Do You Know these Amazing and Talented Catholic Athletes?
Sports are a wonderful showcase for the words of St. Ireneaus of Lyon, who wrote, “the glory of God is the human being fully alive.” In athletic competition we see the gifts and talents, the desires and emotions of humanity palpably, artistically, and dramatically. We see the impossible become possible, and inspiration feels contagious. We are drawn to certain athletes because of who they play for, how they do it and why. And many great athletes integrate their faith into not only how they live their life, but how they play the game. This blog post will highlight several athletes who give evidence to the words of the early Church Father St. Ireneaus. These athletes live their lives in such a way that we know they are Christians by their love—love for the sport, the fans, their teammates and for God.
As a former marathon champion and world record holder Alberto Salazar demonstrates the beautiful integration of Paul’s letter to St. Timothy. "I have fought the fight. I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Tim 4:7).
Salazar’s family had to fight to keep their Catholic faith. Born in Cuba in 1958, Salazar grew up in the United States and not Havana because of his father Jose Salazar’s commitment to his Catholic faith. Che Guevara forbade the building of a chapel in a community-development project—the plans of Jose Salazar, a civil engineer. When Fidel Castro did not overturn this decision, Jose realized these orders were only the beginning, and the denial of religious freedom would follow. The Salazars fled Cuba that day.
“It was something that impacted me and continues to impact me because it showed that he put his Catholic faith above everything else; there was nothing more important,” he said. “My father’s decision, his commitment, that risk he took for us reaffirms to me this should be the most important thing.”
As a three-time champion of the New York City marathon and the 1982 victor of the Boston marathon, Salazar has finished many races—some of them even longer than 26.2 miles. For example, he ran and won the prestigious Comrades Marathon in Durban, South Africa in 1994; this 53.75-mile race served as a turning point in his life.
Prior to this ultra-marathon, Salazar kept his Catholic faith in the background for most of his running career. However, his experience at Medjugorje and the implementation of the Blessed Mother’s message led him to a deeper, lived faith. The graces he received from Our Lady opened his heart in a way that he began identify with the words of Ryan Hall, another world class American runner.
"I had gotten to know Hall’s faith community Athletes in Action. They helped me to realize I was 'no longer a runner who happens to be a Christian, I was a Christian who happens to run.'" Salazar said, "And I felt that shift during the ultra marathon in South Africa. That was the first time that it was really and completely ‘I am going to do this to share my faith.’ Before that, I could not honestly say running for the Lord is the #1 reason I am doing this. Praying the Rosary got me through." He believes the race was a miracle. “I should not have finished at all. The Lord did it.”
And he has done much more than keep the faith his parents fought to practice. Today he shares it with those athletes he trains in the Oregon Project.
“God gave me a gift and I get to coach. I want to help athletes not only become better athletes, but hopefully to become better people. That is what I believe God is leading me to do,” he said.
Salazar’s incredible work ethic has not changed; in fact he it has helped him develop and strengthen his own faith and the faith of those entrusted to his care. He believes, “Faith is a gift but you have to work at it. And, applying it to athletics, many of my athletes will say ‘I didn’t have time to work out, lift weights or stretch.’ I will ask them, or even myself: ‘You didn’t have 10 minutes to do pushups and sit-ups? Side ups? Ok, you didn’t have the weights with you, but you could have done something.’ There is the idea that unless can’t do something perfectly, it’s not worth doing. You shouldn’t think like that. Turn off your cell phone, turn off the radio and in the 20 minutes that you’re driving home, you can pray the Rosary. It may not be perfect, but it’s better than nothing, and God will reward you for that.”
I cannot help but think it is obvious that God has rewarded him as a Catholic and as a runner. But even more, I believe God has rewarded us with a person like Alberto Salazar in whom the words of St. Timothy are made known and visible.
§ What spiritual disciplines do you have?
§ In what way do you feel God has rewarded you?
The recent induction of Mike Piazza as a New York Met into the Baseball Hall of Fame offered baseball fans an opportunity to reflect upon his historic contributions to the game and their relationship to his Catholic faith.
The plaque that hangs in Cooperstown notes some outstanding achievements. The 12-time All-Star and 10-time Silver Slugger honoree is often regarded as one of the best-hitting catchers of all time. Piazza holds the record for home runs hit by a catcher, with a career total of 427. But that plaque also highlights what his talents offered to a community in turmoil. It reads he “helped rally a nation . . . with his dramatic home run in the first Mets game in New York following the 9/11 attacks.”
In his speech, Piazza said “Sept. 11, 2001 is a day that forever changed our lives, To witness the darkest evil of the human heart and how it tore many loved ones from their families will forever be burned in my soul. But from tragedy and sorrow came bravery, love, compassion, character and, eventually, healing.
Many of you give me praise for the two-run home run on the first game back on Sept. 21 to push us ahead of the rival Braves. But the true praise belongs to police, firefighters, first responders, who knew they were going to die, but went forward anyway."
He then added: “Jesus said there’s no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. I consider it a privilege to have witnessed that love. Your families and those left behind are always in my prayers. I pray we never forget their sacrifice and work to always defeat such evil.”
Piazza’s speech offered insight into his own faith and how important it is to have faith in those we love. To me, his words served as a prayer of thanksgiving for the sacrifice made by his father. He said, “my father’s faith in me, often greater than my own, is the single most important factor of me being inducted into this Hall of Fame. Thank you, Dad."
