Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Sports and Spirituality: More than Musings

I'm always amused—and bemused—when people tell me about my job, most especially when they have never taught high school or coached a sport. Does this ever happen to you? I listen with enthusiasm, interest and an eyebrow raised to what these *sages of wisdom* have to say. They believe as a golf coach, I am a glorified van driver. I'm told, as a theology teacher, no one should ever fail, especially when all answers eventually boil down to three words: "God is love." I work from 8:00 to 3:00 and I am reminded, quite often, of my unending vacation time. Infrequently, I'm told what I do is something they would like to do later in life or after retirement. Others say "I could never do what you do!" I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing—but I'll assume the best. I know I could never do what a brain surgeon, an NFL quarterback, a biochemical engineer or a terrorist does. I'll be sure to offer this insight to any of the above when I meet them next. 

I've been a teacher and a coach for a long time now, so I'm ready for what I will hear. Recently, however, a friend told me about my blog and what I do as a blogger. I could not wait to hear her interpretation of this unpaid domain that I am fairly passionate about. In short, read my blog and I will extol your virtues from here to Tel Aviv. She quipped "your blog is basically your musings about your interests." It's true, I love sports and I love learning and reading about spirituality, but I hope what approximately 100 postings a year amounts to is more than a musing. I started to wonder: Do I need a mission statement? Is there any truth in what she said? And if there is, Is a blogger just a muser? 
take a crash course in joy: a year with these Sophomores!
I didn't fret over her insight that long because I know why I blog. If one does not run, is he or she a runner? No. I once ran A lot. I no longer do; I am not a runner. I am however a writer—and a writer must write. Furthermore, the more a person writes, the easier it gets and hopefully...the better it gets! Much of what I have written in this blog was used in my book, Pray and Practice with Purpose: A Playbook for the Spiritual Development of Athletes. Other reflections have been used in talks to coaches and athletic directors throughout the country. I give a lot of my time, money, effort and attention to the domains of sport and of spirituality. The fruit of that reflection is what I bring to the keyboard in the format of a blog. I know I have another book to write. Writing a blog keeps me in the practice of moving toward that goal. And still, I do have sports musings and spiritual ones. These typically emanate as a response to what I hear on PTI or some other version of Sports Talk radio. They seldom if ever merit their own blog post, but now I have an opportunity to post them in this framework.

And so I thought to myself, if you want musings, you got them. Here are a few. Enjoy....|
You are probably familiar with the idea of First World Problems. A term that has its own definition in both the online and urban dictionaries
First World prob·lem: noun informal
1. a relatively trivial or minor problem or frustration (implying a contrast with serious problems such as those that may be experienced in the developing world).
"It's a First World problem, but still if you're staying at a 5-star resort you expect some decent service."
Sports is in no way immune to them. In fact, I have encountered my fair share including:
1. I hate it when NBA players run into me. Their sweat got all over me.
One of the unique components of basketball, on even the professional level, is just how close fans are to the action. However, for those lucky and wealthy enough to have courtside seats, you may have to bring a towel. Yes, from time to time a player may touch you and his sweat might drip on you. I'm sorry....sort of.

2. A friend gave me fifth-row seats behind the dugout to the San Francisco Giants game. My experience with the game was compromised by my impaired vision of the field.
In February 2018 Major League Baseball decided that all 30 of its teams would extend netting at their respective ballparks. The netting, which aims to protect fans in field level seats from low-flying foul balls and broken bats, stretches to at least the far end of each dugout, according to an MLB press release.

While this is a win for the safety of fans, e.g. a young girl was hospitalized after being hit by a 105 mph foul ball at Yankee Stadium, the closer you sit to the net, the more it affects the clarity of your vision. Maybe you can argue what's tougher to see through: behind the glass of box seats or the net from the fifth row.

