Touchdown Jesus
By Joshua Cooley
FCA scores at Notre Dame behind gridiron leadership

 
Bobby Morton

Class: Senior
Height: 6-4
Weight: 298
Position: Offensive Line
Hometown: McKinney, Texas
The biggest season of Bobby Morton’s life began with tragedy. Morton, a fifth-year senior, and the Notre Dame football team entered this fall with perhaps greater expectations than any season since 1988, when the Fighting Irish won their last national championship. But on Aug. 22, only 11 days before the season opener at Georgia Tech, Morton’s 54-year-old father died of stomach cancer.

Still, the devastating loss included an inspirational tale. On Aug. 2, Morton, a powerfully articulate young man who acts as the player representative for the Notre Dame football team’s FCA group, led his father to the Lord.

“The fact of the matter is I cry every day,” said Morton, a 6-foot-4, 298-pound offensive lineman. “But I didn’t lose him. He didn’t die. My dad lived the last three weeks of his life like never before. It’s only going to be short-term – a breath, a vapor – until I see him, and that’s very exciting to me.”

Morton and other teammates are now sharing that same message of hope through the team’s newly established FCA ministry.

***

Outside of academics, the world’s most famous Catholic university is fueled by two loves: religion and football. Since beginning play in 1887, Notre Dame has won a record eight national championships – 11 if you include pre-AP poll seasons – and branded a list of legendary names into the American sports consciousness: Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen, George Gipp, Paul Hornung, Lou Holtz, Joe Montana, Joe Theismann, Raghib Ismail, Jerome Bettis and many others.

 

“FCA has provided an environment in which we can find the foundation of our beliefs and faith and spread the Word of God through fellowship.”
       - Brady Quinn,
         Notre Dame quarterback

South Bend, Ind., is a football Mecca like none other. There, you’ll find “Touchdown Jesus,” which poignantly marries the school’s twin passions in metaphor. Somewhere along the way, the nearly 10-story-high mural (officially called “Word of Life”) that adorns the exterior of Hesburgh Library took on its gridiron persona because of Christ’s raised arms and its proximity to the football stadium.

***

The inception of FCA in South Bend has unfolded before Morton’s eyes. When former head coach Tyrone Willingham arrived in 2002, he brought with him secondary coach Trent Walters, who had been involved with FCA since the mid-1980s when he served as an assistant coach at Louisville.

Once at Notre Dame, Walters noticed there was no FCA and asked Willingham to petition the administration to allow one. The school approved, and with the help of Kraig Cabe, FCA’s Northern Indiana area director since 1998, a small Huddle began shortly thereafter.

“I spoke with a number of the priests, and they were very encouraging and supported it well,” said Walters, who is now the Philadelphia Eagles’ secondary coach. “The atmosphere was right for an FCA Huddle.”

The group started slowly, and when it lost its two biggest proponents – the school fired Willingham in December 2004, and Walters took the Eagles job that March – FCA’s future, at least on the football team, was in jeopardy.

“When they left, we really didn’t know what would happen,” said Nicole Rapagnani, an FCA area representative in Northern Indiana and Notre Dame graduate.

Concerns dissipated, though, when new head coach Charlie Weis gave his nod of approval to FCA. That, along with Cabe’s direction and Morton enthusiastically assuming a student-leadership role, has breathed life into the new era of FCA on the team. What started as a tiny group of three – Morton, quarterback Brady Quinn and tackle James Bent – in August 2005 quickly grew to 25-30 a week. When Notre Dame traveled to Phoenix to face Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl last January, Weis even included the pre-game FCA breakfast as part of the team’s schedule. Everyone traveling with the Notre Dame football team, together with quite a few Buckeyes, listened as Morton boldly shared his testimony.

Yes, the Savior’s arms are outstretched, but not to signal six points. He is offering hope and salvation to all who trust in Him.

“It was awesome,” Morton said. “You saw the family of God have an impact that day.”

This year’s first Huddle during preseason practice in August drew 12 players and one coach. Since then, the group has grown to 20. Clearly, the message is spreading.

“FCA has provided an environment in which we can find the foundation of our beliefs and faith and spread the Word of God through our fellowship,” senior quarterback Brady Quinn said.

“Despite how tired I may be because of football, I need to praise the Lord and learn His Word and apply it to my life,” added senior linebacker/running back Travis Thomas. “After all, He did give His only Son to save me and the world from eternal damnation.”

