Eddie Gaven is in his 10th season of Major League Soccer. His career includes an MLS All-Star Game appearance in 2004 and an MLS Cup victory with the Columbus Crew in 2008. These are impressive accomplishments for anyone, but what makes them even more so is that Gaven is only 25.
In 2003, the Hamilton Township, N.J., native was the youngest player up to that point to sign an MLS contract. He was only 16 at the time. While Gaven’s soccer career was pursued with youthful zeal, his Catholic faith was left to decay.
The restoration of his faith started when his beloved game of soccer was briefly taken away from him. He was out with an injury, which left him with plenty of time to think about where he was headed.
While Gaven still plays soccer with great enthusiasm, he now realizes where his greatest treasure is: in the Catholic Church. He appreciates many things about the Church, but most especially Mass.
Gaven spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie about his soccer career and re-conversion in anticipation of the MLS All-Star Game, which takes place July 25 at PPL Park in Chester, Pa.
Most 16-year-olds would be happy to make the varsity team in high school. How did you get to sign with a major-league team at that age?
I was exposed to the Olympic Development Program, commonly known as the ODP, early on. Any kid can try out for the program, and I went for it. You start playing locally and then move on to state, national and even international play. I was fortunate to play on the national team for those under 14 years of age, or the U 14 Team, as they call it. That was an opportunity for some MLS coaches to see me, which led to a tryout, and then a contract.
Ultimately, I think it was God’s grace that enabled me to play at a high level at such a young age. I had a God-given ability to play, and that’s what made it all possible. You have to go back to God to see the source of any ability you have to do anything.
Then I took that ability and really worked with it. That was due to the guidance of my father, who played soccer four years at Rutgers University. He was my coach from the earliest days until I got onto the advanced teams. He taught me well and inspired me to really put everything I had into the game.
I would play every day — and while doing so would imagine myself playing in the World Cup against the players I’d see on TV. It was more than me just kicking a soccer ball in my own backyard; it was playing in a different place through my imagination.
When you finally did get to play against the best players in reality, what was that like?
It’s a dream come true to play Major League Soccer. Some people don’t like their jobs, and others don’t even have jobs, so I’m incredibly blessed to do what I do and get paid for it. Not many people can say that, so I just want to be grateful for that and keep playing as long as possible.
I was able to play in the MLS All-Star Game in 2004, and that was one of the highlights of my career. I was only 17-years-old at the time, and I was playing against those guys I had seen on TV. It was a lot of fun to play with such top-level competition.
The biggest highlight of my career so far was winning the MLS Cup in 2008. I had been traded by the New York Metro Stars to the Columbus Crew in 2006, and we actually ended up playing against my old team (after they’d changed their name to the Red Bulls) in the final. The whole season was really great for our team. From start to finish, we played very well.
While things were going well on the field, how were they off the field?
By 2008, things were going well off the field, but I couldn’t say the same thing a few years before that. I was very much into soccer, not just as a career, but as an idol. I didn’t take my faith as seriously as I should have, despite the fact that I grew up in a solid home. We went to Mass every Sunday and said prayers before meals, but in my later teen years, I just didn’t take the faith that seriously.
I was caught up in the ways of the world, but what really got me out of that was an injury. I had to have hernia surgery and couldn’t play soccer for about a month. This was the first time I could ever remember being without soccer, so while in the hospital and recovering at home, there was a lot of time to think. I started to see things more clearly and realized that while soccer is fun, it won’t last forever. What will last forever is heaven or hell.
I read from St. Alphonsus Liguori that: “He who prays is certainly saved. He who prays not is certainly damned.” Unfortunately for me, at the time I would have fallen into the second category of people. This was enough motivation for me jump-start my prayer life.
I picked up one of those blue Pieta prayer booklets, which contained the 15 prayers of St. Bridget of Sweden. There are 20 promises that go along with saying the prayers for a year, and so I prayed them every day for a whole year.