I am not immune to my own First World Problem; no need to throw stones. Here's my rubble.
3. I hate playing golf at the Olympic Club when it's so windy.
Guilty. I've said that and I've meant it, but that statement is one I should be ashamed of offering. The Olympic Club has hosted numerous US Opens and is ranked consistently among the top 25 courses in the country. I love my club and I am proud of its robust tradition. Wind or not, give thanks. And remember there are no such things as weather conditions, just bad gear. Enjoy.

In other musings...

After Cubs closer Brandon Morrow injured his lower back by "taking off his pants," I was convinced this one was high on the list worst excuses by a baseball player. My friend Kevin and I use Jeff Kent's excuse of "washing his truck" as a euphemism for just about anything, let alone a reason for breaking one's reason. As fate would have it, there IS a list of the worst excuses, it is in dire need of an update. Instead, Mike Greenberg shared his own on this ESPN report.
Tiget has never been "my boy" but he had to battle the heavy air and thick fog at the US Open 2012: Lake Course.
The term "your boy."
I have a long list of athletes I adore. Some of my fan loyalty makes total and complete sense. Others devotions? Not so much. The term "your boy" is a term of endearment, one often used to describe the aforementioned group but it has now been overused. On PTI, I hear Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser drop this term nearly 30 times per show. If any and everyone is "your boy" then no one is. It's too bad, I liked it...I liked using it. Too much of a good thing is not always a good thing.

And if ANYTHING is a musing, THAT is a musing.

I'll keep this list open. I hope to add to it. I invite you to do the same. Read the other blog postings with a different frame of reference...and go ahead and tell me about that, too.

Photo Credits
A. Musing

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Kelly Cares Foundation Presents: Football 101 at the University of Notre Dame

Major questions confront two things I love: football and the University of Notre Dame. Passionate voices, questions, and commentary frequently bring the sport and the university into the to subject o verbal spars and daunting debates. Though ND is much larger than just the game on the gridiron, it's unrealistic to think of this Catholic university and its development without football. So, taking a pulse on the game is necessary for all stakeholders. As an alumna and a loyal fan, I feel as though I have a little land to defend. I had no idea when I signed up to participate in Kelly Cares: Football 101, that I would leave with so many treasured memories, new friends and a few answers to the big questions.
The Kelly Cares Foundation, an organization that aims to strengthen Communities and inspires hope by investing resources to improve Health & Education has been hosting Football 101 for ten years.  As listed on their website, women who participate in this fundraiser will
Join Coach Brian Kelly and Paqui Kelly along with the Notre Dame Football Program for a behind-the-scenes look at Notre Dame Football! Learn football basics from the entire Notre Dame Football team and coaching staff, enjoy cocktails and hors-d'oeuvres, and tour the locker room, classrooms, and facilities in Notre Dame Stadium, LaBar practice facility, and the Guglielmino Athletic Complex. All proceeds will benefit the Kelly Cares Foundation.* 
All proceeds raised from Football 101 support breast cancer initiatives, cancer research, and patient advocacy. 
I was already in the Midwest and so I drove from the Whistling Straits golf resort in Koehler, Wisconsin to my home away from home, Notre Dame. This event wasn't new to me, as I have joined friends at Cal Berkeley for their iteration of Football 101 (known as the "Cal Women's Football Huddle" under former Coach Jeff Tedford and "Pigskins and Pearls"—a name that doesn't exactly resonate with women in the Bay Area—under former Coach Sonny Dykes. I knew, however, this experience would be different for me because of my connection to the players on the field and who they represent, the coach at the helm, the shared traditions, mission, and values of the program. I wanted to get a better sense the individuals, the team and the program are 20+ years after graduating. How are we different? How are we better? What can we be proud of? What might others need to understand?
With Dolly Duffy, Executive Director of the Alumni Assoc and Paqui Kelly
As I have written about before, "A Season with Notre Dame Football" enhanced my enjoyment of watching Notre Dame football. This HBO Sports program followed Team 127 through the 2016 football season. Over the course of 12 episodes, I got an insider's look into all that is involved in making the program run. I loved "meeting" the players. No longer was DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire just a quarterback, one was a talented actor and the other was pretty good in the batting cage. I could see up close and personal that Linebacker Joe Schmidt was named a captain for his emotional leadership both on and off the field. Jaylon Smith remains the strongest and possibly most underappreciated linebacker I have ever seen. Will Fuller might have been soft-spoken off the field, but that rocket speed on it?! It's still burning in my memory.

