Sunday, December 18, 2022

An Open Letter to Caleb Williams, the 2022 Heisman Award Winner

Dear Caleb,

Congratulations on winning the 2022 Heisman trophy. When I return to the LA Coliseum, I will look in the east zone for that jersey featuring your name and number— one among seven others in Trojan history. Impressive. 

I did not know that you graduated from Gonzaga College High School in DC until I heard your speech. As an educator in a Jesuit high school, I appreciate the credit you gave to your Catholic education for showing you how to be a man for others—a motto credited to Pedro Arrupe, SJ and known throughout Ignatian circles.

It was simply awesome to see the reaction of current Bulldogs when your name was called. So many of my colleagues in other Jesuit schools have shared your story. The connection from one school to another is significant. Your speech lit up my Instagram feed, as I follow the likes of Jesuit Schools Network, Jesuits West among others. Your win is a near win for Jesuit education and athletics!

In a statement to CNA, the president of your alma mater, Father Joseph Lingan, SJ said, “We remain proud of Caleb’s leadership both on and off the field, his charitable nature, and his gracious and humble character … on behalf of the entire Gonzaga Community CONGRATULATIONS CALEB!”

While I understand it is important to give credit where credit is due, I do not celebrate your nomination. I have serious doubts and concerns about lauding you as a graduate of a Catholic Jesuit school, given other messaging you have sent throughout the season. Those messages were visible and they were public. And, as the starting quarterback of the team, they were hard not to notice or see. They were on the fingernails of your left and right hands.

Many people know you paint your fingernails before a game. When asked "Why?," on Good Morning America you shared it is because of your mom. You said, "My mom was my inspiration, I mean, she's been doing nails since I could remember. And and she's always done it. I think since she was probably like 14, she's always done it." Painting of your nails is far from problematic. However, the message you have on them is.

You painted F*** ND, F*** UCLA and F*** Utah before playing each school.
As written on SportingNews, "He sported "F--- Cal" polish when USC beat Colorado in what seemed to be the ultimate disrespect. Against Washington State, he painted the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline onto his nails. In fact, the profanity seemed to come later on in the year, as they were often designs early in USC's season. He donned USC's logo in his debut against Rice, and against Stanford he put the Stanford logo onto his middle finger. It's not hard to figure what he means by that."

As I wrote in my post: Profanity and The Why: Questions from USC Quarterback, Caleb WilliamsI have no idea how demonstrating that type of profanity honors the game, your own team or your rival. I would argue that message goes against what sport is and should be.

You thanked your Coach Randy Trivers who is on campus as a faculty member—teaching both Classical and African American literature. I wonder, did you consider what he might say if asked "Why does your former player paint his nails in that way?" Is it consistent with his coaching philosophy?

You said, “Coach, you may not know this, but the Gonzaga mantra that you drilled into us, ‘men for others,’ has helped inspire me to create the Caleb Cares Foundation, which is all about giving back, so thank you coach, thank you Gonzaga.”

While I do not take for granted that you acknowledged and thanked your coach, I do not know how the words, being a man for others, permits participation in this type of pregame ritual. I have a strong suspicion that had you painted your nails like this in high school, one of your coaches would have noticed. I can't help but think J.U.G. is one possible consequence.

I write because it could have been different. The beauty of a motto or mantra is that it can guide a young person to live and love a certain way. But, they also run the risk of ringing hollow or hypocritical. This is where I raise my question: Why?

In 2009, the former principal of St. Ignatius College Prep (who happens to be a graduate of Gonzaga HS) noticed a picture in the front of Sports Illustrated. Written on the wrist tape of the Stanford offensive guard was the Jesuit motto: AMDG. 
It caught his attention. Why? Stanford isn't a Jesuit school, but the athlete who wrote it hails from one. Andrew Phillips is a graduate of Georgetown Prep.

I reached out to Phillips to find out why he did this. Much to my delight, he responded.

The Jesuits taught me that everything you did was meant to be done with the knowledge that your actions were giving glory to God. I always took a mindset as a player that my play wasn't just helping my team win, but as an expression of my talents it was actually a personal way of giving glory to my creator. There was something very centering in my ritual of putting those letters onto my wrist tape, and my wife even surprised me by having AMDG etched into the inside of my wedding ring. Though I hung up my pads several years ago, the principle of  Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam is still something I use as a guide in my daily life. 

How might your message be seen and heard differently had you painted AMDG on your nails? or in promotion of your own team?  Though I am not a USC fan, this nomination would serve as a notable affirmation of who we are and what we aim to do. Instead, I find the inconsistency deeply problematic. In fact, it invites me to double down and re-examine what we teach, value, promote and why. That is never a bad thing.

A platform used for the good is AMDG.


Anne Stricherz
St. Ignatius College Prep
San Francisco, California

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