The Game's the Thing


Regis University, Denver -- It's not that women's volleyball coach Frank Lavrisha and his team (in black and gold) take success for granted, it's just that their expectations are high. You know your program is in the upper echelon of the NCAA when a 22-11 record doesn't excite you and a berth in the NCAA tournament is simply an expected occurrence.

Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. Basketball greats Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, and Patrick Ewing. Hall of Fame baseball star Frankie Frisch. Buffalo Bills quarterback Doug Flutie. New York Yankees pitcher David Cone. Besides success as athletes, what do these people have in common?

Give up?

They all played for Jesuit high schools or colleges. Take it from me, a Jesuit and a sports junkie.

My fascination with sports started in 1931 when at age six I won the 40-yard dash and used the prize money to buy my first fishing pole.

At fourteen, after seeing my first big league baseball game at Ebbetts Field, I sat at the feet of Cookie Lavagetto and absorbed his wisdom.

At fifteen, peaking too early, I pitched my baseball team to Camp Wahkonda's championship.

At seventeen, I was covering my high school's games for four New York City newspapers. The Brooklyn Eagle sat me at a typewriter Saturday afternoons and paid me fifteen cents an inch to hunt and peck and describe Brooklyn Prep's football games.

At twenty, in a crucial seminary softball game, I thought I had hit a game-winning three-run homer, only to be retired because I had failed to touch third base. So I have known both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Baseball at Spring Hill


Spring Hill College, Mobile -- Kristin Kuhnkey was one of the pitchers who helped get unseeded Spring Hill to third place in the NAIA national tournament last year.

Crew at Georgetown

Alumni Rowing

Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. -- "The boats are smaller!" Georgetown alumni and alumnae who were also on the crew team get the chance to dip oars once again when back on campus for weekend reunions.

Like many, I have enjoyed watching sports as much as playing them. In the early '50s I enjoyed baseball games in company with Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. I sat behind home plate in '53 and watched an aging Satchel Paige pitch and hit the St. Louis Browns to victory over the Washington Senators. And I was there in '93 when one-handed Jim Abbott pitched his no-hitter. The grace and endurance of great athletes, their feats of courage and skill under pressure, are a source of genuine admiration.

Paterno, Ewing, Flutie, and the others in that first-paragraph quiz are only a few of the most visible and famous figures among thousands who have contributed to an ongoing tradition of athletic competition at Jesuit schools. The story is still unfolding of how Jesuits and their lay colleagues make individual and group contributions to the always entertaining, often exciting, sometimes inspiring, and occasionally disturbing world of sports in the United States.

Wrestling at Jesuit College Prep -- Dallas
Legendary Fordham Football Team


Jesuit College Prep, Dallas -- This school emphasizes traditional sports like wrestling but keeps up with the times by adding new sports as the interest arises, including lacrosse, ice hockey, and rugby.


Fordham University, The Bronx -- That front line is a Fordham legend from the '30s, the Seven Blocks of Granite: Druse, Babartsky, Lombardi (of Green Bay Packers fame), Wojciechowicz, Pierce, Franco, and Paquin. The "granite" phrase, coined by a wire service writer, was quickly picked up by Grantland Rice, Damon Runyan, and other sportswriters of the time.

A quick survey of the men and women involved in athletics at Jesuit locales uncovers interesting stories at many levels. I talked to coaches, players, administrators, and thoughtful observers of the passing scene. They offer distinct perspectives as they address questions raised by the popularity of sports in our society. What is the proper role of athletics in schools and colleges? Is winning everything? The only thing? Something else? Whatever happened to sportsmanship? Grace in victory? Dignity in defeat? Do sports build character or undermine it? Can games in which so much has been invested still be described as play? And what do they have to do with education?

Who are the people who promote athletic programs in our Jesuit schools, and how do they see their work with young people?