Kicker Justin Yoon. Guaranteed you will hear fans
yelling "YOON!!!"
Football 101 affords women the chance to see the players in their domain, where they are working their full-time job. I loved seeing these young men, between the ages of 18 and 22 in leadership positions—running us through drills, helping us to throw the pigskin to the target, earning their kudos and getting their afirrmation—"nice spiral!" or "good throw--almost!!" I enjoyed getting a sense of their personalities. For example,  Justin Yoon, remained focused, emphasizing proper form for kicking, so we too could get the football through the uprights. And, as much as I enjoyed talking to quarterback and fellow Californian, Ian Book about his two-sport experience in high school (he also played lacrosse), from his confidence and posture, it was hard not to guess who QB1 is for Fall 2018: Brandon Wimbush.

After an hour on the field, each group—named after past Notre Dame coaches or traditions—migrated to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex where we sat in the Isban Auditorium, much like the players do for team meetings and watching film. Here, former quarterback and now Director of Player Development Ron Powlus gave us a wonderful presentation on the 4 for 40 program. 
Playing football for the University of Notre Dame is the opportunity of a lifetime. There’s no doubt about that, and even the most jaded and pessimistic fan has to admit that Notre Dame Fighting Irish football players walk away after their 3-5 years in South Bend with a first-rate education and a degree that will give them countless opportunities to have fantastic careers. 
It’s actually something you’ll notice when you hear Notre Dame fans talk about why recruits should choose to attend the school: unlike all those football factories out there, Notre Dame provides a unique combination of great academics and world class athletics for an amazingly well-rounded experience that sets them up for life. “4 for 40” is the trite mantra tossed around; that is, 4 years at ND sets you up for the next 40 years of your life.
Though Pat Rick believes this "pitch" doesn't make Notre Dame as special as we think, I disgree. As I listened to the depth and breadth of this program, as I heard players give their own testimonies to the experiences they have had as a result of the "4 for 40" philosophy, mission and resources, I couldn't help but walk away impressed, proud, grateful and more. I know that playing a D1 sport, especially one like football is incredibly demanding today. It comes with stressors that extend far beyond what I ever knew. But I also learned what these young men gain. Whether its service to the local South Bend community or financial management, sexual assault awareness or mental health education, football players at Notre Dame are being formed for much more than four years...possibly even forty. Today, they have the ability to study abroad for a given window of time; others get internships. Those experiences say to me that having Notre Dame football player on your resume is much more than x's and o's. The gridiron is a comprehensive classroom.

We visited the locker room, the equipment room. the weight room (WOW!!!). We heard from the Strength and Conditioning coordinator and his team, got healthy snacks from Kari Oliver—Sports Nutrition Advocate, and met in small groups for a Q & A session with a panel of student-athletes. I earned a Kelly Cares green hat (I love their logo) for correctly answering that the Irish operate a 4-2-5 Defense. My eyes were feasting on the signage that proclaims team rules and philosophy. I marveled at photographs of past greats forever captured in their athletic glory. In particular, I enjoyed seeing what NFL teams have drafted Irish alum. And, it should come as no surprise, but every meeting room had a cross hanging on the wall. After all, we are ND.

As anyone of the nearly 250 women who attended Football 101 what was the highlight, and I think we will give the same answer: the fashion show. Yes....a fashion show! Emceed by both Paqui and Brian Kelly, our group sat in the Loftus Center as 12 women, escorted by 12 different football players modeled clothing from the Warren Golf Course, Hammes Bookstore and a local fashion store. As they walked down our runway, we heard the stories of these women—who are survivors of cancer. We heard about their struggle and we heard about their triumph. Several were still undergoing treatment. Too many had lost family members to cancer. This conclusion was especially meaningful because Paqui was able to share her own story and how blessed she is to have emerged from the battle, twice. I was touched by the fact that her husband, the head coach, got out of the way for much of this event. BK made sure Football 101 was a chance for Paqui's efforts to shine. The football coaches and teams were simply there to lend their hands and hearts and bring us together.

