Friday, December 31, 2010

Catholics vs. Convicts: The Story Behind ESPN's "Shirt of the Century"

By game day, young entrepreneurs were adding fuel to the pregame fire, selling anti-Miami T-shirt propaganda to tens of thousands of fan. Although officially frowned upon by the university, Notre Dame fans can still be spotted from time to time wearing the most popular of those ’88 Miami game T-shirts “Catholics vs. Convicts—Unfinished Business.”
Perhaps by the world’s standards, they are an unlikely duo, but not by those under the Golden Dome. Mike Caponigro and Joe Frederick were roommates, good friends and the very entrepreneurs the book “Echoes of Notre Dame Football” speaks about. And here, ladies and gentlemen is their story—the official story behind “Catholics vs. Convicts.” The business may now be finished, but the memory lives on.

The ratio of “Mikes” to every other male name at Notre Dame is at least three to one, so Mike Caponigro like many others became something else. Known even to Lou Holtz as “Eggroll,” Mike hails from Middletown, NJ. Proud of his Italian heritage (understatement of the year) Mike, arrived at ND wearing a couple of chains, replete with the bullhorn and the boot of Italy, white shoes and the proverbial "Italian dinner jacket" undershirt. Those are just a few reasons so many people love a man no longer even called "Eggroll"...but "Roll." 

Joe Frederick on the other hand hailed from a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. Standing 6’5” he came as a scholarship athlete to Notre Dame. In fact, his three other siblings were D1 athletes as well. Tall, dark (blonde) and handsome, Joe could sell ice to an Eskimo. Joe somehow managed to be both the brains and the brawn behind this ponzi scheme.

The front of the shirt read “Unfinished Business” and South Bend meant it. The October 15, 1988 matchup was to be the first in three years between the Hurricanes and the Irish. Salt was still in the wound from the 1985 season finale. In that game Jimmy Johnson, Miami’s infamous coach poured on offensive scoring well into the fourth quarter, winning 58-7.

Nearly three years later, “Scholastic,” the university student magazine featured a full-page ad that read, “Avoid the Rush, Hate Miami Early. Only 198 Days Left!” It was payback time. 

Joe’s older brother, who played hoops at Rollins a college in Central Florida had a T-shirt that read “FSU vs. Miami: Unfinished Business.” In the late summer/early fall, Mike and Joe got the idea to make shirts for the impending match up of the #1 vs #4 teams in the land.
Mike and Joe used the same slogan for the front. They included the date of the game and “Go Irish” but needed something for the back of the t-shirt. Mike’s temper started to rise as he once again described Miami. “That defines hatred in rivalries. What they stood for and how they conducted themselves—the showboating, their names on jerseys, ruthless punishment of players until the final whistle—they were the antithesis of the Irish.” Catholics vs. Convicts fit the mold.“For a moment, football history seemed to be dangling in the balance—old vs. new, tradition vs. modern domination, heart vs. hype, “Catholics vs. Convicts.” Watch ESPN's 30 for 30: The U for much more evidence.

Mike and Joe were friends with Pat Walsh, a guy from the south side of Chicago. Since Pat was already selling t-shirts as well—his featured one with a game-day ticket: Miami vs. Notre Dame, Notre Dame Stadium—Joe and Mike decided to work with “his guy.” Shirts were printed and delivered to the main circle on campus, without receipts. As hype for the game only intensified, so did demand for the shirt. 

Mike admitted sales kept him so busy, he did not go to class for three weeks (but he somehow found time to dine at Macri’s deli every night?!). He woke up every morning in Alumni Hall to hear Joe playing The O’Jay’s “For the Love of Money” on their stereo. They convinced the student body that the team would be wearing the shirt underneath their jerseys. With no supply and high demand, Mike sold the shirt off his back for $75. And silver-tongued Joe? $100.

In the Shawshank Redemption Andy Dufresne, a righteous man, wrongly convicted of killing his wife said to Red: Yeah. The funny thing is - on the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to become a criminal. I hate to say it, and it’s an overstatement, but it’s a funny similarity—our proprietors had to come to Notre Dame to become convicts. 

