When Ben Domingue went away to college in 2009, he also fell away from the practice of his Catholic faith. Football became the central focus of his life, and he engaged in the worldly pursuits that frequently surround and influence bigtime college sports.
While Domingue’s LSU Tigers were playing well on the field, he was drifting farther away from God off the field. It wouldn’t be until his junior year that the Lafayette, La., native started journeying back to the Catholic Church. The week before LSU was to play Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship, Domingue, who was a center on the team, had a powerful encounter with Jesus Christ through suffering humanity.
Domingue, who is now a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus), spoke of his dramatic conversion with Register correspondent Trent Beattie, as the 14th-ranked LSU Tigers prepare to take on the 4th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide this Saturday in Baton Rouge.
Did you grow up in a devout family?
I grew up in a Catholic family that went to Mass every Sunday, prayed grace before meals and said the Rosary once a week. We did all the right things, but I didn’t know why we were doing them. To me, it was about rules; I didn’t have a living relationship with Jesus Christ.
I did have good relationships with my three older brothers and father, though, as shown in our competition in all kinds of sports. My father wouldn’t let us win just to be nice; he was always trying to make us better and would go all-out on the football field or basketball court or wherever else we were.
My father was (and is) a big New Orleans Saints fan, and my brothers thought very highly of LSU football. When they were college age, LSU Tigers’ football was a big deal to them, so it became a big deal to me. I was in seventh grade at the time, so from then on, football was my favored sport, and playing for LSU was the big goal.
You achieved that goal in 2009, when you made the LSU football team as a walk-on.
From when we started workouts in June of 2009, LSU football was everything to me. It was what I based my identity on and what gave me purpose in life. I stopped going to church and made football my religion. I was so thrilled to make the team that year, and I fell into a mindset common on a lot of college football teams: a worldly, gladiator-like, pagan type of life. This is how I lived for three and a half years in college.
How did you come to know Jesus in a personal way?
I remembered two people asking who Jesus was to me. They spoke of needing a Savior for our sins, but that didn’t register with me. It’s like what Venerable Fulton Sheen said: The one thing in the world you don’t gain knowledge of by doing is sinning. Put in another way, the more you sin, the more you’re blinded to the evil you’re engaged in. You’re so close to and invested in sin that you don’t see it for what it is.
The week before the BCS National Championship game in January of 2012, I was on Bourbon Street in New Orleans at night. I left a place I shouldn’t have been and saw a pimp, a prostitute, a drunkard and a homeless couple. The sight of them struck me as pathetic, and I thought, “These people are so broken and messed up; they can’t even help themselves. They need a Savior. Oh, I guess now that whole Jesus thing makes sense for them.”
Then I heard the Lord speak to me interiorly, “Ben, you’re just as broken as these people are; only your circumstances are different. I blessed you to be a blessing. Where are you?” Those words cut me to the heart. I knew if I was going to be honest with myself, I really wasn’t content. I was hollow inside and was chasing after things in order to fill a need to be loved.
Later that week, Stephen Rivers, who was then a quarterback for LSU, and James Hairston, who was then a kicker for LSU, asked me to go to Mass with them that Sunday. They knew I was Catholic, but I don’t think they were aware of how far down the road of iniquity I was.
I had stopped going to Mass regularly, but would still go on Christmas and Easter out of mere social convention. However, that Sunday, which was one day before the National Championship game, I went to Mass for a spiritual reason for the first time in a long time.
Something about the Mass was different: I think the newlyfound knowledge of my sins humbled me and opened me up for Jesus to come inside. I wasn’t completely given over to him at that point, but I was starting to get there.
How did you get there?
Over the next several months of 2012, I had bits and pieces of true doctrine given to me here and there, but the most pivotal thing was at the Easter vigil in 2012. My sister-in-law (my second-oldest brother’s wife) became Catholic, and they were passing out this book called Rediscover Catholicism by Matthew Kelly. I loved how the Eucharist was explained. I thought, “If the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus, then Catholics aren’t crazy.”
All those outward gestures and actions Catholics do finally made sense to me. We kneel in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. We bow to altars on which the sacrifice of the Mass takes place. We shut up and pray after we have received Jesus in the Eucharist. We actually make visits to Jesus in the Eucharist even when Mass is not occurring.