Why play football? Should college athletes be paid? Can Notre Dame still compete in Football? I walked away with so many new insights and perspectives into these questions and so much more. Thank you Paqui and Brian Kelly for sharing Notre Dame in this special way.  Your "Playbook of Hope" continues to yield victories. Blessed be....

Monday, June 18, 2018

The 2018 US Open and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

I have given a lot of thought to the quote and claim by Michael Cunningham, "We become the stories we tell ourselves." Though the 2018 US Open at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, NY wasn't rife with outstanding stories (although what Phil Mickelson did on the 13th hole during the third round does waffle between hilarity and troublesome) , I believe there are three worth considering: one that the champion told himself, one that history will share and one that we ought to tell ourselves and others.
US Open champions also receive a Jack Nicklaus medal
I often wonder how much my personal joy and satisfaction from a sporting event is based upon the stories it spawns. Even a horrible loss or a bad game can be reconciled by a good yarn. A good story is meant to be— of course—given away, but I also think they should be cared for. Who better to care for a good story, than the one who writes the story.

The author of many such stories is Brooks Koepka, a native of West Palm Beach, Florida. He is also the runaway winner of the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills. Koepka finished four strokes ahead of the second place winner, posting a score of 16 under par. Never a fan of scores that no mortal will ever reach, I want to see these golfers struggle and grind. The tees from which they play extend the course by ungodly yardage. The distance between their tee and mine can compromise what is a treat for everyday golfers: knowing we walk the same links...we tread the same fairways...and we putt the same greens. Finishing said courses remotely even close to par on any given hole is an accomplishment. We are not on the tour for a reason, though we might like to be. To know that another human being completed the course for four days in a row going that low sends a much different message than when he or she finishes just one over par, as Koepka did this year. All the players in the field struggled with the wind, the pin placement, and the rollout. One player didn't even break 90 on the first day. I'm there.... a lot! So yes, the story we can tell ourselves based on the 2018 Open is that even the champion is not immortal, plus more.
Not only was his ball striking outstanding but he sank some incredible putts.
Brooks Koepka, ranked four in the world, was sidelined for the first two and half months of the year with a partial tear in the tendon of his left wrist. This injury could have been career ending, had he not tended to it in the way no golfer wants to do—time away, rest and more time. According to Golfweek
“It was torn a lot worse than they originally thought,” said Koepka, who doesn’t know what caused the partial tear to a tendon. “The ligaments that hold the tendon in place were gone. Every time I went to the doctor, it seemed like it got worse and worse.” 
His treatment included withdrawing bone marrow from his hip and injecting it into his left wrist, and then another session a month later of platelet-rich plasma injections. 
The injury not only caused Koepka to miss the Masters, it stopped the momentum that began with his four-shot victory in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills last summer. In his next nine starts, Koepka had one victory (by nine shots in Japan), a runner-up in the World Golf Championships event in Shanghai, two other top 10s and only one finish out of the top 20.
To some, the injury may sound like a small one, but its effects are big. For a right-handed golfer, the left-hand drives the club from the point of contact through impact. The temptation with a tear is to hope it goes away, getting better on its own. An athlete who has momentum on his or her side does not want to lose that lead. The story we need to tell ourselves with an injury is that injuries are part of the game. They happen, and the best indicator of an injury is a past injury. Let time do its thing. Let rest build recovery. The body, like the heart, does heal. From what I've read, Koepka has a high tolerance for pain. Fine. But don't let that get in the way of proper healing. 
With a healthy hand and a strong desire to pick up where he left off, Koepka came to Shinnecock ready to defend his title. Entering into the final round with as one of four players tied for the lead, he said "I feel really good about the position I'm in. I think to be one back, maybe two, you know, tied with it, it's a nice feeling. I feel like — like I said, there's nobody more confident. I won this thing last year. I feel really good. My game's in a good spot. I feel like you got to kind of take it from me, to be honest with you." I heard his words and thought "what an interesting story to tell yourself." Though he told others this story, that pep talk—that no one is more confident—was for himself. And, his self-assessment of his game? another good story all athletes need to tell themselves. A little bold, very honest and well, exactly right.

