November 23, 2007

God on the gridiron: Faith helps football players on and off the field

By Sean Gallagher

After beating the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI in February, the Indianapolis Colts stormed to another strong start, winning their first seven games of the 2007-08 season.

Even with a faith-filled head coach like Tony Dungy, it might have been easy for players on the team to think they are invincible.

But the players know better. And consecutive losses to the New England Patriots and the San Diego Chargers helped bring that reality into perspective.

Though the Colts are one of the youngest teams in the NFL, the players learned long ago that, no matter how far they go in fulfilling their gridiron dreams, that journey can end suddenly with one bone-jarring tackle that results in a career-ending injury or a series of small injuries that just keep adding up.

This season, the Colts have arguably had more than their fair share of serious injuries.

Future Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Marvin Harrison has missed several games with a knee injury. Defensive starters Anthony McFarland and Rob Morris’

season came to a quick end due to knee injuries. Concussions have kept tight end Dallas Clark and linebacker Freddy Keiaho off the field. And All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney’s season ended because of a serious foot injury.

When one player goes down, it gives another player the chance to step up, get more playing time and show he belongs on the field. But an injury can present an opportunity for the sidelined player as well, helping him step back and re-examine what is most important in his life.

Former Colts teammates Rocky Boiman and Keith O’Neil have

experienced the effects of injuries this season, and both have relied on their Catholic faith to keep them grounded through the many twists and turns of a professional football career.

Striving for excellence

Last season was Boiman’s first year with the Colts after spending four years with the Tennessee Titans. He played mainly on special teams and had limited playing time on defense as a backup linebacker.

But due to several injuries to defensive players this season, Boiman has been a starter in several games.

Although injuries make his profession a tenuous one, Boiman said they aren’t part of his mindset.

“I never try to focus on them because you get negative thoughts in your mind,” he said. “But whatever happens, I just try to play the hardest I can and the fullest I can. And whatever happens, happens.

“Football or not, I know I’m going to be fine in life. I know I’d have another calling in life.”

Being confident when your career can end at a moment’s notice. Striving for excellence despite the risks. Boiman became a champion because of these principles instilled at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati.

“You just always got the feeling that there was a standard that was set before you got there,” he said. “And you had to live up to that standard of excellence and of being a good person.”

The bar continued to be set high when he enrolled at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 1998.

“You always strive to be the best person and everything you can be,” Boiman said. “I think that’s something that Notre Dame always preached, in the classroom and outside the classroom. I think it was definitely something that helped shape who I am.”

After winning the Super Bowl with the Colts, Boiman became a free agent. With such success, he could have gone to another team for a bigger contract and offers of increased playing time.

But a driving factor that led him to re-sign with the Colts was the team’s proximity to his family in Cincinnati.

“I’m very close with my mom and my dad and my little sister,” Boiman said. “Having them close and being able to shoot home when you have a couple of days off, or to have them come down for a game, is an extra bonus.”

Wherever he has played, Boiman has always strived for excellence. But he sees this inner drive more as a duty than as a way to gain personal accolades.

“I definitely feel very fortunate for the things that I’ve been blessed with,” Boiman said. “And, therefore, I feel obligated to go out and give my all, and excel as much as I can.

“To those who have been given much, much is expected. I try to live up to that.”

Faith, family and football

Even if you’ve been given much, success doesn’t always come easily or stay around for long.

Just ask Keith O’Neil.

O’Neil was on top of the football world last February as a reserve linebacker for the world champion Colts. Like Boiman, he also played on special teams.

But a series of lingering injuries contributed to his being cut from the team on Aug. 26—his 27th birthday—during the team’s training camp this summer.

As difficult as this was for O’Neil, it’s been a part of his life from the very beginning—literally.

O’Neil’s father was cut from the New England Patriots by then assistant coach Bill Parcells on the day that Keith was born in 1980.

Keith grew up with a love of football, played at Northern Arizona University, and survived the final cut and earned a roster spot with the Dallas Cowboys on—you guessed it—his birthday in 2003.

The head coach of Dallas at the time? Bill Parcells.

O’Neil eventually made his way to the Colts and was

getting ready to start his third year with the team when he was cut on his birthday this year.

Such coincidences might have led O’Neil to think that God was playing a cruel, lifelong joke on him.

But he doesn’t view it that way.

“I kind of liked it,” O’Neil said. “It’s something between my father and God and my birthday, and being born in August and always being in football around the day I was born.

“I kind of embraced that, knowing that my father got cut on the day I was born. Maybe I was supposed to play in the NFL because of that.”

O’Neil’s family ties go beyond football and extend to his faith.

“I grew up in a Catholic family that went to Mass every Sunday and had prayer at night,” he said. “It was a very close-knit family who turned to God and to Jesus in times of need.”

O’Neil turned to Jesus last summer as he experienced the second sports-related hernia of his career, an injury that can require a long amount of recovery time.

Just days before being cut, he spoke with The Criterion about his injury and how his faith helped him cope with it.

“With this past injury, it was frustrating, and I did lean on God and on my wife, who is a Christian,” O’Neil said. “And we just prayed that whatever happens, that it will be for the best.

“If I do get back on the field, hopefully I can perform to the best of my ability. But if I can’t, we just believe that it’s in God’s hands and we’ll make the most of it.”

O’Neil hasn’t been back on the field yet. But he hopes

to play in the NFL again and has received calls from some interested teams.

“I probably needed a season or half a season off,” he said. “And God knew that. I probably wasn’t ready to play in this season.

“My faith definitely does help carry me through these tough times because it is a very tough time right now.”

Growing closer to Christ

Father Peter Gallagher, volunteer chaplain of the Colts and chaplain of Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis, said coping with injuries is an opportunity for football players to grow closer to Christ.

“I would try to get them to associate whatever they’re experiencing with the suffering of Christ,” he said. “That’s the whole of the message.

“If we can’t associate even those difficult things in our lives with Christ’s experience of those same things, then we’re really not fully trusting in his message and in his

presence in our lives.”

When asked about this perspective, O’Neil was quick to say that his own sufferings pale in comparison to Christ’s sufferings. But he noted that his faith in Christ is the bedrock of who he is.

“That’s what made me what I am,” he said. “I’m not going to say it made [me] successful.

“But it helped me do the right thing and take the right path in life.” †

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