The administration caught word of the T-shirt sales. Mike and Joe were without a license to sell on campus. Truth be told, they sold shirts without any logos that would require permission. Nice work guys! Regardless, they had to meet with student affairs and settle their debts; a lot was at stake. Joe was NCAA athlete and Mike was already familiar with the “Iron Maiden” Ann Firth.

Mike, president of Alumni Hall, did what any good Catholic would do, he met with (and greased) his rector, a Holy Cross priest. Mike explained that what they did was in the spirit of good fun and a great rivalry. He also donated a chunk of change for improvements to the Alumni chapel. No wonder St. Charles Borromeo chapel is one of the most beautiful and prayerful places on campus. 

Obviously, the highlight of this story is that Miami came to town as the number one ranked team and lost 31-30 to who was to become the National Champions. 

Based on their meetings with the discipline board, Mike and Joe decided not to run anymore “Catholics vs. Convicts” t-shirts. Someone however continued had them print, without logos and with a license to sell. Catholics vs. Convicts II, Catholics vs. Convicts III. They made a whole lot of money, money, money, money, money, money, MONEY! 

Mike concluded his remarks with a question he posed to himself. Would I rather have the money or the story? I guess the wait, at the end of the day, I would rather have the story. Yeah, the story.

Thanks, Mike and Joe for a great story. It’s been fun to relive it as the Irish prepare for post-season play in the Sun Bowl. Let’s hope we have a similar outcome.

Photo Credits Coach Holtz &
Coach Johnson
Alumni Hall

SI Cover T-shirts: taken by the author!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best of 2010: Sports (Auto)Biography--
Andre Agassi's "Open"

I interviewed one of my favorite people in the world today, my friend Mike Caponigro, the co-creator of the “Catholics vs. Convicts” t-shirt. I wanted to get the official history of how the shirt, banned by the university was made and sold before the October 15, 1988 Miami vs. Notre Dame game. In a posting that will follow before the Irish play the Hurricanes in the Sun Bowl, Mike concluded his remarks with a question to himself: Would I rather have the money or the story? I guess the money…no wait a minute, at the end of the day; I would rather have the story.

He raised what I believe is an interesting point and an intriguing idea, a good card in life's game of “would you rather.” The victory? the money? the girl/guy? the glory? or the story? Perhaps it’s because I’m Irish (Mike’s Jersey Italian….close enough) but I agree, I'll take the story too.

And for the first of my 2010 “Best of” postings, the best sports auto/biography goes to Andre Agassi for his controversial autobiography “Open.” Why? the guy has the girl(s), the glory, the money, and a whole lot of victories. But this isn't what makes his book so memorable; he knows how to tell a good story.

Ironically Open begins with a chapter entitled “The End.” He writes
I open my eyes and don’t know where I am or who I am. Not that unusual—I’ve spent half my life not knowing. Still, this feels different. This confusion is more frightening. More total.I look up. I'm lying on the floor beside the bed. I remember now. I moved from the bed to the floor in the middle of the night. I do that most nights. Better for my back. Too many hours on a soft mattress causes agony.
The bad back, three decades of sprinting, stopping on a dime, jumping high and landing hard led Andre to retire at the age of thirty-six (young by most standard except for profession tennis). But he isn’t only speaking about retirement, or pain or self-knowledge, he is setting the stage for what this book reveals.

People would ask Agassi why he thought the end of his career was the appropriate time to write his autobiography. Why not wait until many years later—with time and distance from the game? Agassi conceded that it was therapeutic for him to undertake this endeavor. He reviewed hundreds of hours of game tape; he spoke with his coaches and trainers, reviewed interviews and more. Writing “Open” allowed him to make sense of the madness that is life on the ATP Tour. Tennis is played on six continents; it can be tremendously lonely and physically exhausting. But, it can also be pure entertainment. With Agassi’s active role as a US Davis Cup player, he came to appreciate a team dimension as well as the ultimate team—his wife—one of the greatest female players of all time, Steffi Graf. It doesn't have to be so lonely. Incredible victories, upsetting losses, his unconventional childhood, even the era he played all make for an autobiography that reads as a story.

It’s fitting, Agassi does not begin “Open” with the story of the last match he played, rather, he weaves in details of his life with his family on the tour, the cortisone shots he must take (whoa) all while leading up to what is final professional victory, against Marcos Baghdatis.