The story that Koepka can tell himself today is that he is once again a champion. And this year, his father, Bob Koepka was able to join him for another Father's Day win. I also appreciate that did so wearing a white ribbon on his cap. Mark Herrmann wrote that "each ribbon is a tribute to late Rockville Links pro Mike Turnesa, who died last month, and his brother Jim, who is ill. Koepka is a friend of Mike’s son Marc, a former PGA Tour member whom Koepka convinced to be his partner in this season’s Zurich Classic." History will add that he is one of seven golfers to have won back-to-back US Open titles. Not a bad story for history to tell, for others to hear and for the champion to tell himself. Congratulations BK!

Photo Credits
Two BKs

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Life Lessons from Whistling Straits

The French existentialist Albert Camus once wrote, "Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe to football." I won't disagree, but rather, amend. Everything I know about morality and the obligations of women, I owe to golf." My recent travels to Kohler, Wisconsin with the Women's Golf Network of the Olympic Club in San Francisco affirmed this claim.
Kohler, WI is a company owned town, nestled but three miles from Sheboygan (is that not a great name or what?), along the shores of Lake Michigan. "Destination Kohler" is home to the original Kohler factory as well as a golf resort, inclusive of four magnificent courses: Blackwolf Run: River and Valleys as well as Whistling Straits: Irish and the Straits. I was familiar only with the Straits course as it hosted the 2015 PGA Championship. The majesty of that day is etched in my memory as Jordan Speith and Jason Day battled it for 71 holes until Day emerged victoriously on the 72nd hole (I wrote about it here). The setting, the backdrop, the terrain and the challenge were unforgettable. To encounter what I had seen on television, to walk the same links, the undertake the same challenges reminded me of not only how golf can get a great teacher, but why it's a good one for me....and I think the other 15 women in my group. Here are but a few examples.

With a name like Stricherz: Golf etiquette never fails to default to the formal. Therefore, when a golfer introduces him or herself, one is expected to shake hands and offer their first and last name. Though I genuinely like my surname (or rather, I like Anne Stricherz together) much of the time it's a liability. People butcher it left and right. They don't grasp that the "ch" is a "k" sound or I think they see the "z" and freak out...that is unless you're in Wisconsin. 
The Badger State has a native son in PGA professional Steve Stricker. Though the spelling and the pronunciation of our surnames are slightly different, everywhere I went, my name was said with ease. I got a lot of smiles. I was asked if we are related (no). Folks thought I was better than I am (I wish!), all because of the name. 

Life lesson: What can sometimes be a burden, can also be a blessing. 

Joy: I made the mistake of reading a great article before my round on the Straits. "Finding the Joy Amongst Us" is written by my dear friend, Scott Santarosa, SJ; he is the Provincial of Jesuits West.

In his piece, a letter he reflects upon the five years of Pope Francis' ministry. He writes
"One of his points that will always stay with me is his strong insistence that we beg God for consolation and that we Jesuits truly be joyful in our ministries. He told us that joy is "constituitive" of the Gospel, and that we "cannot deliver good news with a sullen face." When one of my Jesuit brothers at the Congregation went to greet Pope Francis and he was not smiling, Pope Francis looked at him and said, "Smile!" He did. Pope Francis happily said, "that's better!" Joy is a clear indicator of grace: it indicated that love is active, operative and present. May we all be joyful!"
His message gave me pause to consider: Do I teach with joy? Do I bring joy to the golf course with my team? I appreciated the Holy Father's words because they are so practical, and joy can sometimes feel a bit elusive. I started to wonder, I know I laugh with my students, but do I smile at them? or with them? Do I smile at my golfers when we are warming up, on the range, in the van, etc?
A lot of joy and laughs at this moment....her ball hit the rock in the creek and jumped on the fairway!
Perhaps these questions and inner-monologue explain why I played a terrible round of golf—my thoughts were elsewhere. The introspection ran deep and it wasn't about technique or ball placement. No, eventually I reflected on what it might look like to play golf with joy. Is that possible? Good, bad, or otherwise, I found an answer. 