I found that as my prayer life grew, so did how seriously I took the faith. The more I prayed, the more I wanted to attend Mass, go to the sacrament of penance and live out the virtues in everyday life. This was in contrast to how I lived previously — not going to Mass or penance and just being overly concerned about soccer all day. The conversion was certainly tied to praying more and better than I had previously.
Here’s a natural comparison that shows how reasonable prayer is. If you’re interested in a girl and think there is potential for marriage, you want to talk with her. You want to spend time with her and communicate with her. What kind of relationship would it be if you had little or no desire to communicate? It would be a trivial relationship or no relationship at all.
The same is true with God. It’s not enough to mentally acknowledge his existence; if you really want to love him more, you have to communicate with him. While communication is necessary in the natural order, it’s even more essential in the supernatural order. There are certain graces God will only grant through prayer.
How did your spiritual life progress from your initial conversion to your married life today?
As a teenager, my mother wanted me to go to a Protestant youth group, where she hoped I would meet other young people who took their faith seriously. I didn’t really want to go, but went just to please her.
Well, at this youth group, I met a beautiful girl who was very dedicated to her Protestant religion. As time went by and I considered the possibility of marrying her, I realized that we really needed to be on the same page spiritually — and at times, it seemed we weren’t even in the same book.
We would discuss things a lot over the phone. I would tell her about the evidence I had found about why the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ and why we believe what we do, and she would come back with arguments for being Protestant. We were both very much entrenched in our own sides, so it was a tough, drawn-out discussion.
Tears were shed and prayers were said, and, by the grace of God, Paula saw the light about the beauty of our Catholic faith. Today, she and I both know not only what the Church teaches, but why the Church teaches it. This is a huge blessing, and I really don’t think we’d have the marriage we do today without the same beliefs. It just wouldn’t work out.
What is your favorite part of being a father?
Our first child, a boy, is 13-months-old, and I love to watch him grow. Every day when I come home various things change, so it’s fun to see what he’s interested in and what he can do that he wasn’t previously able to do. He hasn’t started using words yet, but he does make sounds and gestures.
The simplest things catch his attention, and he takes joy in them, so that’s something we as adults can learn from. His innocence and joy for life are refreshing. It’s easy to lose that simplicity as we get older — becoming more sophisticated and yet more unhappy — so we can definitely do well to imitate kids in their simplicity.
I try to be a good husband, father and worker by imitating St. Joseph, who is the perfect model we have for those three things. He did everything for Christ; his whole life was filled by grace, and he was completely united with the will of God. He’s a model for any man who wants to grow in virtue.
What is your favorite aspect of Catholicism?
Well, three aspects really stand out. The first one is the Rosary, which is an incredible prayer or series of prayers. It has had a deep impact on my life and has renewed the faith in my heart. It’s a very calming experience to pray the Rosary because you’ve come into Christ’s presence through the heart of Our Lady.
The second one — Eucharistic adoration — is closely related to the first. You go from one type of Christ’s presence that you can experience anywhere into another type that you can only experience in a sacramental way. That is, you’ve placed yourself before the tabernacle or monstrance in the church where Our Lord resides under the appearance of bread.
We usually go as a family to adoration once a week. This is in addition to attending Sunday Mass and then daily Mass as often as possible. Eucharistic adoration is an extension of the worship we give to Our Lord in the Mass.
That brings me to the third aspect of Catholicism that I appreciate so much: holy Mass. No tongue can express the power of the Mass because it’s the same sacrifice as Calvary. We should see it that way and act accordingly, but, oftentimes, there’s irreverence.
I grew up with the Novus Ordo Mass, unaware of the Latin Mass. However, when I started looking into the faith more seriously, I came across the Latin Mass, which was quite an experience to see for the first time. It was beyond anything I’d ever dreamed of. There’s so much reverence in the Latin Mass, which I attend regularly now.
I’m very thankful to Pope Benedict for making the “extraordinary form” more widely available through his motu proprio five years ago. I enjoy sharing the Latin Mass with others and often invite teammates to attend with me. It truly is, as many have said before, the most beautiful thing outside of heaven.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.