This is part two of a three-part series in how Archdiocesan schools offer faith-in-action opportunities to students. Read part one here.
Michael McCusker has undoubtedly stepped onto the soccer field at the James Ramp Memorial Recreation Center countless times in his soccer-playing career. It stands just feet from where he attends Father Judge High School in Northeast Philadelphia.
But he says that one night in October 2021, “I just felt different. It just felt like a different experience.”
McCusker, then a junior, walked onto that field that night for what was then the biggest game of his life – the 2021 Philadelphia Catholic League championship match against La Salle.
He described how, more than any game he’d ever played before, he felt God in the anticipatory energy right before kickoff.
“I can’t even really sometimes explain it,” he said. “But right before walked out to the field, it was just like, all the players and we all knew it. It was just a surreal experience.”
McCusker said he has prayed at midfield and center court after many games growing up, but a teacher Michael has known for years, Father Judge Theology Department Head Mike Campellone, has now given him and many other senior classmates a place to intellectually and theologically understand where the spiritual meets beloved sport, in the school’s Religion and Sports elective class which began in 2022.
“I love sports and I love learning about my religion more,” said McCusker, a basketball and soccer player at Father Judge. “So if those two can be combined, I’d love to learn about [it.]”
“We were looking at different elective courses to meet the kids where they’re at basically, what’s going to interest them. And, quite frankly,” Campellone said, “there’s not a whole lot of religious stuff that interests them, right. So we wanted to provide them with an opportunity to see where religion and spirituality meet them in their everyday lives.”
He said he saw such a connection from early on, particularly because in past generations, the Catholic faith was so much of a sports touchpoint for him and his peers.
“Growing up, I mean, we all came from our neighborhood. It’s a different dynamic back then, especially in the city,” said Campellone, a 1988 graduate of Father Judge. “We all were parish-centered and playing CYO. When you come into high school, and everyone now is, ‘We’re all one, right? We say Judge all the time. We’re all brothers here.’ So going from that dynamic in grade school with the Catholic Youth Organization and then into the Catholic League.”
Campellone said he more deeply found his faith playing college baseball at Allentown College, now called DeSales University. He later coached baseball at Father Judge, where imbuing faith and the Salesian charism into the daily experience for his players became intertwined with his on-field mission – far beyond just praying before and after games.
“In Salesian spirituality, it’s all about being who you are, and being that well,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with humility, being humble and in winning and losing, being gracious, and it’s really how you carry yourself on the field off the field.”
Campellone says he expects enrollment in next year’s classes to triple from the group who started in the original class.
They will learn a plethora of lessons that showcase not only how sports inspire God’s presence, but how sports mirror religion in vast ways. One way, Campellone says, involves how both our faiths and our sporting events have become large-scale community gatherings surrounding a passionate central connection point.
“[Fans] watch a college football game with 110,000 people there, that’s kind of like a church to these fans … we see the similarities between the church and these events,” he said.
“When you talk about sense of community, you look at the church as community, you look at the fan base as a community. When you look at the rituals involved, the rituals with church, the rituals with sports … from Notre Dame (football players) touching a sign on the way down to the field, Clemson touching the rock, the Wisconsin Badgers [fans’] doing ‘Jump Around,’ all these different rituals, similar to the rituals we have with our religion.”
But he also asks his students to consider how often fans will raise athletes to deity-like levels of role modeling, when often their imperfections remind us of our own fallibility.
“We watched a documentary on Aaron Hernandez, (a former tight end with) the New England Patriots,” said Campellone. “Here’s this celebrated athlete, both in college and in the pros, and he gets convicted of murder.”
He said the class used Hernandez as an example of greater discernment of who should be our role models. “Talk about roles, fathers, uncles, stuff like that … the teachers in your coaches really are good role models, but everything comes from God,” he said.
“We reinforced the issue that everything is from God. All of our abilities come from God.”
He said that led into discussions about athletes who vocally honor God on and off the field.
“Almost after every big game when they interview, you know, ‘Thanks for my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ’ and stuff like that,” said Campellone, citing Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts as an example.”
But he added that sometimes, it’s the not-so-vocalized moments when his students are able to see God present in action, including in superstar athletes’ own emotional wounds.
“It could be when a player gets injured on the field, and the other athletes are helping them up. Or if they’re going through struggling through something, and they see athletes helping each other out, or just say, see athletes helping out the community,” he said, even marking the mental health journey of one of Hurts’ pass protectors, two-time All-Pro lineman Lane Johnson.
“This guy’s making $10 million a year. And he’s got depression, and he’s got anxiety, and he wants to talk about it. So those are when you can humanize their ‘gods,’ so to speak, in those moments.”
McCusker further offered how his relationships with teammates throughout the years have further brought “finding God” moments to his consciousness and his faith life.
“I’ve met my best friends through grade school (sports),” he said. “I still talk to all them today. And even throughout high school, I’ve my best friends from all sports.”
Perhaps that relationality and community has become the capstone lesson McCusker has taken from not just Father Judge’s Religion and Sports class, but his entire career as a student-athlete in Catholic schools.
“If God brings you together with people that you really don’t think that you would ever like see yourself being friends with or interacting with, and that’s the best part,” said McCusker, who will attend West Chester University next year.
“You just become one.”
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