What Alabama’s National Championship taught me.

Perhaps you occasioned to watch the University of Alabama’s football team defeat the University of Notre Dame’s football team last Monday night to win the college football national championship for the second year in a row and for the third time in the last four years.  It was not much of a game as Alabama had things in hand by the end of the first quarter and by the first drive of the second half it was all over.  The dynastic dominance of Alabama and their head coach, Nick Saban, was firmly established.

As a Catholic priest I am obliged to root for Notre Dame and as a son of the mid-west and chaplain at a Big Ten school I am bound to have a healthy animus against the football-crazed south.  Therefore I was all exited to disdain Alabama and let my angst at their victory show itself by detracting from what certainly must be a lame university and a vice-ridden and over-zealous football culture.  But then I did a little investigation and was quite turned around.

Regardless of what one thinks about major college football – there is a gaudy amount of money and a clear over-importance placed on this game – there is a lesson to be learned about what makes for a successful and virtuous person and team.

First is the coach, Nick Saban.  Mr. Saban is a practicing Catholic (which certainly endears him to me) and, by all accounts, a virtuous man.  He is good to his family and straight with his players.  He has a reputation for tireless work and a solid routine.  Further, while he is very demanding of his assistant coaches he treats them fairly – assigning a clear task with clear expectation.  He is no harder on his players than he is on himself and his players seem to all report a great respect for him.

Second is a clean football program.  The University of Alabama football team has been the least penalized team in college football the last five years running.  The team has a graduation rate of 77%, which is higher than the student body of most major American universities.  Lastly, the football program has not had even a whiff of NCAA violations.

Third is that it’s not all born talent.  Alabama, under Nick Saban, had never had the number one recruiting class in the country.  Certainly talented players come to Alabama but they also grow a lot in their skill.  Running back Eddie Lacy, a superstar last season and a Heisman trophy candidate for next year, was the 13th highest rated running back coming out of high school and the 116th rated recruit overall.  At Alabama they seem to know how to work, how to sacrifice and how to get better, how to become the best.

Last, they succeed.  Only the jealous could argue.  My point is this: don’t hate success, try to emulate it.

Of course there are plenty of instances where the successful have cheated, worked the system, brutalize others to succeed, prevented others for succeeding.  All the more reason to highlight success when it is done the right way.

Set clear goals.  Learn from others who achieved those goals.  Hold yourself and others accountable.  Avoid mistakes and pitfalls.  Keep bad influences away.  Work hard.  Sacrifice  for your goal.  Get the most out of what you have.  You will succeed.

These are all Christian ideas and translate so easily to the spiritual life

I am not canonizing Alabama football or Nick Saban.  Nor am I saying that football is life or even should be.  What I am saying is that it is very encouraging to see success, the achievement of goals, done in the right way.  Who knows if it will continue, but for the moment I will learn a lesson – don’t hate the Saints, don’t put them on unreachable pedestals, don’t watch them like characters in a movie –  BE LIKE THEM.

Long roads

It was famously written of priests that they are, ‘a member of every family yet belong to none.’  What true and honorable words.  There is a great dignity, privilege, grace in being a priest of Jesus Christ.  But also a deep sorrow, a grief that comes with being so aware of the passing nature of this vale of tears.

No place is home.  

Now, don’t get me wrong, my parents house is always open to me and I love it there.  Many friends will welcome me in for food and shelter and hospitality.  Heck, the rectory I live in is warm and dry and I’ve even got my own bathroom.

But none of them are mine – my parents house is theirs, same too my friends, and while the rectory is nice I am merely a long-term guest in a house belonging to no one.  Not to mention the eschatological reality, ‘not one stone will be left upon another.’

Thus it is right and just.  Priests ought not become too bound to one place.  They must be wandering pilgrims of a sort.  After all, ‘the Son of Man has no place to lie His head.’  Ours is a comfortable wandering (at least in America) but it is still a wandering.  So there is a tension.   Human beings strive for community, for belonging, and a priest can never truly belong.  He is always one foot in Heaven and one on earth.  Loves every person but cannot be long, cannot posses any one.  This is a fact of his nature and to transgress it would be to offend who he is.  Thus he remains odd,  not quite like all the others. 

This is not an excuse for weirdness: being rude, inappropriate, negligent,

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