Ranked number eight in the world in the September 2006, I remember what a big and strong guy he was…and that he was Greek from Cyprus. I will never forget the school year was just underway and one of my students, a gentle giant was very proud of his Greek heritage. I happened to ask Matt Kosmas if he had family in Cyprus. He did. When I mentioned Baghdatis, he nearly went ape shit (I’m sorry, I typically don’t swear, but that’s the truth. Honestly, tell me how many Cyprian Greeks you know?!)Like the rest of the book, Andre doesn’t just recall details of the match, he colors the pages with his emotions, insights, how his supporting cast—coaches, personal trainer and family played their parts. His recall is phenomenal and so are his experiences and adventures.

After he defeats Bagdahtis in five grueling sets he writes:
By the time I reach the locker room I’m unable to walk. I’m unable to stand. I'm sinking to the floor. I’m on the ground. Darren and Gil arrive, slip my bag off my shoulder and lift me onto a table. Baghdatis’s people deposit him on the table next to me. ... He curls up into a ball and begs (his people) to leave him be. Moments later something makes me turn back to Baghdatis. He’s smiling at me. Happy or nervous? Maybe both. I smile back. In my peripheral vision I detect slight movement. I turn to see Baghdatis extending his hand. His face says, We DID that. I reach out, take his hand, and we remain this way, holding hands, as the TV flickers with scenes of our savage battle. It was a fun way to start the book; I was hooked.
I hate how the press that surrounded "Open" focused on his usage of Crystal Meth, not to mention his hair loss, and hollow marriage to Brooke Shields. I hate how he hates tennis—I don’t. Even when I went to hear him speak at a book signing/release, I thought he is still a bit of a punk. Not a lot of Andre and his life resonate with me. Yet what totally fascinated about his memoir were the places he traveled, the people he met, his genius of a mind for the game and his significant comeback in his 30s.

And by way of compare and contrast, I read Pete Sampras’ autobiography "A Champions' Mind." Poor Pete…truly one of the greatest players of all time and he made me yawn. Case in point, after he captured his seventh title at Wimbledon, he wrote “we went out and had a blast.” I’m sure you did Pete. My God, you’re the winning-est male in the history of the tournament and that’s all you want to share? Vitas Gerulaitis is rolling in his grave (good, bad or otherwise).

If you like tennis, if you find strong personalities like his former coach Brad Gilbert highly entertaining, if are envious, like me, of people who continue to be in the right place at the right time—he played in the French Open when Springsteen and the E Street Band just happened to be on tour (he was spotted in the crowd and everyone yelled out “Allez Andre!”) this is the book for you.

Andre is not a religious person. He intimates at his spirituality, but in the most abstract way possible. Yet, Andre and I share a common humanity; despite the challenges he has faced, the contradiction he is and the abuse he has endured from family, the media and self, I am certain he would say, ultimately, “Open” is a story of one man’s humanity. I want nothing to do with "Eat, Pray, Love" or "Girl with the Dragon Tatoo;" this is one story worth reading.

NB: "Open" was released in 2009...I may be cheating here! I didn't get to read it until January 2010.

Photo Credits
Steffi and Andre
Andre and Bagdahtis
Brad Gilbert

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Prudence and Coach Singletary

Although it almost sounds like an old fashioned word, or can be confused with "being a prude" which has a negative connotation, prudence, according to Fr. John A. Hardon is "Correct knowledge about things to be done or, more broadly, the knowledge of things that ought to be done and that ought to be avoided." In short, prudence requires us to distinguish between what is right and wrong. In light of the unsurprising firing of 49er head coach Mike Singletary, the only question I want to raise is related to prudence.

