ST. LOUIS — Soccer fans will be in their glory over the coming month. The World Cup, which takes place every four years, opens in South Africa June 11 and continues until July 11.
Only in the last 20 to 30 years has soccer become a mainstream sport in the United States. And, while the sport is extremely popular among young boys and girls who play the sport, it still lags far behind baseball, football and basketball as far as national sentiment goes.
Heavy immigration from Latin American countries in recent decades is changing that.
Soccer is a passion even at a Midwestern seminary. Despite appearances to the contrary, there is no previous experience required at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis of having played collegiate soccer. But at least three men associated with the seminary do have a collegiate soccer background, and all earned an athletic scholarship.
Kevin Drew, entering his third year of theology this fall, played soccer at Northern Illinois University from 1984 to 1988. Nathan Doerr played at East Central Community College in St. Louis in the year 2000 and will be entering first year theology in the fall, along with Jaime Zarse, who played soccer at Marquette University from 2005 to 2006 and at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2007.
While it should be no surprise for seminarians to have sports backgrounds, it does seem unusual for three men at the same seminary to have played the same sport at a high level.
The sheer number of young men playing soccer in the St. Louis area may be part of the answer, but it’s not the whole story, especially considering that one of the seminarians (Kevin Drew) was not raised in St. Louis and is planning on returning to his home diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., after graduation.
“Soccer is certainly a popular sport in St. Louis, but I think it has more to do with the kind of guys we have in the seminary right now,” said Nathan Doerr. “A few years ago there wasn’t much interest in the soccer team here [at the seminary], but now there are quite a few guys who enjoy the sport and want to work hard and play well for our community. A few of the guys even designed fan shirts and scarves that were popular with the seminarians and faculty.”
Longtime Quincy University soccer coach Jack Mackenzie, who grew up in St. Louis, explained that “soccer has always been very big in the St. Louis Catholic community primarily because the Irish Christian Brothers imported the sport there. Soccer has always been a ‘Catholic’ sport in St. Louis. Every Catholic elementary school had its soccer team, and quite often a priest was the coach or manager from the beginning in the late 1880s up until about the 1970s, when the sport became more mainstream.”
It was in the late 1970s that Coach Mackenzie influenced future Kenrick-Glennon seminarian Kevin Drew, who started playing soccer at that time while growing up in Quincy, Ill. The Quincy University Hawks were in the process of winning five straight NAIA titles from 1977-1981, during which time Drew attended the school’s soccer camps.
Though Mackenzie’s influence was mainly soccer-related, it is interesting to note that former professional soccer player and current Mount St. Mary’s (Maryland) seminarian Chase Hilgenbrinck grew up in Quincy as well.
Road to Priesthood
However, it is families, not coaches, Mackenzie contended, that have more influence on opening a young man’s eyes to the priesthood.
“I think Kevin Drew had that kind of family,” he said.
Drew said that he had known for quite a while that God was calling him to the priesthood, but other things, including soccer, were more important to him for many years. “At eighth grade graduation they gave me an award for ‘Knowing the Facts of the Catholic Religion,’” he said. “This other kid, Jimmy Newman, received the award for actually ‘Living Out His Religion.’ I figured Jimmy could go be a priest in my stead, and I would go play soccer and then get married and have a family.”
However, Drew could only put off the call for so long before realizing his own happiness depended on an affirmative response. “There’s a voice that hounds you. The great Father of the Church, St. Augustine, told God: ‘Yes, Lord, but not yet.’ I suppose that was my answer. My brother Mike noticed that I was not happy, and as time passed on, I became less and less thrilled with worldly allurements and focused more and more on things above.
“Using his brilliant intellect (and prayers from his mother, St. Monica), Augustine finally worked it out: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’ Unlike Augustine, I’m not at the top of my class. In fact, I’m probably near the bottom. I’m the oldest guy in it as well. But I have a St. Monica, my own mother, in my corner who has constantly prayed for me. As the great modern preacher Father John Corapi put it regarding his vocation: ‘My mom kept praying for me. I didn’t stand a chance.’ Amen to that.”
Jaime Zarse’s soccer days started in St. Louis in the second grade, although he said he was not a very good player initially. “Most kids get involved in competitive premier league teams early on, along with what’s known as the Olympic Development Program. I was cut from both the first premier league and ODP teams I tried out for. Needless to say, it was a pretty rough start.
Soccer vs. Faith?
“By the time I was entering high school, I was turning the corner and establishing myself on the team, in the city and on the state level. Throughout high school I enjoyed success on the club, state and high school levels, winning multiple state championships.” However, while his soccer career was on the rise, the practice of his faith was suffering.
“Throughout high school I made the terrible mistake of associating what I did, that is, playing soccer, with who I was. Soccer became an idol. My faith was always a priority growing up, but soccer definitely competed for my time and attention. I can’t tell you how many times there were soccer tournaments throughout the years with games scheduled on Sundays and other holy days of obligation, feast days etc.”
Zarse wondered aloud, “Why was I allowing this game to come between me and my faith? At the time I was so heavily involved emotionally, physically, psychologically that I was incapable of seeing the bigger picture: The game wasn’t the problem; my perspective was. There was certainly a disconnect between soccer and my faith because of my inability to integrate them.”
Providentially, he was given an opportunity to properly integrate the two through a setback in college. After his first year at Marquette, there was a coaching change, which made his second year a real challenge. After the season, Zarse transferred to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which was also a challenge initially.
He explained, “When I left Marquette, I also left behind friends, teammates and a serious relationship. I was out of my element at first because there wasn’t a support system at this new school to help out with the transition. It was during this confusing time that I turned to my faith.”
Zarse was 20 years old, and it was finally dawning on him that his priorities, values and chosen path in life were ultimately incapable of fulfilling the deepest yearnings of his heart. He realized that the priesthood, not soccer, was what would truly fulfill him. “I’d been able to reason to a certain point, and it was time to make a decision. I entered the seminary, and I know today that I made the right decision,” he stated.
It was also through tribulations that Doerr began discerning a vocation to the priesthood, noting that his prayer life was deepened, especially by a daily Rosary and Eucharistic adoration. However, sports are not completely removed from his life today. He says that he definitely sees soccer as being a way to live out the faith, especially now being in the seminary.
“Being part of a team includes hard work, commitment and a spirit of self-sacrifice,” he said. “It also emphasizes the need for greater communication and cooperation among team members, all of which are an integral part of our human formation. The way in which we carry ourselves out on the field can bear witness that we are men of Christ and men of virtue. As St. Paul says, ‘Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.’”
Zarse, who enters Kenrick-Glennon this fall after completing his undergraduate studies at Conception Seminary College in Conception, Mo., said he “doesn’t believe in random chance,” and that “for reasons unknown, God has brought us ‘former soccer players’ to Kenrick. I look forward to getting to know Nathan and Kevin.”
He then wryly added, “It will be interesting to see who’s got game and who hasn’t.”
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle, Washington.