 

“FCA is a great way for our students not only to reflect on their relationship with Jesus but also to live out that relationship by helping build the Kingdom of God.”
                -  Fr. William Seetch

According to Morton, a number of players have begun taking their faith seriously through the impact of FCA, either by making commitments to live for Christ or by giving up worldly lifestyles.

“Recommitments – that’s where you see lives changed,” Morton said. “People are being convicted of things they’ve never been convicted of before, and it’s unbelievable.”

Morton and various teammates visibly proclaim their faith on a much larger scale before every game. Coming out of the tunnel, they sprint across the field to the far end zone to kneel and pray.

“They realize they’re blessed to be playing for Notre Dame,” Cabe said, “but first and foremost, before every game, they want to be a testimony to everyone watching.”

***

 While the Notre Dame football team’s FCA group continues to grow in its formative stage, the members strive to bridge the chasm of religious perception that no one would deny. The long-standing cautious nature between Catholic and Protestant Christ followers has been an obstacle, but according to Rapagnani, communication has been the key.

“It is unique,” said Rapagnani, whose dual Catholic and Protestant experience has helped her to create clarity in times of confusion. “There’s a lot of miscommunication that has created divisions between Christian denominations. We as FCA, an interdenominational ministry, want to build bridges, because it’s amazing when people who are following Christ come together, share with one another and partner together in ministry.

 

Football team, led by Quinn exit the Basilica

“We try to clearly explain the FCA mission statement, that it does talk about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and strengthening relationships with each other and in the local church,” she said. “It challenges people to claim their faith as their own and to live that out, which is ultimately the goal of Catholic education.”

Cabe said he tries to break through any barriers by going straight to the bottom line. “We deal with: ‘Who is Jesus, and what did He do?’” said Cabe. “That breaks down all the walls and allows us to talk. Ultimately, it comes down to what we do with the person of Jesus Christ.”

That bottom line has created a comfort level for members of the Notre Dame faculty who have seen the benefits of FCA in the student body.

“Our Christian faith is a lived faith and not just Creedal formulations or moments of prayer,” said Fr. William Seetch, Religious Superior at Notre Dame. “While those are elements of our faith, we must live it out amongst all peoples in good times and in bad. FCA is a great way for our students not only to reflect on their relationship with Jesus but also  to live out that relationship by helping build the Kingdom of God.”

***

Touchdown Jesus continues to lift his arms above Notre Dame’s sprawling campus. The Fighting Irish have won four national titles and 12 bowl games since the mural was finished in 1964. They’ve had only three losing seasons since 1987.

But FCA is challenging the ubiquitous football culture in South Bend with a far greater message: Yes, the Savior’s arms are outstretched, but not to signal six points. He is offering hope and salvation to all who trust in Him.

“I want people to look at Notre Dame football like I did when I was 4,” Morton said. “I saw them never give up, but I never heard why. Now, when people ask, ‘Why did you go for that ball? Why did you make that tackle? Why did you continue to play hard?’ I can say, ‘Because I have hope – hope because Christ died for me.”

***

Take it from them, FCA has proven to be a great benefit to members of the Notre Dame football team. Here are a few reasons why:

 “The FCA gathering has brought me closer to my teammates and let me know that they care not only about their jobs on the field, but also about their faith and loved ones.” - Leo Ferrine, JR defensive back

“I come to fellowship every week so that I make sure I receive the blessings and the Word of God.” - Marcus Freeman, SR tight end

“FCA helps me to reflect on my week and the things I have done in an attempt to better myself and those around me.” - Chris Stewart, FR offensive lineman

“I look at fellowship as an opportunity to experience God’s Word with athletes who can relate to me.” - Justin Brown, JR defensive lineman

“I come to this fellowship to learn and hear the testimonies of my teammates, and to give God what He deserves as the head of my life.” - Demetrius Jones, FR quarterback

“FCA offers a time to reflect on one’s self during a chaotic time. The fellowship brings life back into the proper perspective – God’s perspective.” - Geoff Price, SR punter

“FCA meetings have been very helpful. I find the messages very relative to my life, and they motivate me to be a better person.” - David Grimes, SO wide receiver


Photos courstey of Britany Malak and Notre Dame