Cicero made the claim that "gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others." During this season of giving, nothing is more true. But he lived before Christ and a common question that we ask in the ethics course I teach is "what difference does Christ make to the good?" And so, it is interesting to teach and learn what virtues are truly Christian virtues. For example, humility was not considered to be a "good moral habit" to the Greeks, but Jesus modeled humility to His death. St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church's greatest theologian and philosopher said prudence, not gratitude is the queen of all virtues. "Through its exercise we acquire the moral knowledge necessary to form all other actions into virtues." Prudence, in addition to temperance, justice and fortitude is also a cardinal virtue. These four are called "cardinal" virtues from the Latin word for "hinge." In the Catholic faith tradition, all other virtues, like patience, generosity, kindness, etc. "hinge" on them. Unlike the theological virtues, which are gifts of God through grace, the cardinal virtues can be practiced by anyone. Singletary was fired on the flight home from St. Louis to San Francisco. The man lost his job of two years before the plane even touched ground. Just as ending a long term relationship is painfully difficult, I do not doubt that this was a tough thing for Jed York to do. I do however wonder if firing him after what was already an upsetting loss (the 49ers will not play in the post season) was prudent. Am I raising a fair question?I don't think there is ever the appropriate or "right" time to fire someone, especially a human being like Mike Singletary. I firmly believe Singletary is a virtuous man. My God, the Singletary family even has a mission statement (former posting)! 

He was not fired because of off field behavior or questions about what he represents. No one will question his character, his resolve and love for the game. To this day, I harbor resentment against Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for the way he fired Norv Turner back in 2000. Following a bitter loss to the New York Giants, Snyder had Turner wait outside his office for close to four hours before he opened his door to meet with him. Four hours!? 

The Catechsim of the Catholic church states "the prudent man looks where he is going." Clearly this is untrue for Snyder. Turner's life and livelihood were on the line. To treat another person in the way that Snyder did lacks prudence, and the other three cardinal virtues for that matter. (no wonder he was named "Sports Jerk of the Year" by the “Tank McNamara” comic strip) 

I wish Singletary had been able to finish the 2010 season with the Niners. Even one week from today, I am sure the "49er Faithful" would still find it necessary for him to go, but it would allow this organization to act like the "winners" Singletary was famous for wanting. Good luck Coach Singletary. Your remarks, though prepared, reflect exactly who you are. 

One of the greatest experiences of my life was having the opportunity to coach the San Francisco 49ers. What made it so special were the players. They were some of the most outstanding men I have ever been around in my life.

Photo Credits

Coach Singletary
Jed York

Friday, December 24, 2010

Welcome the Stranger

Running through my neighborhood, I came across what is certainly the most striking college banner I have seen in some time. Notre Dame fans and alumni are no stranger to this practice. We are not afraid to display our loyalty, perhaps ad nauseam. But this banner made quite an impression. Consequently, I ran a quick inventory through my head. Did Princeton capture an NCAA championship title? Did the Tigers pull a big err...what?

I know their men's basketball team frequently plays in March Madness via the Ivy League title. Their men's and women's crew teams are strong, but their success in athletics is not what it is in academics. It is, after all, one of the "Ivies." Its alumni are as distinguished as Woodrow Wilson and one of my favorite authors, Michael Lewis; the likes of Albert Einstein are among their former faculty. What's up?

And then I realized this must be an unofficial "welcome home" banner. I could be wrong (see former posting for more information about that) but my guess is someone returned home from Princeton, NJ to find this orange and black banner above his or her door. 'Tis the season....
With little regard for that spirit, I must say--I often lack sympathy for college students. I have noticed that I have become increasingly more critical of the four to now six years known as college. I believe college students are given too much freedom, too little responsibility while receiving their parents' financial backing and a license to party. No, an expectation to party (yes, I'm using party as a verb here). College students are expected to study and many must work, train or practice. However, I often find a significant disconnect exists. I hear about this quite often when this lot is home for a month on Christmas break.

And this is exactly why the column Holy Night 2: Readers Share Suggestions for Keeping Christmas Sacred from America Magazine stopped me in my tracks. Fr. Samula Esposito's parish has "adopted the theme “Welcoming the Stranger,” in an attempt to show the connections between Mary and Joseph as refugees and those who are immigrants and refugees around the world today and our own spiritual journeys. As Advent begins we feature an evening of reflection for adults on the experience of immigrants. Later we offer schoolchildren a “Journey to Bethlehem” breakfast and a walk past tableaus by slightly older children depicting Nativity scenes. In preparation for Christmas we set a table in the church with one place-setting missing to remind us that we ourselves must provide the welcome and place-setting for the stranger in our midst."

