Play Like a Champion for Christ: How Fr. Michael Brady Built a Bridge Between Sports and Spirituality to Enrich the Lives of CCHS Students

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

Craig Jones: Central Catholic’s Youngest Commencement Speaker

When Craig Jones was invited to come back to Central Catholic High School as the 2017 commencement speaker, he was surprised and deeply honored to return to his alma mater and share his experiences and wisdom with a younger generation of Raiders. “It was an almost out-of-body experience to be on the other side of the page,” says Craig. Reflecting on his own graduation, in which he was valedictorian, he remembered being inspired by the words he heard from the 2012 commencement speaker, Matt Emerzian, author of Every Monday Matters. “He accomplished so much by that point in his life. He made impactful, positive influences in the world, which is pretty amazing to do, and to me, to be included in the same sentence as a fellow commencement speaker at Central is pretty awesome. So hopefully I live up to the others who have had the honor of speaking at Central.”

As Central’s youngest commencement speaker at the age of twenty-three, Craig felt a special connection to the graduating class, as he was in their position only five years prior. “I was just there, literally. I went to school with a lot of (the seniors) older siblings…I just wanted to focus on giving the graduates something tangible and relatable to them,” Craig says. The three pillars of Craig’s speech were to work really hard, to trust yourself, and to go out and embrace the world. These are more than mere talking points for Craig Jones; these are the assets he has continually practiced in his own life, leading him to substantial success at such a young age. In speaking with Craig, the notion of hard work was a common thread throughout his journey post-graduation from Central Catholic, in college, and beyond. He recognizes the importance of giving your one hundred percent in every aspect of your life, regardless of whether or not that work is recognized or validated by others.

Craig began his career at Stanford University as a preferred walk-on, inside line-backer. He set out to prove himself early, trusting in his abilities and working hard to make his goals a reality. This effort began to pay off in 2013, when he was awarded “Stanford’s Outstanding Special Teams Scout Team Player or the Year” as a sophomore, and he continued to advance by starting on several special-teams his junior year. His incredible work ethic and positive attitude gained him the respect and admiration of his coaches and teammates. These successes led to an incredible culmination of all the long hours and hard work Craig had put in throughout college in his senior year on the team: his head coach surprising him with a full-ride scholarship. Craig shared his moment with teammates, who went wild with enthusiasm, lifting him in the air and hollering with joy. When asked what he missed most about football at Stanford, Craig was quick to acknowledge his teammates, who have become his close friends. “That’s what really made it so special: this really unique family, similar to what we had at Central…it’s definitely something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”

Currently, Craig is living in New York City and working as a sales analyst for Redbull. He works on many cross-promotional campaigns, working with other businesses to find common interests and make connections to grow the brand. In this stage of his life, Craig continues to focus on perseverance and building positive connections with his colleagues. When asked about his current postion, Craig says, “The most rewarding, and also challenging, part of the business that I really like is (working) with people, and they don’t always want what Redbull wants…creating a story and showing them that actually your interests are aligned to a certain point and creating a joint plan going forward.” He also spoke of the joy he receives from seeing the tangible realization of his work, walking into a store and seeing a promotional campaign that he helped create, or uncovering an exciting, telling piece of data after analyzing a spreadsheet document. He is excited and optimistic about his position with Redbull and the experience he is gaining from his time with the company.

So what’s next for Craig Jones? This is the question he has been receiving from everyone close to him. As Craig says, “My friends are joking, ‘Okay Craig, when are you doing the commencement speech at Stanford?’” However, his current mentality is not to worry about where he will be in five years, in terms of his career, or in his relationship with his girlfriend, who is living in London and working for Bank of America. He plans instead to focus on the present, staying enthusiastic and diligent in his career in business. His current rotation at Redbull is for eighteen months, in which he hopes to “work really hard in this period of time, and see where opportunities arrive after that.” Whether he is working for Redbull or another company, in New York or abroad, he knows he will keep pushing forward and climbing further up the ladder, embracing the world and all it has to offer.

 

Originally Published in Central Catholic High School’s Alumni Magazine, Fall 2017