Even though Taylor Kemp had been successful at every level of soccer before entering the professional ranks in 2012, a nagging anxiety plagued him. He was one of the most recruited players out of high school, and later a team captain for the nationally renowned University of Maryland Terrapins, yet he couldn’t stop worrying about whether he was good enough to maintain a pro career.

What finally cut through Kemp’s doubt was a realization that soccer is just a game and that other things were more important — the most important of all being a relationship with God. The 26-year-old Highlands Ranch, Colorado, native found this out largely through the influence of his fiancée, Brittany, whom he will marry this month. 

Once prayer became more frequent and a sacramental life appeared, accepting the possibility of failure in soccer was easy to do. This acceptance freed Kemp up to have his best season in 2016, playing in more games than any other D.C. United teammate (36) and scoring two goals as a defender.

Kemp spoke of this past Major League Soccer season — which concluded last Saturday with the Seattle Sounders’ thrilling 5-4 shoot-out victory over Toronto FC for the MLS Cup — and the deep impact his conversion has had on and off the field.

 

Were you surprised at the Sounders winning the MLS Cup?

I actually thought they would win. They were down and out in July, but caught momentum and just took off. They have a bunch of good players and a ton of belief, so it didn’t surprise me to see them win the whole thing.

Seattle’s season has kind of been like ours, in that we had a rocky first half, but started changing things in July, which made the second half much better. We got to the playoffs, but lost in the first round, so Seattle carried their turnaround further than we did.

 

Why was this season your best one personally?

The top reason why this season was, without question, my best one, is because I became a fully practicing Catholic. Before that, soccer was kind of my replacement religion. As a kid, you look up to pro players and want to be one of them. Then in college, you have the same outlook, as you get closer to your goal. When you finally get to professional soccer, there can be such an awe of it that you don’t want to lose it. It’s really giving too much credence to a game.

Instead of enjoying pro soccer, I kept thinking all week long about how I might not be good enough. Before, during and after practices and before, during and after games, my big concern was not how to play well, but how to avoid messing up. My fear of failure made me miserable doing something I thought would make me happy.

 

At that point you weren’t completely in the Church?

I was baptized Catholic, but not raised Catholic. I would call myself [before now] a nondenominational Christian, but what that amounted to was being a nominal Christian. I would pray maybe once a month and didn’t make an effort to look into the life of Christ or what he expected out of us.

The turning point was the prayers and actions of my fiancée Brittany, a lifelong Catholic. She would encourage me to join the Church, but I kind of brushed her off for a while. Then, about two and a half years ago, I started going to Mass with her on a fairly regular basis. I felt comfortable with that, but didn’t think of becoming a fully practicing member of the Church.

Brittany would ask me every so often if I wanted to sign up for RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] at our parish, but I would decline. Well, last year, she asked, and I declined, but she said that she had signed me up already and that if I didn’t want to go, I’d have to take my name off the list. That was enough of a push for me to attend the first class, although reluctantly.

Deep down, I really did want to be part of the Church, which I think Brittany sensed. Signing people up for RCIA before they say, “Yes” has an element of humor to it, and it did work for me, but it’s probably not going to be effective unless, like Brittany, someone knows the person well and is willing to help out all along the way.

 

What were some of the most surprising things you learned about Catholicism?

One of the most distinguishing things about the Catholic Church is its sacramental nature, and I found, when encountering any of the sacraments, that they gave a sense of peace and calm that nothing else in life could. God’s presence became apparent, and an empty spot in my soul was filled.

That didn’t mean I was without questions, though. It’s not enough for me to be told the what without the why. I crave an understanding of things, so I wanted to know why a given belief or practice was part of the Church’s system. This prompted me to pray more. I asked for a better understanding of the topic covered in RCIA classes, and, inevitably, the better understanding would come.

One of the timeliest topics we covered and learned more about in pre-Cana classes was the sacrament of marriage. I had a respect for marriage beforehand, but hadn’t realized that it was one of the seven sacraments. I also learned how celibacy before marriage helps future spouses to love each other in a selfless and God-centered way.

Continuing that theme into marriage is only possible if the couple is open to life. You hear about being pro-life in general but not usually about the purpose of marriage being the procreation and education of children [as the Church teaches], rather than making sure to have only as many children as you think might be convenient for you. The default setting is children, if God wants to bless the marriage with them, but if there is a serious reason to postpone a pregnancy, that can be done with natural family planning.

 

Do you have a favorite devotion?

One of the things that has helped to calm me down and find a sense of peace is praying the Rosary. I do that on game days, which used to be the most stressful days for me. Now, they’re significantly less stressful and more peaceful because there’s a routine in place that reminds me of spiritual things that I should take more seriously than soccer.

Some people, like Drew Beckie, my friend from club soccer in junior high, knew that already, but it has been a revelation for me. Athletic ability, Drew knows, is a freely given gift from God, not something we give to ourselves. Seen that way, we shouldn’t fear if God might want to take that gift away or have us spend time using our other gifts. That’s up to him, and there are more important things going on than soccer.

I came to realize that my life is not my own and that what I do should be for God and not myself. This took soccer off the pedestal I had long had it on. When the news came out recently about the Brazilian soccer team’s plane crashing, I felt an incredible sense of sadness, and my first thought was: “I pray all of the people on that plane have a relationship with God,” because that means this life here is not the end and that we have a home to go to after we die.

 

Do you have a patron saint?

I chose St. Francis of Assisi as my patron before going to confession and then being confirmed at the Easter vigil earlier this year. I can relate to him — before his conversion, [he was focused on] taking worldly things too seriously — so it seemed like a good choice.

Now I know that the Catholic Church, which Christ established, is where peace of mind can be found. I tell people this, but sometimes they’re shocked at that news. They have, like I did, a lot of misconceptions about Catholicism. Those can be eliminated with prayer and research. That can mean asking friends, reading books, listening to CD talks or podcasts or Catholic radio — there are many ways to get to the truth.

I am still developing my prayer life, and will be for a long time, but I’ve found that Eucharistic adoration is one of the most beautiful and helpful ways to pray. Being in the church, in the presence of Christ, for 30 minutes or for one hour, is extremely powerful. Sometimes it can be hard to be disciplined in your prayer life, but I found that going to adoration is one of the best ways to disarm myself and really get closer to Christ through prayer.

I know that I am incredibly loved and blessed by God, and that he has freed me from the stresses and anxieties that used to be part of my life. Things are in the right order, and that has rubbed off on other people. After finding out that I had become a full member of the Church earlier this year, one of my buddies signed up for RCIA and then became Catholic last month. It’s up to everyone to make their own decisions, but I like to share what has happened with me, in that hope that the great things I’ve found in Catholicism will be put to good use by others.

 

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.

His book, Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015), contains numerous Catholic sports

 interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register.