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Special-teams coach Eric Sutulovich speaks of his journey of faith.
BY TRENT BEATTIE
When he went away to college nearly 20 years ago, Eric Sutulovich thought he had found a good crowd to hang out with. The name of the group made it sound like he would fit right in, since it included three important aspects of his life: Christianity, athletics and camaraderie. However, there was one large problem with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes: Those in the group weren’t shy about telling him that, as a Catholic, he was going to hell.
Sutulovich knew they were wrong, but couldn’t explain why in detail. It wasn’t until a few years later that he would be able to do that, in large part because of Catholic Answers Live, the popular radio program. This was the springboard for his delving into the world of Catholic apologetics, an adventure that would eventually result in his family being united in faith.
Sutulovich, the special-teams coach for the Atlanta Falcons, told his story to Register correspondent Trent Beattie. At press time, the Falcons (10-1) were tied for the best record in the NFL.
What do you think of the season so far?
Everyone sees the record and is impressed, but every game is a battle, and we’ve been fortunate to have things go our way in a tough league. We’ve learned things with each game and have built more confidence. It’s been a good experience — better than being on the other side, with no wins and many losses, which I have been — but the bottom line is: They don’t hand out trophies for [having the best record]; they hand them out for winning the Super Bowl. There’s plenty of season left to be played, so that’s what we’ll do, one day at a time.
How did you get into coaching?
Sports were something I enjoyed while growing up. I learned to play various sports from my father and then went on to play football and basketball at Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kan. The coaches of both of those teams really had an effect on me. They really pushed me to do the best I could, and it did pay off.
I was able to get a football scholarship at Louisiana Tech University, and it was there that I first got into coaching. I was working in the weight room while finishing my undergraduate degree, and one of the coaches asked if I wanted to stay on as a graduate assistant. I enjoyed working with the guys a lot, so I accepted the offer. While earning my MBA [Master of Business Administration] at Louisiana Tech, I helped out with the football team’s offense.
What happened after grad school?
With my MBA, I went out to make my mark in the business world, but the business world ended up making its mark on me. I went into financial advising — which really wasn’t my specialty — because of the possibility of making good money.
That was a bad move on my part. I learned that you shouldn’t work in a particular field just for the possible financial rewards; you should look into something you enjoy doing. That way, you’re rewarded every day just by the fact that you are where you should be.
How did you return to coaching?
I realized how much I missed football, so I started volunteering as a high-school coach. After that, I coached at a community college, the University of Kansas and two other NFL teams before coming to Atlanta as a special-teams assistant in 2009.
Special teams is something I played, and it’s my specialty, so to speak. I really enjoy the specific times of the game where kicking is involved, in part because they can determine the outcome.
Do you find when you speak to children that being in the NFL helps?
Definitely. It’s not that I’m actually anybody important, but when you put on that shirt with an NFL shield, kids pay attention. That means something to them, and they really want to listen to what you have to say. It’s something that you can use to their benefit.
I value opportunities to talk with kids, especially through Catholic Athletes for Christ.
It’s a great group that promotes the teachings of the Church through sports. Ray McKenna, who leads the group, is always busy doing something to promote the faith — whether it’s talks, camps (such as Mike Sweeney’s) or retreats.
What do you talk to kids about?
It depends on the setting, but for the older ones, I usually tell my own story. The short version of it is this: I was raised Catholic and had good role models for how to live the faith. The two coaches mentioned from high school were regular Mass attendees, so they are examples of that, as was my grandfather — my mother’s father. We would go fishing together, and he had a lot of influence on me that way. I was impressed with the personal witness of all these men who made the effort to live out their religion.
I was also influenced by my parents. My dad led by example. He worked all day as a truck driver and then did air conditioning/heating and plumbing jobs in the evening as well, so that his kids would have the opportunity to attend Catholic schools. I remember seeing him come home late at night and having leftovers at 8 or 9, but he would always give Mom a kiss first. He was tired and hungry, but not to the point of forgetting who made the dinner in the first place.
My mom was the real backbone of the faith at home, getting us all up to go to church every Sunday and making sure we were active in the faith during the week. She encouraged me to be an altar boy and to be involved in other ways. She was always going the extra mile at home while my dad was going the extra mile at work. I’m very thankful for the upbringing they provided me with.
After leaving for college, I came across a group called Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It sounded like a good bunch of people to be with, so I went to one of their meetings. Once they found out I was not a Protestant, but a Catholic, they really went after me. I cannot tell you how many times I was told that I was going to hell. Their assumption was: If you’re Catholic, you’re not saved.
I was initially startled, but knew there were answers to their questions, even though I didn’t have all of them at the time. Somehow I understood the Catholic Church was the right place to be, but I couldn’t explain in detail just why.
I did my best to answer all the questions I was peppered with, but the real "apologetic awakening" didn’t come until a few years later. I was driving home one day from work with the Houston Texans, and the most amazing thing happened. I turned on the radio, and this show called Catholic Answers Live was on.
I had prayed for the answers to my questions, and now I was getting them on a very aptly named program. It was just what I had been searching for.
From the radio show, I discovered they also had a website. It included everything I needed to know about why the Church teaches what it does on things like the sacraments, papal infallibility and purgatory. I had always known the answers were out there, but with Catholic Answers I got them all in one place and in sufficient detail. They have a treasury of information that I recommend to anyone, Catholic or not, who wants to get sound explanations of Church teachings.
From Catholic Answers I came across John Martignoni and other hosts on EWTN Radio. I was becoming more and more aware of Catholic radio in general, which is extraordinarily helpful in learning the truth about the Church.
What you learned from Catholic radio enabled your wife to come into full communion with the Church, right?
Catholic radio has played a large role in my life and also in that of my wife, Melissa. She wasn’t Catholic when we met, so that made things tough initially. Not that she was hostile, like some of the other people I had met, but she did have questions. I prayed about them and explained things as well as I could at the time.
After I started to listen to Catholic radio, my wife eventually did so as well. Over the years she has also grown in her appreciation of the Church. She was open enough to go regularly to Mass with me and the kids on Sundays, but didn’t receive holy Communion. Then, last year, she indicated that she was ready to become Catholic.
We were both very joyful about that and went to church to see what the RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] schedule was like. The meetings were scheduled on a weeknight, which wasn’t welcome news. Weeknights are very important to us as a family, in part because during the season they are a large chunk of the time we spend together. My wife didn’t want to give that up, but the parish didn’t want to give up its schedule either.
In fact, someone there said that maybe it wasn’t the right time for her to come into the Church. That was heartbreaking. I had hoped and prayed for so long that we would become completely united in faith, and just when it was about to happen, we were almost discouraged from doing it. We were on the one-yard line and then the ref unexpectedly called a penalty, which shoved us back 10 yards.
While I was disappointed, I didn’t give up. That may be due to the Irish or Croatian in me. I had been hoping for this for so long, and I wasn’t about to let go that easily. One of the qualities I prize most is perseverance. I even have a sign in my office about it. It’s easy to give up, but that’s not how things get accomplished.
We eventually found another parish that allowed me to be my wife’s sponsor. That way, we would be able to attend meetings, though not regularly scheduled, that would prepare her for being in full communion with the Church. This past summer my wife became Catholic, and now we are a family truly united in faith. My wife and kids are my "special team," you could say.
What do you enjoy most about family life?
Passing along the faith to my kids and seeing them grow. You’re blessed to first pass along physical life to them and even more blessed to pass along spiritual life to them in baptism. It doesn’t end there, though. You have to keep them grounded in the basics of Christianity, which are provided by the Church.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.