The course and the conditions this day were remarkably challenging. No golf gods were smiling. No luck was to be found. At first, I was upset (see next point) until I realized I wasn't alone. The three other women in my foursome were getting bad breaks as well. I don't think a hole went by that we didn't say "Oh no!" either about ourselves or one another. 

We sludged through. We shook our heads. We couldn't even say 'it's so bad, it's good." Instead—ironically—we laughed and...we smiled. We found joy or joy found us. I'm so glad we did. We walked off the course feeling much lighter than our scorecards would lead you to believe.

Life Lesson: Seek joy, especially when things are tough. It might find you.

Table Topics: While gathered for our awards dinner, a WGN member shared a deck of cards that serve as conversation starters, entitled, Table Topics: Golf. Everyone at the table was invited to answer the question on the card and did!

Though the women in this group are different—we are single and married, we vary in age, many are moms and many are not. Most work, some are retired. We hail from a variety of places but we come together and travel well—and all for golf. To discuss the game we love is both easy and fun. 
Several of the questions were what you might expect: Who would play in your ideal foursome? If you could live on one golf course, what would it be? and What can you learn about another person from golf? I suppose this question was framed in this way because golf does reveal so much about a person. In the time it takes to play 18 holes, you can see the best and worst and/or the strengths and weaknesses in your playing partners. Are they helpful? Gracious? Do they have a good sense of others around them? Do they make the course better or worse for having been there? The list could go on, but that feels pedantic to me...so I punted. 

I asked to reframe the question in a way that might be more challenging, but also more important. I asked: What have you learned about yourself playing golf? Self-knowledge isn't easy to acquire, but it's important. We are the ones who play the game with ourselves, every time. At the end of the day, we keep our scorecards, we listen to our own self-talk and we determine if the round was a good one or not.

Life Lesson: With every question comes the opportunity to discuss and share it in another way. Not only does our answer to a question reveal who we are, but so does how we ask it.

Oh, the Places You'll Go...What might have been the highlight of the trip for me actually had nothing to do with golf. However, because of this game, I was able to travel to Kohler, WI and meet Lowell, our tour guide of the Kohler factory. Lowell grew up on a Wisconsin farm and got a job as a grinder at the age of 18. He worked in the factory for 44 years. Upon retirement, he took a position as a tour guide, which he has done for the past 18 years. Lowell is 80 years of age, energetic, vibrant and extremely knowledgeable.
To me, Lowell represents the greatness of what this country is about, or at least has been and can be. His strong work ethic was met by good work. He earned a good living and was proud of both the company he worked for and what his work helped to build. 

In our tour, I noticed that Lowell treated everyone he met with good cheer and respect. He was as proud to tell us about the fruits of his own labor, as a grinder, as he was to point out the art that has been commissioned by Kohler. Progressive in his thinking, he is glad to see the use of robots and the roles the worker has over it all. He is still married to the same woman he met in high school and wed at the age of 18. My biggest regret from this trip is that I didn't get a photograph with him. I so want to believe in this country of ours; meeting folks like Lowell reminded me I have had a reason to....

