dupre of St. Ambrose in Woodbury runs for a touchdown during a scrimmge. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Camp was held six hours each day, with plenty of breaks and free time. Near the end of the day, parents showed up in the bleachers to watch. The spiritual component definitely was a draw for them in registering their sons for the camp.

Becky Miller of St. Odilia found out about the camp through social media and signed up her son, Parker, 8, who will be a third-grader in the fall.

“I just love the faith and the athletic component of it,” she said of the camp. “I thought it would be a really neat experience, given that (Parker) had just completed first Communion … in May. He had a really great teacher who really got him into the rosary and learning about the sacraments. And I just saw him excited about his faith in a way I hadn’t seen before. I thought this (camp) was really cool.”

Likewise for Kelene Skrypek of Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, who registered her son, Tommy, also 8 and going into third grade. They found out about the camp because one of Tommy’s friends had signed up.

“It’s been a fabulous camp,” she said. “I’m hoping they do it again or do it a couple times throughout the summer. That would be great.”

Like Miller, she particularly liked the combination of faith and athletics, “which is unheard of,” she said. “You don’t see camps like this.”

What has Tommy said about the experience? “He’s tired, but he loves it,” Kelene said.

Birk said he plans to do the camp again next year. He also hopes to add other sports, with soccer likely being the next one. He expects participation to keep growing, hopefully leading to experiences like he had early in his NFL career. He grew up Catholic but fell away from his 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, he said.

“I had worldly success beyond my wildest dreams, yet I was still empty inside,” said Birk, who also got married that same year. “I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t joyful. I kind of bought in (to a worldly view), thinking  that if I really focused on and chased the things that the world was selling, that was the road to happiness. And, it wasn’t.”

When his wife, Adrianna, was pregnant with their first child, Birk decided it was time to come back to the Church. What he learned playing in the NFL from 1999 through Super Bowl XLVII in 2013 is that “football is a very spiritual game. … Spirituality is really baked into the game.”

“To be successful in football, I think, you’ve got to have faith because it’s a hard game to play,” he said. “There’s a saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. And I think when you step onto a football field, probably the same could be said. It’s a little bit scary. I think whether guys want to admit it or not, you do say a prayer for safety or for strength. I think to be successful in football, you need faith.”

Birk now has at least one priest who will join with him to promote faith and sports. Father Daly, who played high school hockey at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, said he hopes to someday bring the Eucharist out onto the ice. He thinks events like Faith and Football Camp are an important way to spread the Gospel in a culture obsessed with sports.

“I think if the boys aren’t coming to the church, we’ve got to go to them and meet them where they’re at — literally, on their football field,” he said. “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, that sports isn’t the goal but it’s a training ground for learning virtue and striving for the heights of holiness in heaven.”

He plans to do follow-up at St. Odilia School this fall.

“There were some St. Odilia boys here (at the camp), which I was grateful for,” he said. “So, I’m sure I’ll be able to apply this knowledge on the playground this upcoming school year.”


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