While explaining their consistent success, a common theme espoused by St. Joseph’s Prep football players focuses on brotherhood, faith, and prayer.
That narrative continued after the Hawks’ latest highlight-reel accomplishment – a 45-23 PIAA Class 6A state championship victory over North Allegheny Dec. 9 at Mechanicsburg’s Cumberland Valley High School. The win gave the Prep its eighth PIAA state title in 11 seasons.
“Putting our faith first,” said Prep head coach Tim Roken, “has a huge impact on our mentality, achievements, and desire to keep engaged in what’s required of us during a season.”
Of course, St. Joseph’s Prep isn’t the only local Catholic high school team that prays before and after games. Actually, it’s highly unlikely not to witness some form of heavenly appreciation – win or lose – emitted by coaches and players throughout the season.
However, not every team organizes a Mass before every game as does the Prep. Program supporters often affirm the spiritual gifts experienced through quiet prayer, scripture, the communal sign of peace, and ultimately the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
“Attending Mass before a game is something I experienced as a player at Archbishop Ryan (quarterback, Class of 2004) and then as an assistant coach here at the Prep under (current Duke University assistant coach) Gabe Infante,” said Roken. “I wanted to continue that tradition because I’ve seen firsthand how it enhances the brotherhood within the program.”
“You will have a lot of external distractions leading up to game day. I have no doubt that a solid mindset contributes greatly to our successes, and there’s no better way to be the calm before the storm than centering yourself at Mass with your family.”
Traditionally the pre-game Masses take place in the historic Church of the Gesu in North Philadelphia and are usually celebrated by Prep Senior Director of Mission and Ministry, Rev. Stephen Surovick, S.J.
“With the Jesuit tenet of ‘God in all things,’ prayer before games is an opportunity to show students how their faith can apply to their passion for athletics,” he said. “This is another example of meeting students where they are, so they can experience how to incorporate God in their lives.”
Prep parents have also cited the program’s reliance on core faith values that aid their sons during and after their Prep athletic careers.
In a promotional Prep video earlier this year that celebrated former alum football stars D’Andre Swift (Class of 2017) and Olamide Zaccheaus (Class of 2015) becoming members of the Philadelphia Eagles, Swift’s mother – Ayanna Holloway-Swift – verbalized a visual that represents the school’s priorities.
“The Prep has spirituality attached to all that they do,” she said. “With the football team, they pray together before each game – with the Prep football in the center – and they all kneel down. It’s the most beautiful thing to see.”
Several Prep players offered effusive praise for what celebrating Mass does for them both as individuals and as teammates.
“Mass before games is important to me because it gives me a chance to quiet my mind,” said senior defensive back Davon Willie. “Also, as a Jesuit school, it helps us to keep God at the center of our focus.”
“Usually, the message in Mass correlates with whatever we are going through as a team. For example, when we were deep in the playoffs, the message for Mass was about end times and how we needed to just stay focused and block out the noise.”
Senior running back Caddy Phillips, a graduate of St. Aloysius Academy, concurs.
“Mass adds to the overall experience because it a time for us to clear our mind, relax, and just accept the presence of God before the game,” said Phillips. “This is also a time for us to get closer as a team and receive a blessing.”
Prep junior Rameir Hardy relied on his faith to endure a huge personal scare.
In the second quarter of the Hawks’ 59-21 state quarterfinal win over Lehigh Valley’s Nazareth Area High School on Nov. 25 at Northeast High School, Hardy suffered a frightening head and neck injury that required him to be carted off the field and immediately taken to a local hospital.
As the fear of a major injury gradually dissipated, Hardy was able to return to the practice field and eventually start on special teams in the state final.
“Prayer and faith helped immensely with my injury because without prayer and faith, we are nothing,” said Hardy. “[Participating in] Mass five hours before each game helps us ground ourselves and prepare for war with our brothers. Fr. Surovick does a great job with finding a message to give to us through prayer and connecting scripture to the field.”
“Before games, guys get down on their knees and pray to their higher power and center themselves. Shortly after we do a team prayer on the sideline and when coach screams, ‘St. Joseph and St. Ignatius, pray for us,’ followed by, ‘Let’s go to work, men,’ we know it’s time to buckle up and get ready to play for the guys to the left and right of us and all of those who came before us.”
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