Life Lesson: People sometimes reduce golf to a silly game. "Why spend all that time chasing around a little white ball." I can only think of the experiences I have had and the people I have met because of this game and I know it remains a wonderful teacher—morality, obligations and all.
Photo Credits

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Someone My Students Should "Meet": Clayton Kershaw

As part of the final project, I ask students to identify who they are glad they "met" in Sports and Spirituality., In his book, "My Life with the Saints," James Martin, SJ tells the stories of holy men and women he has "met" from reading their autobiographies, studying their lives, praying to them and learning about their effect on the world. In my course, I invite my students to use this framework. There are some people that as a class—they really do meet! I am grateful to have hosted some incredible guest speakers over the years. The majority of individuals they will encounter are folks they meet through our discussion, required readings, shared videos and more. In several cases, I am certain they would not meet this athlete or coach if it were not for our class.
Frank Allocco is a beloved guest speaker. He visits every spring!
I love reading who has had an impact on them and why. Names like Manute Bol, Serena Williams, Jill Costello and even Mark Bingham come to mind. But what is equally fun for me to discover is an answer to a bonus question I offer: Who do you wish we had met? In some cases, they simply want to know more about a local hero or a well-known athlete. Superstars such as Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, and Patrick Willis are typical. At other times, they want to discuss the impact a given person has had on their sport and even the world. Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, and Jackie Robinson are popular (one semester is just too short!) 
I am constantly updating my curriculum to reflect their desires as well as their suggestions. For example, last fall, the first article my students read was about the fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt. Not only was the piece timely, Bolt ran his final race that very week, it was inspiring to read about his faith. Not a bad recipe for the class I teach: timely and faith-filled. And so that might be the necessary context I offer in order to teach about someone no student has ever wanted to learn more about: Clayton Kershaw. 

That's right, this athlete—though remarkably gifted and talented—captures few to any of my student's imaginations precisely because of the colors he wears and the city he represents. The three-time Cy Young award winner has played for the Dodgers—the great rival of the San Francisco Giants—since 2008. Kershaw is not an athlete any student has ever said we should meet, but the article "The Control Pitcher: As Free Agency Looms, Will Clayton Kershaw Win It All in L.A.?" has convinced me we should.

As I have written about before, I can't feign complete disinterest in the lefty because he wears #22 for the same reason I do: our favorite ballplayer is Will Clark. Furthermore, I try not to let my subjective feelings block an objective truth: he is one of the greatest players in the game. I like to know what makes athletes like him tick. I came to find a big part of his motivation is his faith in Christ. I'll let the article speak for itself, but at times I found the characteristics and qualities of my faith resonate with his beliefs and how he lives them on a day to day basis. 
We do not earn God’s grace, he likes to say. That’s what makes it grace. Still, a gift like his—he must owe someone something for that. At a minimum, he says, he must not squander it. It galls him to see young players arrive in the majors, dazzle for a few weeks and then fade away rather than make adjustments that would keep them in the big leagues. “I don’t like to see people waste their talent,” he says. 
Despite Kershaw’s platform, he does not try to convert everyone. He does not point to the sky after key strikeouts or suggest that God roots for the Dodgers. He tries to read the Bible daily, during those six hours before the game, and considers how he can grow in his faith. He attends a small service held at the ballpark before Sunday day games and helps lead a Bible study with teammates once per road trip. 
Over the years, his idea of a life working for the Lord has expanded. In eighth grade, Ellen watched an Oprah special about AIDS orphans in Zambia and felt called to help. She has since visited the country 10 times, bringing Clayton with her for the last four. After their first trip they established Kershaw’s Challenge (motto: Strikeout to Serve), which they fund with events including an annual Ping-Pong tournament and by donating $500 for every Kershaw K. The organization has worked with a charity called Arise Africa to build two orphanages in the capital city, Lusaka, and has since expanded to L.A., Dallas and the Dominican Republic. Ann Higginbottom, Ellen’s sister and the executive director, once mailed T-shirts to donors from her living room; today she heads a staff of eight and has overseen more than $6 million in contributions.
One of the opening assignments in Sports and Spirituality is for students to share their "Sports Moment of Grace." I speak of grace the way Kershaw does.  I too hate to see others waste their talent. I believe we have a responsibility to help one another develop, cultivate and share our gifts with the world. I am not seeking to convert any of my students. Rather, I hope they see something in me in how I live my life and how my faith guides what I do that is worth pursuing. I too attend weekly service—the mass, and I too seek to give extended time to charity. I think this is a valuable way to live as Christian; it's not the only way, but it's a good one.