Mr. Brian Conley, SJ, a student in the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, en route to the priesthood, makes time to coach a sixth-grade basketball team in the local parish. He sees his activity as ministry, keeping boys off the streets and involving them in wholesome activity. For him, showing them how to cooperate and how to handle winning and losing amounts to teaching the value of everyone. "At first, my focus was on winning, but now it's on showing them how to play as a team." Everyone on Brian's team gets in the game. Every five minutes he makes mass substitutions. There are three key elements in his program: learning offense, learning defense, and having fun. If overenthusiastic Little League parents were ever made to participate in group therapy, Brian would make a great facilitator.

Football at Walsj Jesuit in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio


Walsh Jesuit High School, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio -- Their head coach hospitalized for this season's first game, the Warriors lost. Coach Gerry Rardin back on the sidelines, the team finished the rest of the season undefeated, capturing Ohio's Division II championship, the school's first football title.

Fr. Charles Sullivan, SJ, is another basketball coach, but he has been at it for a tad longer than Mr. Conley. This Fordham Prep math teacher has been coaching basketball for 30 years and recently notched his 375th victory. For a few years he did X's and O's at a Division III school where, as far as we know, he was the only priest in this country coaching at the college varsity level. But most of his time has been spent coaching varsity, junior varsity, and freshman high school ball.

He is very good at getting the most out of his players and making overachievers out of many of them. He values competitiveness and insists that his players do their best to win, but he knows how to accept defeat gracefully and passes this on to his charges. He is an old-school, no-nonsense coach who employs a high-energy matchup defense and is unimpressed by dunking. Hot-dogging of any kind is anathema to him, and selfishness in execution is simply not tolerated.

Most high school teachers can only wonder what their students carry away with them, hoping for the best, but not Fr. Sullivan. Year after year his old players keep in touch. He witnesses their marriages, baptizes their children, and occasionally knocks back a brew with them on their back porches. Maybe the many school retreats he has conducted also account for their enduring attachment to him. But it is clear that his impact on them endures long after that last whistle has blown. He and they are winners in ways that do not show up on stat sheets.

Soccer at Santa Clara


Santa Clara University -- Elated is a good way to describe Brandi Chastain, assistant soccer coach at Santa Clara and member of the U.S. Women's soccer team, after she kicked the game-winning goal that gave her team the world cup last summer.

Besides being the athletic director at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., Jerry Radford fills a more administratively oriented position in the world of Jesuit sports as head of the Athletic Council of the Jesuit Secondary Education Association. At Gonzaga he runs a program that gets the best out of teenage competition and avoids the abuses that can start early. "We should try to play schools that have academic standards similar to our own,"he says. For the last eleven years at Christmas time, he has helped conduct the Gonzaga D.C. Classic, one of the country's stronger invitational tourneys that involves out-of-town teams. The proceeds of the tournament go to Gonzaga's volunteer service programs in which students contribute their time and talents to the larger community.

Mary Helen Walker, head women's basketball coach at Loyola University Chicago, won the Most Valuable Player award as an undergraduate at Holy Cross and later played professionally. She takes what she calls a humanistic approach to athletics, influenced by the Jesuits' philosophy of developing the whole person.

"I enjoyed the small-school, family atmosphere at Holy Cross," she recalls. "And here at Loyola I know the president and administration are loyal to women's sports." She values coaching for the life experiences it offers, the relationships she fosters, and the ability to touch young women's lives. For her, the Jesuit ideal of men and women for others is more than rhetoric; it gives her the motivation to share the strivings of young people at an important time in their lives.

Cross Country

Cross Country at Gonzaga Prep

Gonzaga Prep, Spokane -- Though Gonzaga competes in one of the toughest cross country leagues in the States, it has met with success (Girls 4th--State 4A 1999 and Boys 3d--State 4A 1997). Up to 100 students become part of this proud tradition of long distance running each year at Gonzaga.


Vintage Photo. Loyola Marymount 1933

Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles -- This circa 1933 photo features football coach Thomas Lieb, who was hired when Knute Rockne, who had accepted the position, died before he arrived on campus.