I think it's important to recognize it's not always easy to "welcome the stranger." They are often people who are ostracized or in duress. The "stranger" may also be someone we may no longer know but once did. They may be difficult to relate to or they may be someone as familiar as our son or daughter, brother or sister who is home from college. I began to think about the spiritual journey of a college student. What might be their pains and struggles? joys and challenges? "Welcoming the stranger" means to meet someone without judgement and open our hearts, even our homes. Once again, I need to set aside my bias and remember what the holy season of Advent is preparing our hearts and our relationships with one another for.

Photo Credits
Princeton banner
Princeton Postcard
Mary & Joseph

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How a National Championship (and Advent) Can Challenge Us to See Differently....

Ask me how many national championships Notre Dame has and my immediate response is “eleven National Championships, seven Heisman Trophy winners.” I say this like it’s my social security number; a vital statistic that I know by heart. But you might be asking a different question, and you might not care about the Heisman! How many championship titles does a school that fields 26 varsity teams have? Unfortunately, I need to do some research. I do know, however, that on December 5, the women’s soccer team helped the Fightin’ Irish earn one more.

I hope the student body lit the number one on top of Grace Hall in honor of the team's win in the NCAA finals. I hope a number of alumni were proud of a this talented team and not forlorn about the 22 years that have passed since the last football championship (or 17 if you think like I do, since the BCS *gave* it to Bobby Bowden and FSU).

And, in a special way I appreciate this victory all the more because of Coach Randy Waldrum’s remarks. He said, “Please have the courage to write that this was the best team in the country, not that this was an upset. I know everybody had preordained Stanford as the national champion this year. But I would make the argument that once the NCAA tournament started, the path we took and the way we won games ... we clearly were the best team in the country.” I love the perspective he challenged the sportswriter to take—to find the greatness in this particular team.

In terms of our faith, are we challenged any differently? Are we not asked to find the greatness of each individual person? John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae calls all people to recognize “the value and dignity of every individual as a human being, without any distinction of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or social class.” He references Jeremiah 1:5 "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you." Scripture and the moral teachings of the church continually affirm the value of each human life. It is sacred and holy. It is a great gift.
Whether he knows it our not, Coach Waldrum’s remarks also offer a fitting reflection on this holy season of Advent. The readings during the four weeks of this liturgical season bear witness to holy people who had courage to see and do things differently. Mary’s “fiat” her yes, made the Incarnation—what Christmas is really about—possible! Even Joseph, our silent saint, a righteous man listened to the angel and stayed with Mary, who was with child.

Even though soccer is not one of my top 10 favorite sports—get ready for the 2010 top 10 list, I have tremendous respect for the sport and its athletes. My dad and I have an on-going debate of what athlete is the best athlete in all of sports. While I make the claim it’s the point guard, he continues to believe it’s a soccer player. I’ll see if I can’t take my own advice here in the new year—to see and think about things differently. It just takes a little courage….

Photo Credits
Official Victory Photo
#1 on Grace Hall
Coach Waldrum

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Proven Wrong Again: Without Bias

It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope. ~Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 1986

I love to be proven wrong. I like to think I am a sound judge of character and that my insights are typically well founded. I won’t go so far as to say it is rare thing for me to be wrong—it’s not. But when a person or a story I have preconceived notions about surprises me, I’m not afraid to admit it or concede that I am wrong. “Without Bias” the ESPN “30 for 30” special about University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias is my most recent case in point. I also think his story offers for me, great insight into Advent..

Len Bias, an All-American power forward for the Maryland basketball team, died from cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose at the young age of 22. He died the day after he signed with the Boston Celtics as the number two overall pick in the 1986 draft. Many sportswriters claim that Lenny is the greatest player who never played in the NBA. Jay Bilas, who played against Bias while at Duke, said: "For people of my parents' generation, they mark time by when President Kennedy was assassinated. For me, and I think for many people who are about this age, I mark time by the death of Len Bias."

