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Fr. Michael Daly holds a monstrance with the Eucharist during Faith and Football Camp at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minn. The three-day camp featured football drills and scrimmages mixed in with Mass, rosary, Stations of the Cross and adoration. CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, Catholic Spirit

Camp puts Jesus on gridiron

By  Dave Hrbacek, Catholic News Service
  • September 4, 2019

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Boys on the sideline of the football practice field at Cretin-Derham Hall High School this summer fell silent one afternoon 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 carried by someone walking in front of Fr. Michael Daly, parochial vicar of St. Odilia in Shoreview. The priest was not holding a football; he was carrying the Eucharist.

While the 85 boys attending the inaugural Faith and Football Camp knelt on the turf, Aug. 7, Daly placed a consecrated host in a gold monstrance on a plastic folding table. He recited a few prayers, then circled around the table and knelt with the boys.

Fifteen minutes of silence followed. Observing the boys was Matt Birk, former Minnesota Vikings centre and Super Bowl champion with the Baltimore Ravens who also played for Cretin-Derham Hall, archdiocesan high school of St. Paul and Minneapolis, in the 1990s.

Birk and several others came up with the idea of a camp for youth combining faith and football that is part of a youth sports initiative Birk launched in 2018.

“Matt Birk and some of us realized it was time to reinvest in our sports in our Catholic schools,” said Jim Weiland of Sts. Joachim and Anne in Shakopee, who has coached his children in sports.

The three-day camp featured football drills and scrimmages mixed in with Mass, rosary, Stations of the Cross and adoration. There also were speakers, including retired Vikings Brooks Bollinger and  Chad Greenway. 

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. “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 said he wasn’t sure what kind of response it would get and said the fact that 85 boys signed up shows that parents want a different kind of youth sports experience for their children.

Birk does, too, which is why three of his eight children came to the camp: Grant, 11, Cole, 9, and Brady, 7. His children play youth sports, but he said there is a lot of pressure from coaches who don’t allow players to take weekends off for family activities.

“I mean, these are 10- and 11-year-olds,” he 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.”

That’s why Birk and camp organizers tried to have more fun and less intensity at the football and faith camp. 

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

“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.”

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