The lion mascot brings to mind the campus legend that Metro Goldwyn Mayer 's lion (you know, the one that roared in the "Ars Gratia Artis" logo at the start of movies) made appearances at football games. Louis Mayer, head of MGM, was a great friend of the university and certainly could have arranged it.


Hockey at Marquette University High

Marquette University High, Milwaukee -- The athletic program here is one of the most successful in the state in terms of accomplishments, but more important, it is successful because over 60 percent of the student body participates in athletics each year.

All the above stories come under the heading of good news. But anyone who pays attention to the sporting scene knows how ambiguous it is. The higher up you go on the food chain, the greater the threats to integrity. Grammar school and high school sports, despite their occasional aberrations, can easily be controlled by responsible adults, as Radford points out. But at the college level, those who direct aspiring athletic programs may face difficult decisions.

The biggest one is whether to go bigtime. Playing Division I ball, joining prestigious conferences, and competing for championships at that level can bring a school high visibility, national reputation, alumni enthusiasm and support, and financial rewards that may assist lower-profile sports teams in the program.

But the challenges to integrity are considerable. Big-time schools must sell enough tickets to fill large stadia and arenas. They do this by winning or being consistently competitive, and this means attracting the kinds of high school graduates who do not just walk onto the campus but are being wooed by other institutions with exactly the same goals. Recruitment is a major problem.

Fr. Earl Markey, SJ, of Holy Cross, has faced these challenges for years. An Honorable Mention All-America basketball player who graduated from Holy Cross in 1953, he was drafted by the Boston Celtics but instead joined the Society of Jesus. Fr. Markey points out that, whichever way a school goes, its athletic program policies must be consistent with its overall educational goals. When recruiting athletes, these schools must ask themselves how well these young people are prepared for a rigorous academic program. There are many who would fit in quite well in large universities with a broad range of academic programs but not necessarily in a Jesuits' liberal arts institution. Not only the college's academic integrity but also the welfare of the athletes themselves must be considered.

Today's Holy Cross teams play at a level that is a great disappointment to many alumni who remember the glory days of Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, George Blaney, and Togo Palazzi. But, knowing how the intercollegiate athletic scene has changed so dramatically from those days, Fr. Markey is convinced that, given Holy Cross's mission statement, they are right where they belong. When asked about other colleges and universities that have gone a different route, he would only say that each institution must examine its own mission statement to see whether the quest for competitive athletic success, especially in basketball and football, is reconcilable with academic goals and standards.

Considering the sanctions incurred by colleges and universities in the recent past, including a well-publicized one levied on Holy Cross College for basketball scholarship violations, he sounded skeptical.

Anyone who hangs around Jesuits long enough learns that they are never content just to do things; they must always know why. So they are much given to analysis and reflection, which become part of their pedagogy and spirituality. Fr. Vincent Capuano, SJ, of Wheeling Jesuit University, coached high school and college basketball before entering the Society and coached at Jesuit High in Osorno, Chile, as a scholastic. His master's thesis on sports and virtue is a scholarly work of philosophy that defies summary description, but some of his observations and conclusions are pertinent here.

Philosophers of sport vary in their perception of the relationship between sport and virtue. No one can deny that on the playing field virtues like justice, courage, and honesty are often developed. Competitive play encourages athletes to overcome pain, to achieve the disciplined concentration required to make the body respond as directed, and to make the sacrifices demanded in training. By engaging pain in this manner, the player tests limits, presses the edge of the envelope, and extends the power of his or her will. Thus coaches speak of teamwork, discipline, perseverance, and loyalty. (They also occasionally engage in self-deprecating humor, describing approaching seasons with weak squads as "character-building years.")

But Fr. Capuano sees games not as the causes of virtue but as venues where virtues may grow. "They are like greenhouses," he says. "Greenhouses are not a direct cause of plants growing, but create conditions that facilitate growth."


