In the spirit of competition

September 18, 2012

HOUSTON — At Catholic high schools, there is much more to mixing faith and football than pre-game prayers over the PA system.

With NFL injuries, lawsuits and bounty programs gracing the headlines of the sports page this summer, the challenge of instructing players to be aggressive whistle-to-whistle while practicing Christian values is a bold endeavor, but one that Catholic high school coaches have traditionally embraced.

"From the beginning of the season, our players are taught that their skill on the field speaks for itself," said Scot Mills, head varsity football coach and athletic director at Pope John XXIII High School in Katy. "With the physicality of the game, actions are your words. Sportsmanship and professionalism are at the center of every game, every practice."

Jason Kimball, the St. Pius X High School athletic director, believes the emphasis on a strictly "aggressive" approach to football is on the decline thanks to coaches — both in public and private schools — continually focusing more on the fundamentals of the game.

"Although (it remains) a physical sport, recent trends in philosophy have actually created a far less violent culture in the sport," he said. "The ‘three yards and a cloud of dust' offenses and smash-mouth defenses have given way to highly technical schemes and philosophies on both sides of the ball.

"The overwhelming majority of coaches presently coaching in high school and beyond often stress execution and precision from their players rather than aggressiveness. Mandating that players perform with aggressiveness is not only dangerous, but it hampers sound decision-making and performance."

Fighting outside influences and focusing on Catholic school identity and Christian principles on the gridiron has played a prominent role at schools like Pope John and St. Pius.

"At St. Pius X, we demand our players' faith be demonstrated by their actions, not their words," Kimball said. "We incorporate prayer and reflection into every facet of our program, from team meetings and practices to pregame and post-game gatherings. We feel that by immersing our players in a Christ-centered culture, we will directly impact the way they carry themselves on and off the field."

Mills said the Lions' football program begins every season with a week of community service, team-building, family connections and team Mass.
"Being Catholic is a part of our everyday life," he said, "so seeing the athletes express that identity on the field is a natural extension of their true character."

To many students, football is not just an afterschool activity. To some it may be an opportunity to receive a college scholarship, which may be a financial necessity to be able to receive a college education. Other students may even consider football as a potential career. Andrew Luck, Houston native and former St. John Vianney Church member, replaced legendary quarterback Peyton Manning this summer in the Indianapolis Colts in the National Football League. To many players in the Archdiocese, Luck is an example that the NFL dream is not out of their reach if they are competitive and excel at the sport. Those dreams and financial pressures are just a few of the outside influences constantly on the minds of players.

Father Jim Murphy, C.S.B., assistant athletic director at St. Thomas High School, said competing with high energy and excitement is certainly a priority for football teams on Friday nights as long as student-athletes "maintain respect for their opponent."

Gus Sulentic, a sophomore football player at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory, said, "if you don't respect your opponent, you are going to move into realms of conduct on the field and on the sideline that do not reflect your values."

Sulentic said that doesn't mean he is not going to try his hardest to block his opponent or to tackle him, but it does mean he has respect the work the team is doing. "The moment I stop respecting my opponent, I stop respecting the game and I hurt my own team."

While there are inevitably winners and losers according to the post-game scoreboard, Sulentic acknowledges players must be respectful and sportsmanlike to each other on and off the field.

"Respect shown even in a time of great triumph or loss shows the true values of the team and reflects on what they stand for," he said.

Mills said challenging his team to be productive and respectful not only improves them as players but as people.

"Balancing the power and the intensity required to become a truly superior athlete is a lifelong skill and a direct reflection of the inner struggle we must all experience in order to become a better athlete, student, friend and servant of God," he said. "Watching boys come in as freshmen and develop into young men as they leave for college is one of the most rewarding experiences I can imagine."