Varsity Catholic supports faith of college athletes
October 27, 2022
During McKenzi Weber’s time at Kansas State University, she struggled to find opportunities to grow in faith as she navigated the pressures of playing on the university’s volleyball team and pursuing a major in bakery science and management.
While FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) was active on campus for part of Weber’s time, getting involved was problematic for her due to athletic and academic commitments. Although she told herself it was enough to attend daily Mass, she said she longed for more.
On many campuses, that need is being answered by Varsity Catholic, a FOCUS program geared specifically toward college athletes.
Now, as a Varsity Catholic missionary herself on the University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO) campus, she is hoping to help other student athletes manage the unique challenges they face.
“Without my faith, I wouldn’t have made it through my college years with all the mental, emotional and spiritual challenges. I was looking for anyone who could help me grow in my faith as a Catholic,” said the four-time Big 12 All-Academic honoree and 2019 K-State graduate.
She hopes to be that someone and to help others develop a better sense of their worth as a person, not just as an athlete. “My Protestant friends had mentors (and Bible studies). I was looking for that,” she said.
This is the first year Varsity Catholic is active on UNO’s campus. Weber is also serving as a volunteer assistant coach for the university’s volleyball team.
As an outreach division of FOCUS, Varsity Catholic missionaries have a similar role to that of FOCUS missionaries. The main difference in their mentoring is their intentional working with student athletes, said Thomas Wurtz, founder and director of Varsity Catholic.
“Athletes in bigger schools spend 20 to 40 hours a week between practices, games, physical therapy.… Their schedules can isolate them,” he explained. “We have to go find them because they deserve to hear the Gospel.”
All college students face stress caused by the demands of their academic course load, work, social life and spirituality. Student athletes also struggle with the demands of their high-level physical and academic performance, he noted.
“It becomes the air they breathe,” said Wurtz, adding that their identity as a person can be completely wrapped up in athletics.
Varsity Catholic missionaries are charged with building relationships with athletes to help relieve some of these emotional and psychological pressures, he said.
Some like Weber become volunteer athletic coaches and lead Bible studies, attend practices, go to the dining halls, and do small group mentoring, said Wurtz.
FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
His founding Varsity Catholic in 2007 was rooted in his own college experience. Like so many of the organization’s missionaries, Wurtz played collegiate level sports.
“In my season of college football (at the University of San Diego), I don’t remember anyone asking me to do anything but party. I was not living a Christian life in a significant way until my senior year,” he said.
After transferring and completing his undergraduate studies at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, he served as a FOCUS missionary at several colleges from 2001 to 2007 and founded Varsity Catholic at the University of Nebraska Lincoln in 2007.
Weber thinks part of the challenge in reaching student athletes results from how their university schedules set them apart.
“There is only so much available time,” she said. “They have a natural built-in community and schedule with the team. It is easy for them to settle for what the team life is and not know there is more out there.”
Each year Wurtz encourages his Varsity Catholic staff to “reach into the world of sports and bring the fullness of the Gospel in a Catholic way.”
Over the years, the organization has done just that. Since 2007 Wurtz said its missionaries have offered Christian fellowship through Bible studies and discipleship to tens of thousands of students and student athletes.
This academic year, FOCUS has more than 160 trained Varsity Catholic missionaries on nearly 90 campuses around the country.
Additionally, 40% of the participants in the group’s Bible studies are not Catholic, said Wurtz.
Weber, who leads two Bible studies and coaches nine other women to lead them, sees a similar percentage of non-Catholic participants.
“We are very open in saying this is a Catholic Bible study and covers Catholic doctrine, but we are all Christians and all under the same trinitarian God,” she said. “It’s a great place to discuss our differences. It goes off pretty well.”
The impact of this presence, “just being on the ground and walking with these athletes, is significant,” said Wurtz.
“Some of our alumni have played professionally and others have become coaches,” he said. “The world of sports is very influential … the impact coaches have on our culture is profound.
“Since most (of our alumni) become coaches, it is amazing to think of the reach they will have.”
SPORTS AND THE VATICAN
Leveraging this influence has led the Vatican to hold two international summits: “Sport at the Service of Humanity” in 2016, and “Sport for All: Accessible and Tailored to Each Person” Sept. 29-30, 2022.
Wurtz has been one of the nearly 200 delegates invited to both. The purpose of the summits was to promote the social and inclusive aspects of sport to minister and evangelize.
He said the most recent summit focused on inclusivity in a way that empowers any organization or individual connected to sports to leverage their influence, as well as to include the outcast.
The declaration, signed by Pope Francis at the summit’s conclusion, encourages sports to be more cohesive, accessible and tailored to each person.
“Sport can embrace a young person – it can be a catalyst for belonging and promote dignity,” Wurtz said. “We need to figure out how to make that a launching point for the Gospel and Jesus Christ.”
He referred to Pope Pius XII’s comments that sports have the capacity to form character and virtue in individuals if properly directed.
“I’m grateful the Vatican recognizes this impact, and here in the U.S., we can continue to have these conversations and to use sports to evangelize our young people,” he said.
According to Weber, one of the best things that comes from working with student athletes is helping them realize their identity as children of God.
She works with Taylor Ramaekers and Mary Fennessy, who attend UNO and are part of its cross country and track teams. Weber coaches them as they lead a team Bible study for 12 women.
Fennessy, a sophomore majoring in psychology with a business minor, said the Bible study has become “a place to rest, a space to be authentic and honest … so we grow together as an athletic community and in our individual faith.”
The Norfolk Catholic High School graduate, whose events are shot put, discus, hammer throw and weight throw, said Weber is a mentor and friend because she relates to the unique struggles of the student athlete.
“Sports have been a big part of my life. I’ve dedicated a ton of time and energy … and people started to recognize me (primarily) as … an athlete,” said Fennessy. “It messes with your identity.”
Weber said high achievers like Fennessy and Ramaekers benefit from untying personal worth from achievement and reconnecting it to being a child of God.
Ramaekers, who is a heptathlon and pentathlon athlete and UNO junior studying kinesiology, said identity is what most appealed to her. The 2020 V. J. and Angela Skutt Catholic High School alum said her message to others is “they are a daughter of God first and not defined by how they perform.”
The shift in thinking allows student athletes to perform more effectively because it relieves negative pressure, said Wurtz.
“When you know you are made for the Lord – that you are loved without having to do anything, it changes everything,” said Weber.