Norfolk Catholic student brings faith to the football field

A 6-foot-4, 290-pound, all-state lineman, Ethan Piper prays the rosary on bus rides to out-of-town games. 
The Norfolk Catholic High School senior helps lead team prayer, regularly attends Mass and prays the Liturgy of the Hours through an app on his cell phone.
He also helped lead Norfolk Catholic to an undefeated season and the Class C-1 state championship last fall. And he’s all set to become a Nebraska Cornhusker football player next year. 
Those who know Piper say he sets an example for others on the field and off, by living a life of faith and service. 
“He just leads by the way he lives his life,” Leisa Piper said of her son. “His faith is very real to him.”
Piper accepted a scholarship offer to play football at the University of Nebraska, picking the Cornhuskers over Iowa, Ohio and South Dakota State. Excited about playing ball, he also looks forward to being involved with the campus Newman Center.
“That was the offer I was waiting for,” Piper said. “Growing up, I was a huge Husker fan. I love Husker football and I’m just blessed to be a part of the program for the next four years.”
Piper said his Catholic upbringing and Catholic education since kindergarten has prepared him well for what he expects to experience when he leaves for Lincoln next summer.
“I just can’t wait. There’s going to be a lot of new experiences at college, but I’m prepared for them, just knowing that God’s always there for me,” he said. “There’s such a community in the Catholic Church and there will be opportunities for faith at the Newman Center, helping with the soup kitchen and in other areas.”
Before turning his attention to college, Piper and his Norfolk Catholic teammates are working to make another run at a state title.  He’s an anchor on the offensive and defensive lines for the Knights.
Coach Jeff Bellar is the winningest high school football coach in Nebraska history (he entered the 2018 season with 349 victories) and has guided the Knights to nine state championships. He’s known Piper since he was a kindergartener and has watched him grow as an athlete and a person. 
“Piper is a very nice young man playing a very rough and physical game,” Bellar said. “I think he even had to kind of learn to be more aggressive because he’s really just a kind-hearted person. He really cares about people.”
The importance of faith in Piper’s life is evident by the way he conducts himself, every day, Bellar said. 
“Mass is extremely important to him and making sure he does the right thing all the time – during school, after school and at practice,” Bellar said. 
Senior David McCaffrey, also a lineman for the Knights, said Piper has earned the respect and trust of his teammates. 
“He has a positive attitude toward everything and he always puts the needs of others before himself,” McCaffrey said. “He likes to take some of the younger guys under his wing and make sure they’re doing the right things and not staying out late or going to sketchy places. He really likes to keep the team together.”
Although he was raised with a strong Catholic background, Piper said he didn’t fully commit his life to Jesus Christ until just days before his freshman year. 
The “light came on” while he was attending a J.C. Camp and spiritual retreat at the Tintern Retreat and Resource Center near Oakdale in the summer of 2015.  Attended by youth at Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk who were entering the ninth grade, the camp was a five-day spiritual experience that included daily Mass, prayer, discussions of faith, reconciliation and some social and recreational activities.
“We had our retreat and it just kind of hit me hard – no matter the good or bad in my life, the battle has already been won with Jesus Christ dying on the cross,” Piper said. “That really set my life on a good course.”
Leisa Piper, advancement director at Norfolk Catholic Schools, said the camp was a turning point in her son’s spiritual life. She and her husband, Les, have stressed the importance of faith to Ethan and his three sisters, but it was never forced.
“We knew at some point, if they didn’t catch it from us, they would from somebody else,” she said. “I think that moment for Ethan came out of J.C. Camp. We had adoration and confession that night and afterwards he was just on fire.”
Piper practices his faith in many ways. He is active in youth discipleship and community groups, is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and each night spends personal time in prayer.
Leisa Piper said her son has been blessed to be around strong Catholic role models, including educators, coaches and priests.
“Father Matt Niggemeyer would meet with a group of students over lunch and was a very good influence,” she said. “Father Scott Schilmoeller (associate pastor) is here now and is almost like family.”
Father Niggemeyer, now a chaplain at Roncalli Catholic High School in Omaha, was an associate pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk from 2015 to 2017, where he led campus ministry and taught at the school. He was a regular on the sidelines at Norfolk Catholic football games, where he grew to appreciate Piper’s athletic ability, character and leadership qualities.
“Athletics has given Ethan a sense of stability and it’s given him a sense of identity,” Father Niggemeyer said. “Ethan, knowing who he is and what he’s about, has contributed to not only being one of the big dogs on the field, but also by being a leader on and off the field.”
Piper is projected to begin his college football career as a defensive lineman for the Huskers. He’s considering following his father’s footsteps and pursuing a career in education and coaching. Les Piper is a science teacher and coach in the Pierce Public School District.
Piper’s uncertain how his final year of high school and collegiate football career will play out, but knows his faith in God will pave the way.
“Every day, I wake up happy. My faith has brought a lot more joy into my life and I’m blessed to have figured it out so quickly,” he said. “You can’t take anything for granted. God’s given me all these gifts. I have to try to pay him back.”
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