I too remember when Len Bias died. I’m not sure why I do—I was 12 years old and lived 3,000 miles away, but the tragedy of this tale is significant. Still, I have often thought such fanfare and hoopla over his story was overblown. JFK’s death and Len Bias’ on equal footing? C’mon. Len Bias never played at the professional level. To say he would have been “the rival Michael Jordan never had” makes for a great story, but what sportswriter/sports fan doesn’t revel in such speculation?
I was reintroduced to his story this Advent for two reasons. Thanks to Netflix, I placed close to every one of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentaries in my queue (it’s ESPN’s version of the “Behind the Music”). I was curious what “Without Bias” would reveal about him. To be honest, I didn’t expect much. At the same time my coworker and friend, Bill, a big DC sports fan thought I might enjoy reading For Michael Wilbon, A fond farewell to The Post. As much as I did enjoy Wilbon’s reflection on his time with The Post, I was surprised that his farewell remarks included so much about Len Bias.

I rolled my eyes as I commented on how much attention the Len Bias story has gotten. I listed my claims and criticisms about how exaggerated this story was and still is. Bill listened thoughtfully and said “wow, Len Bias. Yeah, I remember that story. I haven’t thought about him for some time.” I said “well, check out 'Without Bias.' I’ll let you know if it’s any good.

And there you have it. My famous last words. I take back my eye roll, I take back my know-it-all attitude. I take back my bias.
At 6’8” Bias impressed basketball fans with his amazing leaping ability, his physical stature and his ability to create plays. He was considered one of the most dynamic players in the nation. The documentary's footage reveals exactly that.

You also get a sense of this exciting era in the ACC. The Terrapins played eight miles from our nation’s capital while Ralph Sampson, Patrick Ewing, and Reggie Williams were playing in and around Washington DC. Many claim that Len Bias was the most exciting of those four who played for a combined total of 49 years in the NBA. You cannot help but wonder how his career would have played out.

And what is perhaps most impressive about Bias’ story is the testimony of faith given by his parents James and Lonise Bias. James Bias went to Boston with his son when he signed with the Celtics and a contract with Reebok. That night, James was unable to sleep; in fact, he was only able to pray. His mind was preoccupied with what seemed at the time an unfounded worry. He repeatedly told his son to “be careful.” Later, he remarks “I never put it together; it played itself out. I would not have had any control over it anyway. It played itself out. God in His infinite wisdom was preparing me for what would happen.” His own mother said, “It was difficult. I am telling you I know that to sit here and not to be out of my mind, there is a God in heaven. There is a God in heaven.”

It’s hard for me to imagine how the Bias family handled their loss (another son, Jay tragically died two years later due to Gang related violence). James said “when you raise this child to be a man and he’s achieved the goals he set out to do. And you’ve been to proud of all of it and to have it come down to this, to have it all melt away.” The man cannot even finish his thought. And yet, Lonise responds by saying “I believe he and Jay were seeds and are seeds that went down into the ground to bring forth life. They’re still bringing forth life.”

Len Bias’ story is a spiritual treasure—again of “aching pain” and “delicious hope.” Truly it invites deeper reflection on life and our journey of faith.
I think about my reaction to Len Bias’ story and wonder if that is for some reason why I am a Christian. Advent is a season that reminds us our God is a God of surprises. What we think and expect from God are often rearranged, even redefined and in my case—often wrong. Christ was born of a virgin, into an unusual relationship (like Mary and Joseph’s) and into the poverty of a makeshift stable. This reality defies what should be. And yet today is no different, Christ is in the poor and the marginalized. He is found in great talent and in tremendous tragedy. He is found in our “yes”, into what we are willing to do according to His will.

To look at Len Bias, I see his God-given talent and love for the game. To hear his parents, I understand that faith in God is the only hope that can sustain us through tremendous loss—the premature death of their two sons. His story still has meaning; his death was not in vain. During this holy season of Advent, I ask that God continue to prove me wrong.

Photo Credits Without Bias Maryland Terrapin
On Signing Day Dr. Lonise Bias Advent

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Senior Privilege: It's All Mine

Applying the transitive property to this equation may be a stretch, but I have been a part of so many institutions that value “senior privileges,” it’s safe to say I do too. And I do. At my high school, Carondelet, seniors had special parking spaces and options to our so-called “uniform;” heck, we even our own bathroom. At Notre Dame, I longed for the days when only members of the senior class were permitted to walk up and down the steps of the Main Building—home of THE Golden Dome. And at St. Ignatius the primary privilege for seniors is to win (or keep) “The Bruce.” From my perspective, however, the greatest senior privilege at the Prep isn’t one they are privy to—it’s mine, for I get to teach them.

