My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
We should all be very proud of the Sacred Heart-Griffin Cyclone Football Team, not just because they won the state Class 5A football title by defeating Montini Catholic High School of Lombard in the championship game on Nov. 30 at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb by a score of 38-28, although we certainly do congratulate them on this achievement.
We should be very proud of the way the SHG coaches, players and fans put their values and their faith into practice on the road to this victory.
Just two weeks before the championship game, a devastating tornado ripped through Washington, Ill., and destroyed many of the homes of the families of the Washington High School football team, which would be Sacred Heart-Griffin's opponent in the semifinal game. That playoff game, which took place on Nov. 23, occurred just six days after the tornado. Although the Washington team was determined not to let the damaging effects of the tornado prevent them from playing their semifinal playoff game against SHG, they were not even sure how they would get to the game, since their means of transportation had been destroyed for many of them.
As reported in the Dec. 1 issue of the Catholic Times as well as in the secular media, donations from SHG, the local community and a number of area businesses made it possible to pay for seven buses to bring Washington fans to the game in Springfield and provide meals for between 1,200 and 1,500 Washington Panther fans, players and coaches after the game.
For the Cyclones, Sacred Heart-Griffin Head Coach Ken Leonard had his players take a knee at midfield for a prayer with their opponents at the end of the game, which brought tears to the eyes of some of Washington High's players. Afterwards, Coach Leonard said, "This is a great life lesson. I want our players to be better men than football players."
At the championship game against Montini, Coach Leonard asked me to lead the team in prayer before the game. As the players knelt in the end zone of the indoor practice field next door to the football stadium in DeKalb, I started with one of my favorite Scripture passages, from the Letter to the Hebrews: "Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that lies before us, while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith" (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Then I offered this prayer: "Almighty God, we praise you for your goodness and the gifts of your creation. Thank you for the abilities that you have given to this team and for your graces that have brought us to this championship game in our quest for a state title. We humbly ask you to send your blessings upon the Sacred Heart-Griffin Cyclone Football Team, all the players, coaches and staff. Bless our fans, parents, teachers and benefactors for their loyal support. Help us to respect our opponent, Montini Catholic High School, and treat them with the dignity that they deserve as our brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us persevere in the contest that lies before us, keeping our eyes fixed on the true prize, eternal life with Jesus in his Kingdom. Send your angels to lift our legs, to make our feet swift and our hands sure, and to guard us from injury. Help us to use our gifts and talents to the best of our ability, so that our accomplishments will bring glory and honor to your name, O Lord, forever and ever. Amen."
It might have seemed like our prayers were in vain as the SHG Cyclones quickly fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter to a team that had won the title the previous four years in a row. But it was impressive to see how the SHG players retained their poise, kept their composure and didn't give up. Down 21-14 at halftime, the mood in the locker room was that victory was definitely within reach. One of the assistant coaches said he thought we needed another prayer, so I offered a quick prayer before the players returned to the field: "O Lord, keep us centered, keep us focused, keep us confident, keep us strong. Jesus never said it would be easy, so help us please to keep working and persevere with your blessing. Amen."
The second half was all SHG. After winning the game and the state 5A title, the SHG football team gathered for one more prayer at the 50-yard line: "Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory" (Psalm 115).
Let us thank God for this grace. Amen.