That discovery led me to read more and pray more. I deepened my knowledge of the Catholic faith through books like Treasure in Clay by Fulton Sheen and The Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin. I saw how the truth of doctrine wasn’t boring; it was the most fascinating thing there is, when you apply it to the lives of people. Truth is what we are all looking for; it’s what makes us really happy, and we can’t attain the fullness of truth unless we pray.
How did you become a Focus missionary?
Before Focus, I went back to playing football. I was about to enter my senior year, but this time around, I was going to do things differently. I had an encounter with Jesus, and I knew he had to be shared with others. I wasn’t going to continue my errant ways; I was going to make it known I was a full-blooded Catholic.
My rejection of worldliness and acceptance of Catholicism didn’t sit well with some of my teammates, who had known me as "one of the guys." That didn’t matter to me, though, since I had become contented on a deeper level. I previously thought happiness was found in outward things, but I learned that it comes from being in touch with the beginning and end of all things — in other words, with God.
I also got in better touch with some fellow Christians. In my senior year, I roomed with Stephen Rivers, which was a great blessing. He had been raised in a Catholic home like I had, but he had actually understood from an early age why Catholics do the things we do. It wasn’t just a bunch of rules for him; he knew that Jesus was the center of our lives.
We prayed the Litany of St. Sebastian (a patron of athletes) every night and prayed the Rosary every morning, offering each decade for different groups of players on the team — the offensive line, defensive line, kickers, etc. It was awesome to grow closer to Jesus in my senior year through my friendship with Stephen. Even though I didn’t get to play that year as much as I had hoped to, things were very good with me.
Then you were prepared for working with Focus.
In the first half of my senior year, I met with Jacob Ardoin, a Focus missionary at LSU. We were talking about how, since Jesus is real, we need to tell people about him. Then Jacob said I should become a missionary with Focus, like he was. I thought about it and really liked the idea, but I quickly ousted it from my mind, since I had job offers to consider.
Eventually, I did interview for the position and was accepted. Before my talk with Jacob, I had been looking to line up a job in the secular world, so I wondered what kind of offer I would get from Focus. I asked how much I would be paid, and the answer came as a surprise. I was told that I would not be paid anything, and, furthermore, I would be assigned by someone else to go to any one of a number of college campuses across the country; and further still, I would have to go on a dating fast (no girlfriend) for a year. I thought, "That is the stupidest job offer I have ever heard of. Who would ever want to do something like that?"
I wanted to reject the whole thing outright, but I thought more of how much Jesus meant to me. I went on a retreat, and the guy next to me (a self-proclaimed atheist) said he was giving God one last chance. If something didn’t happen on this retreat, he would be done with God. When they had a Eucharistic procession and brought Jesus by, the guy next to me was crying. He knew he was in the presence of God, and God was speaking to his heart.
Then I heard Jesus call me: “Come follow me, and I’ll make you a fisher of men” by bringing people closer to their Savior. I realized that even if I had to raise my own salary, go to an unknown place and forego dating for a year, it was more than worth it. The intention of those three aspects of Focus is to get the missionaries closer to Jesus. They’re like modified versions of poverty, obedience and chastity from the religious life.
What kind of work do you do now?
Now I work at the University of Texas at Austin, with an emphasis on assisting athletes. Focus has a program called Varsity Catholic, which seeks to help athletes in their specific struggles. I think athletes have a tougher time in college than non-athletes, because there are so many demands on their time, and people have high expectations for them. Playing well, signing things, getting people tickets to games, etc. Athletes are looked up to, which in a sense is unreasonable, because they’re just as human as anyone else.
As I enter my second year with Focus, I am enjoying what I get to do. There’s nothing better than bringing the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ to hurting humanity. I have experienced that love and forgiveness myself, so it’s wonderful to help others experience it, too. I know what college students go through, and I also know what college athletes go through, so it’s easy to take that knowledge and put it to good use. All things work together for the good for those who love God, right?
I wouldn’t be able to do the work I do without the spiritual support of the Church. I go to Mass, do a Holy Hour of Eucharistic adoration and pray the Rosary every day. I also go to confession at least twice a month, and I rely on the intercession of my patrons: St. Sebastian, St. Joseph, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Venerable Fulton Sheen and St. Michael the Archangel. You can’t beat a team like that.
There’s no better team to be on than God’s. If you’re on that team, you’re guaranteed a championship, and it’s one that can never be taken from us — not even by Alabama [smiles].
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.