He added, “I know he watched every game, cried when I cried, was angry when I was angry and celebrated more than I could ever celebrate. He was a man deeply devoted to his family and after having suffered a major stroke a few years ago, is stronger willed than ever.’’
In what was already a highly emotional speech, Piazza, 47, paused and said, “We made it, Dad. The race is over. Now it’s time to smell the roses.’’
His words also remind me of those in St. Paul’s letter to Timothy. He too finished the race and kept the faith. Hail to the victor.
§ Who, in your own life, has had faith in you?
The world’s best gymnast on the world’s best team happens to be Catholic. When they were just six and four years old, Simone and her sister were adopted by their maternal grandparents Ron and Nellie Biles; their biological mother, Shannon was battling addiction. As written in the article “Flipping Awesome,” “they nurtured Simone’s energy, encouraged her innate decency and taught her, in Nellie’s words, to 'stay grounded, but reach for the sky'” (Brian Cazeneuve, Sports Illustrated). With her backflips from the balance beam, fantastic leaps from the floor exercises, her jumps above and from the vault, the sky isn’t an unlikely place to see the gifts and talents of Biles on display.
Her gifts also prompted the judges to award Biles with scores high enough that she won four gold medals. Her victories in Rio made her the first woman to sweep the major all-around titles in an Olympic quadrennium. Prior to the 2016 Games, Biles won three straight world all-around crowns. Had her grandparents not extended their hearts and homes to raise Biles and her sister, they would have remained in foster care, which too often limits opportunities and provides additional challenges.
Though she is not as vocal about her faith as some athletes, Biles has said she routinely lights a candle to St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes and of Rio, before each meet. Indeed, the communion of saints—holy men and women—is at work on earth as it is in heaven. Biles’ grandparents, who she refers to as “mom and dad” are among them.
§ Do you have a devotion to a particular saint who you pray to before something important?
§ How have you seen “love shown in deeds…?”
John and Jim Harbaugh
Though he retired from coaching football less than 10 years ago, the legacy of Jack Harbaugh lives on. His two sons, Jim and John take the gridiron now on Saturdays, Sundays, and Monday nights every fall.
The Harbaugh family made history when John and Jim took the field in New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII. In what could have been referred to as the “Harbaugh Bowl,” Jack and Jackie Harbaugh’s eldest son, John emerged victorious as the Ravens defeated the San Francisco Forty-Niners 34 to 31. However, this wasn’t the first time the two brothers coached against one another.
Jim recalls that memory, saying, “Running across the field everyone was asking what it was going to be like. You feel humble and grateful. It’s Thanksgiving. I told my guys we have so much to be thankful for. God gives us so much to be thankful for but the main thing He gives us is each other, our relationships. Tonight I ran across the field to my brother. He’s my best friend along with my parents and my wife.” Both men were raised Catholic and express their faith in different ways.
Jim travels every year on a mission trip to assist the parish of Santisimo Sacramento as it provides outreach to the Peruvian community of Piura. He provides assistance for the community in a variety of ways—as the needs are many. A perennial competitor, he also aims to spread the game of football. In fact, he calls it "Peruball."
John, Jim’s older brother by 15 months has integrated his faith much closer to home. According to an interview with The Catholic Review, the newspaper of the Baltimore archdiocese, “It was (John) Harbaugh who revived Catholic Masses for the Ravens after several years without them. He also attends a weekly Bible study at the training facility with his fellow coaches. Even though Sundays are the most high-pressure days of his life, Harbaugh said it’s critical to make time for God.”
He believes Mass is “a way to honor God and praise God. You just humble yourself a little bit before God and let God know that these things we do are for you.”
In both service and in prayer, we can honor God. The Harbaughs offer us insight and example of what it means to be a leader on the field and off with their dedication to the faith and their gratitude and humility before the Lord.
§ How do you express your faith? In service? In prayer? Both?
Do you have a spiritual hero? Is he or she also an athlete? Eric Liddell, the subject of the Academy Award-winning film, “Chariots of Fire” fits the bill. Widely considered a “person of conscience,” in his short life Liddell was not only an Olympic champion and world record holder but a missionary as well.
While training for the 1924 Olympic games in Paris, Liddell confronted a conscience qualm; the Olympic trials fell on the Sabbath. He believed competing on the sabbath would violate God's commandment. His father told him, "you can praise God by peeling a spud if you peel it to perfection. Don't compromise. Compromise is the language of the devil. Run in God's name and let the world stand back in wonder."
With these words, Liddell realized that his integrity would not be compromised by giving glory to his Creator on the Sabbath with the talent that had specially given to him. His family and his British teammates supported Liddell in his decision. Liddell ran “like a man inspired.” He won the gold for the United Kingdom…but really for God.
Eric Liddell said, "God made me for a purpose. He made me for China, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” His words helped me understand spirituality in a way I never had before. His choice to honor God by using his gifts in accordance with his principles is inspiring.
§ What is the principle by which you live your life?
§ What is the foundation that grounds your decisions and governs your work?
Whether it’s through the glory of athletes competing in the Olympic games or the individual human person becoming fully alive, athletic competition allows humanity to inspire and astound. God gave us sports because God can be found in them. The question is can we find God in the sports we play? Fortunately, there are many athletes who point the way!
Do you know of other Catholic athletes? Share below.