When Fr. Michael Brady was approached by a Central Catholic football player about helping their team recover from a difficult season, he was somewhat blindsided.
“I was kind of speechless because I didn’t know what to do. I was never a student athlete when I was growing up so I wasn’t sure how to do that, and the coaches didn’t know how to incorporate me into the program. So I said, (to the players) ‘What would you guys like me to do?’” says Fr. Michael.
After meeting with the football team, Father Michael, the coaches and the players decided to implement changes to create a more positive, uplifting environment for student-athletes to thrive. Fr. Michael agreed to say Mass for the players before every game day, to be present on the sidelines at practices and games, and to serve as a liaison between the players and their coaches to “stay on track, so to speak.” However, Fr. Michael soon decided he wanted to take his ministry with the football team further, sensing there was more he could do to support and connect with student-athletes. So, he started to do some research.
“I realized the church has so many resources out there, so I started doing some research on sports spirituality and character development… I asked the bishop if I could go on sabbatical and learn something, so what I did was go out and see what the best practices are in bringing spirituality to sports. And what I found was the University of Notre Dame probably does, what I would consider, the best job at that. So I brought back the ‘Play Like a Champion’ program from the University of Notre Dame.”
The beauty of the “Play Like a Champion” program is its universal application to the various personalities that make up the Central Catholic family. Although originally working to promote a positive environment for athletes to grow and succeed, the program also calls students to be champions in their studies, extra-curricular activities, and every other aspect of their lives. Additionally, coaches and teachers are called to be champions in their respective ministries, doing everything they can to help the students under their care become the best they can be. As Father Michael says, “We use it (the “Play Like a Champion” program) not only in athletics, but in academics, to build a bridge between our coaches and our teachers, because a coach is a teacher and a teacher is a coach.”
According to Father Michael, the overall goal of the program is to combine athletics, academics, and spirituality through the efforts of coaches, teachers, and spiritual leaders to cultivate the best possible atmosphere for students to find purpose and meaning for their lives. “What we try to do is create a well-rounded experience for the students and student-athletes, so they become an image of the Gospel when they leave here and try to become the champions of Christ that God is asking them to be.”
However, sports specifically remain an enormous aspect of campus identity. When asked about the importance of sports at Central Catholic, Father Michael explains, “The reason why this school focuses on sports, and I would say almost all Catholic high schools and colleges do rely on sports in the sense of formation, is because sports are a vehicle to bring the Gospel to our students.” Almost ninety percent of Central Catholic students are involved in sports or other extra-curricular activities, a pattern that is strongly encouraged by the faculty and staff because it teaches students important life skills that will help them succeed in all that they do. Team sports, Fr. Michael says, are especially important because they teach discipline, cooperation, and integrity: “Sports are a big part of who we are to form our young people to become the men and women God is asking them to be.”
Much of Father Michael’s focus is centered on helping students identify how to apply God’s will to their everyday lives as high school students. One example of this can be seen during Father’s “sport Masses,” which take place during lunch on game days for student-athletes. In his homily, Father Michael identifies students that have been “images of Christ” for that week, whether that be by encouraging a teammate on the football field or exemplifying personal excellence in the classroom.
Sport Mass is, in many ways, the ultimate metaphor for the fusion of sports, spirituality, and community that is at the heart of Central Catholic High School. “I was talking to some of the student-athletes the first year I was doing this,” Father Michael says. “And one of the student-athletes I was talking to didn’t make it to Mass that day. So I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you come to Mass?’ And he says ‘Oh Father, I had too much homework and I had this and that.’ And his teammate was there and he says ‘Hey dude, you’ve got to go to Mass, because that’s where we bond.’”
While forming meaningful connections between being champions on the field and champions for Christ is important for high-schoolers, Father Michael asserts that his biggest hope for students is that they continue to live faithful lives as they become adults and take on the world. He hopes that students will embrace their roles as ambassadors of Christ, representing the virtues of faith, character, and integrity to each person they encounter throughout their lives. In the words of Father Michael, “Everything you do should be through the lens of our faith. It’s hard to do every single day, but you have to practice at it. Just as you have to practice at sports, your faith is being practiced; you’re constantly striving to be the best that you can be.”
Published in Central Catholic High School’s Alumni Magazine, Spring 2018