Hang Up the Jersey: What Happens When God Calls an Athlete to Walk Away From Sport?
“We admire people who are willing to get up every day and do the hard stuff and keep going and persevering and fighting through things. And this perseverance has helped me so many times. I have had so many times in religious life where I had memories of being on the volleyball court and being successful.
The danger, she said, arises when a person perceives the identity of their life as that of an athlete rather than that of a child of God. Because ultimately, she said, everyone’s athletic ability will “go away.”
“Don’t be glum about it, but there will be a day when each of us is no longer an athlete,” Heidland said.
“I had to struggle with myself: if Christ is not the center of my life, something else will be. And my life will go up and down depending on what I do on the sports field, how many social networks I have, whether someone likes me or not, whether I do well in my job. And I mean, yeah, those things are going to affect us, but they’re going to break through our identity if our identity isn’t in Christ.
Heidland warned of families getting so wrapped up in sports that it negatively affects their practice of the faith — they start missing Sunday mass, for example.
“If we miss mass and we miss that because of sports, we’re completely out of commission,” Heidland said.
“Because the sport will pass. You blow your knee or you’re not on the best elite team, they’re done with you. It’s a system, it’s a business… so if I don’t really know who I am and what I am, it’s going to be very difficult.
“I wanted to be good at something”
Father Chase Hilgenbrinck, a priest from the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, serving in his second year as vocations director, played football in college and professionally. He grew up in a family of athletes and as a child idolized famous athletes such as basketball legend Michael Jordan.
“Growing up, I was kind of like any other American kid who just wanted to be good at something,” he recalled to CNA. The priesthood was not on his radar at all.
Father Chase Hilgenbrinck. Credit: Diocese of Peoria
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After playing soccer at Clemson University, Hilgenbrinck played professionally in Chile before joining Major League Soccer in the United States. He ended up playing for the New England Revolution in Massachusetts.
At first he wanted nothing to do with the priesthood. Previous instances of people telling him he would make a good priest had gone “in one ear and out the other”.
Hilgenbrinck began to hear and respond to God’s call to become a priest when he realized that the different “suits” he wore throughout his life were not bringing him the fulfillment that he really wanted. But when Hilgenbrinck first heard the call to become a priest, he said he was not living as an “authentic Christian”; he described himself as spiritually “still a boy”. He wanted to be a football star, not a priest of Jesus Christ.
“So often in life we believe…that we have even greater desires than God has for us. “Why doesn’t he satisfy my desires?” “I feel like I want more than him, which is a false premise, and it’s a misconception,” Hilgenbrinck said.
“We start covering our lives with stuff, because we’re afraid that God won’t show up. So we start putting on jerseys,” he said.
“Whatever those things are: it could be music, it could be academics, it could be our job, it could be a relationship in our life. All of these things are all different jerseys that we could wear, so to speak, throughout our lives.