Basketball -- two Jesuit Universities

Rockhurst University, Kansas City -- Maurice Van Ackeren, a nationally recognized basketball player for Creighton University, was also such a standout baseball player back in the '30s that both the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox invited him to try out. He turned them down to join the Society of Jesus, making quite a mark as president (1951-1977) of Rockhurst.

Obviously, it doesn't always work out that way. Sports, which at their best bring out the best in young participants, are easily corrupted. Intercollegiate sports are especially vulnerable, tied as they are to a multibillion dollar entertainment industry and subject to professional leagues' voracious appetite for talent. But the problems are not just about money. David Maraniss, in When Pride Still Mattered, his biography of Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, asks some hard questions on page 134: "What is the value of competitive team sports? Where is the line drawn between a single-minded desire to excel and a debilitating obsession to win? Are football teams essential to the well-being of institutions and communities? Do athletes deserve special consideration because of this? In a realm where the ultimate measurement is wins versus losses, do ends justify means?"

Maraniss's question about athletes' special consideration is raised every time we hear about college stars risking bright futures by adding to their rap sheets arrests for thieving, abuse of women, and other forms of thuggery. These young men (not young women, not yet) have, since their exploits in grammar school gyms and on neighborhood fields, been praised, coddled, indulged, and given a sense of entitlement and privilege without corresponding accountability. They are accidents waiting to happen, and the schools that nurtured them must share the blame.'

The undesirable effects of adulation on young athletes is not always so serious but is no less real. The recent tragic incidents of school violence have often included descriptions of a jock culture that poisons relationships in high schools. I still remember, after many years, overhearing a football coach's address to the boys who had made our school's football squad. He told them that the reason they were on the team and the rest of the students were not was because they were better than the other kids.

The whole tone of his speech was clear: the students in front of him were winners, the others were losers. He probably thought he was building pride and self-esteem in them; what he was actually doing was contributing to their arrogance.

Another Jesuit who writes from a broader perspective is Fr. Patrick Kelly, associate pastor of Gesu Church in Detroit. (See Fr. Kelly's essay on page 6.) He played football and basketball and ran track in high school and captained his high school and college football teams. As a high school junior he gained over a thousand yards; in college was one of the nation's leading punt returners in NCAA Division II.


Basketball at Gonzaga

Gonzaga University, Spokane -- Gonzaga's Quentin Hall helped get his team to the Elite Eight of the 1999 NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament. Gonzaga puts as much emphasis on academics as it does on athletics: last fall, twelve of Gonzaga's fourteen intercollegiate teams posted an average GPA of 3.0 or better (the other two hitting 2.99 and 2.96).

He teaches a course entitled "Sport and the Spiritual Life"at the University of Detroit Mercy. He has been involved in helping professional athletes finish studies for their degrees and has helped produce a student handbook to be used in conjunction with the basketball film Hoop Dreams, which is used around the country today.

Each year since 1995 he has been involved in a national conference for school administrators, athletic directors, coaches, parents, and others on "Sport, Spirituality, and Character Formation."At this annual conference he has given a workshop on motivation in sports from a spiritual perspective and gave a keynote address on justice issues in sport.

His forthcoming book, Playing in the Fields of the Lord: A Study of Christianity, Culture, and Play, offers a fascinating history of attitudes toward sport from the Middle Ages to the present day. The medieval Church's sacramental sensibility made it open to play. The games that took place on parish grounds on the many holy days and feast days were closely tied to the ritual life of the Church.

The early Jesuits, inspired by Ignatius's vision of God in all things, shared the humanists' view of education and included play, games, and sport in the school curriculum. Because they ran so many schools, they had enormous influence on education in Western culture.

The Protestant Reformation, emerging scientific sensibility, and moves toward different forms of government provoked a defensive attitude on the Church's part and a judgmental stance toward the world that diminished the sacramental perspective that sees God as present in the created world. The Puritans, whose work ethic made them suspicious of games and sport, disassociated sports from spiritual values and forbade play on the Sabbath. Corresponding rigorist movements like Catholic Jansenism and Lutheran pietism kept the churches from being an effective counterpoise to this movement.