It’s truly an honor and a privilege to work with these students who are on the threshold. The time between their four years of high school and (what is seemingly much more than) the next four years of their life is at hand. It reminds me of what Celtic spirituality refers of as "Thin Places" - those places or events in life where the dividing line between the holy and the ordinary is very thin, to the point that the ordinary becomes holy and the holy becomes ordinary. Nothing is truer as I talk to seniors about discernment, vocation and developing an adult faith.
According to Mindie Burgoyne “Every person will identify a thin place differently. I can only share my own way. A thin place is sensed differently that our present world - you cannot see it, touch it, hear it, smell it, or taste it. Our sense of a thin place transcends the physical limitations of our five senses.

I sense a thin place in two ways.
1. I feel a strong sense of the past still present in the place.
2. I can hear God more clearly than in any other place - the sense of Divine Presence is very strong to me.”

By high school standards, seniors are the most comfortable in their own skin. They are able to drop their mask and be “real.” I get a sense of their true self—thank you Thomas Merton—and that is a wonderful thing. Consequently, I cannot help but remember students who have come before; a strong sense of the past is still present. How students responds to the curriculum never ceases to amaze me—not only what reaches them but why. The Holy Spirit continues to lead and guide young people in “The Path to Faith: A Lifelong Journey” in new and unfounded ways.

This year’s semester course was no exception. They were privy to something magical—the Giants World Series victory. This feat remains difficult for me to fully comprehend. A team that went from being 41-40 on July 4th and fourth place in the league won the whole thing—for the first time in 52 years. At some point, we didn’t stop believin’. I am glad we didn’t.

The day of the victory parade, my seniors met for class. If it weren’t for the WCAL III cross country meet later that day, I wouldn't have been in class myself; I would have gone to the parade. For those who were in class, they learned a great deal about spiritual direction. And for those at the parade, I am convinced they found their own.

This particular class has been subject to bits and pieces of the impending elective course Sports & Spirituality I aim to teach in the 2011-2012 school year. We identified how exercise, discipline and goals are my no means limited to our physical selves. A healthy spiritual life encompasses the same. I heard the voices of a whole lot of San Francisco Giants fans, a Philadelphia Eagles fan who happens to be the leading Armenian American defensive back in the WCAL (ARAM!), and a cross country runner who asks himself everyday why he runs.

When he said this, I remember thinking how appropriately this question relates to our Christian faith. Cross country is demanding; it is one tough sport. The call and challenge of the Gospel is no different. If we are serious about what our faith truly asks of us, it seems natural to me that we will ask ourselves the same question—why am I doing this? Sam won the Wildcat award; this means he runs with passion and purpose, even with that question. I hope people say the same of me in terms of how I live with faith—with passion and purpose…and with questions.

Do I hear God more clearly in the classroom than in any other place? When my days are full with teaching and coaching, I hate to admit it but my prayer life gets the short shift. I go to sleep thinking of what I have not accomplished and what I must do instead of “raising my mind and heart to God” (my favorite definition of prayer).
Still, God finds ME. God speaks to me where I am at—even in the grading papers or answering student e-mail inquiries. I learned about the life and faith of St. Sebastian through an essay by my student, a dead ringer for Buster Posey. I will never forget how Siobhan’s homework questions launched what became a nightly recap of every single play-off game. I took great joy in reading her report via e-mail on the “aching pain” with a loss or “delicious hope” as we got closer to the title. I am grateful that conversations about this “band of misfit toys” and our common love for Brian Wilson were only a springboard for sharing much more about our lives.