I want my students to "meet" Clayton Kershaw because our rivals can always teach us something about ourselves. However, in this case, that lesson extends far beyond the game. We'll see how it goes....

Photo Credits
CK Faith

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Remembering Dwight Clark: A Beautiful Man, Soul and Athlete

It's not difficult to discuss the beauty of the San Francisco Bay Area. This is a region that is rich in incredible landscape and seascape, flora and fauna. But I have always associated the unique beauty of this place with AT&T Park, with Steph Curry's 3-pointers and with a man who contributed one of the most beautiful plays the world has ever seen. Forever captured by Walter Ioos, "The Catch" captures legendary Niner wide receiver pulling down the pigskin from the sky, only to land with both feet down in the end zone in the 1981 NFC Championship game. That athlete—Dwight Clark—a beautiful man, soul, and athlete died Monday, June 4, 2018 of ALS. He was but 61 years of age.
I use this photo regularly in presentations I give, for I believe it teaches an important lesson on beauty. The end zone of Candlestick Park isn't exactly Yosemite Valley or even in sports terms, AT&T' Park's "triples alley." No, Clark once remarked, "it was a dump. But, it was our dump s0 we could talk badly about it. But we didn't want anybody else to talk badly about it." No one will argue with his assessment, but what gives with such territorial rights? How might an athlete take pride in a place like Candlestick? I didn't need to go to Queens, NY to get an answer, but that's where I found one.

The 2013 MLB All-Star game was held at Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets (since 2009). Between that distinction, the attention that was being given to then Mets ace, Matt Harvey and my desire to see as many ballparks in MLB, I convinced my friend to go to a game with me. We got talking to a married couple sitting in front of us and I queried "What do you think of your new ballpark?" Without missing a beat, the husband said "Agh....it's ok...but I miss Shea. Shea was a dump, but it was our dump."
He didn't cite his source as Dwight Clark; he didn't need to, as both men revealed a common truth. More often than not beauty and greatness rise out of something unexpected, even a dump. The memories that we treasure emanate from unsuspecting people in unexpected places. A dump may lack aesthetic beauty and its panache is limited. Bells and whistles? none. Maybe we enter such places with lower expectations. Perhaps when the conditions are far less than perfect we allow our humanity—which is also far less than perfect—to step up and step in. Instead of putting the value on the facilities, the equipment, and the sound system, we are left to find the value in one another. Take a look at what happens! "The Catch" is but one shining example. I believe the song "Grace" by the rock band U2 gives an answer: 
Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
Grace finds beauty
In everything
Grace finds goodness in everything
Perhaps it's easier to let Grace have it's way in a place like a dump. In my talk on Sports and Spirituality, I challenge coaches to consider: where is your dump? I want them to picture that place where they practice and play games that involve the nitty-gritty. Your dump is a spot that's not attractive...it's potentially meddlesome and annoying. Each sports team has a dump—or at least I hope they do. Why? it might also be a place where something magnificent occurs.

Could "The Catch" have occurred on the marvelous new, fresh field of Levi's Stadium. I suppose it could, but I also believe the beauty of this image is the sheer contrast of grace and excellence in a setting that is anything but...and with all due respect to Dwight Clark, his style, athleticism and spirit separate this exact photo from something good to something great.
St. Ignatius of Loyola invites us to find God in all things. And he means all things. But I'd like to ask him about beauty. Ought we find beauty in all things? Can we? I find it in the catch and in a simple tribute to the athlete behind it. 

A few hours after I heard Clark died, I headed out with my mom to run some errands. We both noticed a young man walking toward us was wearing a Niners jersey. On the back, it said  87 CLARK. Based on his age, he didn't see the play when it happened. He wasn't even alive when Dwight Clark was still active. But are a Niner fan, he has inherited stories of past greatness...and of beauty. My mom looked at one another and was sad, but touched by the tribute to a beautiful life that left us too soon. 

Photo Credits