According to Kelly, things got better in the nineteenth century as other Protestants took a more optimistic view of the human person and acknowledged the spiritual significance of play, games, and sport. In the twentieth century, the Catholic Church in Vatican II emphasized the dignity of the human person and explored the meaning of human activity. The popes of the twentieth century delivered nearly a hundred addresses on sport, seeing play and leisure as valuable and important and discussing the impact of sport participation on personal growth.

Fr. Kelly sees creation itself as a kind of play, a meaningful but not necessary act by a playful God. Human beings, made in God's image, have the capacity to engage in activities, such as sport, which are meaningful but not necessary. When people play, the activity is enjoyable and can lead to their well-being and growth. Play is intimately related to human and spiritual development. Indeed, for Ignatius himself, the spiritual life is playful at its heart.

These, then, are the roots of a long tradition of Jesuits' and their colleagues' involvement in sports. People like Brian Conley, Charlie Sullivan, Jerry Radford, Mary Helen Walker, and Earl Markey keep the tradition alive and make it work. Vince Capuano and Pat Kelly are among its eloquent apologists. Jesuit schools and colleges take on the challenge of sharing with their students the benefits of participation on an amateur level while resisting the many temptations to abuse we have described. We think the Great Scorekeeper in the Sky looks down on them, likes what He sees, and wants them to keep at it.

"I have been a Chicago Cubs fan for 65 years. I am no stranger to pain,"says author Fr. James DiGiacomo, SJ, who has taught in Jesuit high schools for 43 years. The author of many books for and about young people and their religious development, he presently teaches theology at Regis High School in New York City.


A Gallery of Sports Pictures

Special Olympics

Special Olympics at Creighton

Creighton University, Omaha -- For 26 years Creighton has been opening its hearts, dorms, and athletic facilities to the Nebraska Special Olympics. For a week each summer, special athletes and volunteers swarm the campus to use the athletic facilities and sleep in residence halls, all of it Creighton's donation to the program.


Baseball at LeMoyne

LeMoyne College, Syracuse -- Dick Rockwell, LeMoyne's baseball legend, is the fifth-winningest coach in Division I, compiling a 757-309 record. Thirty-four of his players signed major-league contracts. Rockwell, currently LeMoyne's athletic director, is in the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.


Basketball at Loyola Academy

Loyola Academy, Wilmette, Illinois -- You're looking at the 1998 girls' basketball team celebrating their second consecutive AA state championship, quite an accomplishment for a school that went coed just six years ago.


Sailing for Boston College  High School

Boston College High School -- The waters of Dorchester Bay are the inviting sight right outside the windows of BC High, which has had a sailing team for over fifteen years. The team competes in the spring in the bay near the UMASS docks in Boston.


Soccer at Fairfield Prep

Fairfield Prep, Fairfield, Connecticut-- Not many teams can boast of a 12-0 season as Fairfield Prep's freshman soccer team can, and that was with a rookie coach, religion teacher Paul Zalonski, SJ. "I'd seen him in his classes," said varsity coach Bruce Jaffe in a newspaper story. "I told him he knows how to coach kids and motivate them there. Same thing on the soccer field."


Basketball - Loyola Chicagl

Loyola University Chicago -- "Think Phil Jackson and a Jesuit education" says Ian Solomon, Loyola's sports information director, when he mentions women's basketball coach Mary Helen Walker, former pro with the St. Louis River Queens and coach at Providence College and at Southern Illinois. A graduate of Holy Cross (there's that Jesuit connection again!) she was her team's MVP.


Basketball - University of SanFrancisco

University of San Francisco -- This university's athletic program has had a rich tradition of sports success over the years, including national championships in men's basketball, men's soccer (four NCAA titles), and football. Women's basketball recently went to the Sweet 16 and the men's program is steadily climbing under head coach Phil Mathews.

Copyright(c) Company Magazine. Created: 6/25/00 Updated: 6/29/00