I will miss this intellectually competent, loving and yes, even religious group. I hope to get out to Lake Merced in the spring to cheer for two of my students who row; I will be back to hear the Sound of Sports at my student’s volleyball game. Even though his club teammates are over 6’5” and he a towering 5’6” he is a tremendously valuable contributor as the libero. (NB: A libero is a defensive specialist, they can be recognized by their unique jersey. He told me this is means “free.” He is also the player on the far right in the light blue jersey ;-) This leads me to wonder if I learn more about sports or about spirituality from my students. I don’t know what disciplines makes it more clear that we each have our unique place in this world; we all have our own gifts and talents. And at some point we are privy to privileges that come with access to those "thin places" where we recognize this humble truth. Thank you seniors for sharing this time and space with me.

Photo Credits
Thin Places
Ignatius of Loyola: the Pilgrim
The Giants in the pennant!
Volleyball Huddle: Nate Woo

Sunday, December 5, 2010

University High School XC: Proving that Sports are a Real School of True Human Virtue

Sports are a real school of true human virtue. – John Paul II
Call me biased, but I like to think cross country reveals an athlete’s character like no other sport. It makes the same demand of every participant—to complete a 3-mile course as fast as you can. There are no short cuts; there is no debate about how much playtime the athlete gets, no poor officiating, no questionable fouls. Cross country is the great equalizer. 

Wealth and affluence are of limited influence. Yes, competitive runners can get specialized coaching and attend summer running camps, but pricey equipment, access to clubs and managing facilities are a non-issue. Cross country requires a pair of shoes, seven runners and an open trail.

A popular story that came out of University High School proves the egalitarian nature of the sport. UHS is one of-- if not the most elite high schools in San Francisco. Set in Presidio Heights, it is safe to say the student body at UHS has been given a lot; they are people of privilege. But you cannot give a young man or woman their character—their virtues or their vices, for that matter. 

In their article, Ethics and Virtue by Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez states "Virtues are attitudes, dispositions, or character traits that enable us to be and to act in ways that develop our fullest human potential. They enable us to pursue the ideals we have adopted. Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues." 

All season, the UHS girls cross country team witnessed courage, generosity and loyalty vis a vi their head coach Jim Tracy. Despite his diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Tracy mustered the strength to lead and oversee practice, as he has always done since 1994.
His fortitude must have allowed for Holland Reynolds, University’s number two runner who collapsed and crawled across the finish line to complete her race. In doing so, she helped her team clinch the state championship. You can get the full story here.

I don’t care that the tuition for the 2010-2011 school year is $32,750 at this elite private school, this young woman and her teammates made the choice to compete with everything they had. Reynolds had a goal for herself, her teammates and her coach. That may be revealed on race day, but it is inculcated each and every day of the season.

In my 8 years of coaching cross country, I have worked with some tremendously talented runners. I have been inspired by the work ethic of many of my own athletes and others have encouraged me to be a better human being.

In the increasingly competitive and specialized world of high school sports, I am grateful that cross country remains “no cut.” That policy however comes its own set of challenges, and one of those can be working with young people who are deciding if running is for them. These folks enjoy running and staying in shape (or perhaps the idea of staying in shape) and they love the social nature of the team, especially that it’s a co-ed! But, the demands of the sport on race day are very challenging—too challenging for some.
Let’s be honest, cross country embraces the athlete who is a glutton for pain. Racing a hilly, dusty and hot three mile course—there is no where to hide, no one to blame. And THIS is where character is revealed--how a young person responds to task he or she must complete: Do they focus? Do they compete? Do they rely on their teammates and coaches? Do they complain? Do they cheer for their teammates? Do they learn from their mistakes? Do they coddle an injury? Do they find that something *suddenly hurts*? Do they go to the line regardless? 

Pope Benedict XVI said “sport possesses considerable educational potential particularly for young people. So, for this reason, sport is of great importance not only when applied to free time but also in the formation of each individual.” 

Cross country begins in August and concludes in November. The personal growth that I have witnessed in the course of one season is encouraging and truly, it's amazing. However, our young people don’t get there alone. It’s their teammates, their coaches, their program and no doubt about it—the sport itself, that do. 

Congratulations to University High School, Jim Tracy and Holland Reynolds for sharing that message through your example AND your victory! The video clip of her race/finish is here 

Photo Credits 
University High School Championship Team 
Injured Runner 
SI at the State Meet!--the Otto Family 
Thanks to Nora Miller for the video clip