In 2006, at 13 years of age, James Hairston lost his mother to skin cancer, but he gained a more mature perspective on life. He realized how important human beings are, that tomorrow is not guaranteed to anyone and that our actions here should have heaven as their final aim.
This line of thought was further refined at Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, where Hairston was inspired, through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, to see life in its proper order and adjust his behavior accordingly. He knew that, no matter what path he chose, God should be given all the glory.
With this principle in mind, Hairston pursued a goal of playing college football. True to the traditional Jesuit framework, he made outwardly visible his inward devotion by making the Sign of the Cross before every kick.
After kicking for three years with the perennial powerhouse LSU Tigers, Hairston graduated early with a bachelor’s degree in finance. He then enrolled at Rice University to kick for the Owls this season and to pursue a master’s degree in statistics.
As the Owls (7-5) prepared for their game against the Fresno State Bulldogs (6-7) in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve, 21-year-old James Hairston took time out to speak with Register correspondent Trent Beattie.
You started your collegiate career at LSU. Did you have a smooth transition to Rice?
Yes, the transition has been very smooth for at least three reasons. One, there are awesome guys on the football team here. Two, school has been great from an academic and social perspective. Three, I’ve been able to live and interact with my mom’s side of the family here in Houston.
My mom’s sister, Shelley, and her husband, Mike, have been great hosts. They’ve opened up my mom’s side of the family to me in a way that I had not known previously. Growing up in the Dallas area, I didn’t have an immediate connection to my cousins in Houston, but I’m happy to say that my time here at Rice has changed that.
What do you expect in the Hawaii Bowl against the Fresno State Bulldogs?
Even though the Bulldogs have a losing record overall, some of their losses are to teams like USC, Nebraska and Boise State [combined 28-9 record]. Plus, they have a winning record in their conference, so they are a good team. It should be a good game against them on Christmas Eve, as long as we don’t get too relaxed in scenic Hawaii.
You played in a BCS National Championship in your freshman year at LSU. What do you expect from the top teams this year?
This year will be a little different, since there are semifinals before the final game, but we might be blessed to see some of the best collegiate football ever. Alabama has reclaimed the No. 1 spot and is the favorite going into their semifinal game against Ohio State, even though the Buckeyes have also been playing very well recently. I’ve met Nick Saban and know that he has a very well-coached team, with a lot of player leadership, so I expect big things from them. With that said, Oregon and Florida State, who play in the other semifinal, are also very impressive, so it will be entertaining to see them play.
Because their efforts often decide the outcome of a game, kickers have a lot of pressure on them. Do you have any rituals that offset the pressure?
I pray the Rosary before every game, which is super helpful in calming me down and helping me focus. I’ve been devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary since my own mother died. I was 13 at the time, and I remember thinking very clearly how, from then on, Mary would be my mother.
Earlier this year, a little kid walked up to the barrier next to the field during a game and asked, “No. 5, how do you kick the ball so far?” I responded, “The Blessed Virgin Mary.” He was puzzled, so an adult nearby said to him, “That’s Jesus’ mother.”
I also make the Sign of the Cross before every kick. That small but important gesture has been with the Church for centuries, and I use it now to thank God, to remind me of what’s important and to give a good example. Not everyone has the opportunity to play in front of thousands of people, so you have to be grateful for that, but also keep the game of football in perspective and make sure you carry yourself in a way worthy of a Christian.
Did your mother’s death make you think deeply about what really matters in life?
My mother’s death brought with it the realization that tomorrow is not guaranteed, so you should make the most of the opportunities you have each day. You can’t just sit back and hope good things will happen; you have to choose a goal and pursue it with determination. You won’t always get the results you want, but you have to keep doing the things you’re capable of and making the best of whatever might occur.
More than anything, though, my mother’s death helped me to see that the ultimate questions of life are not just a hobby or matters of private interest. They are what we should all be concerned about, because, before we know it, we will be facing Jesus as judge after our deaths. As our Savior, he wants us to get to heaven; as our judge, he knows, by a simple review of our lives, if we have wanted the same thing.
You visited the grotto at the University of Notre Dame shortly after your mother’s death and then revisited it earlier this year. What was that like?
When I was 13, my father and I went to a Notre Dame football game and then to the grotto. That was a special thing for me, considering my new appreciation for Mary and also the faith and football traditions surrounding Notre Dame.
This year, after we played Notre Dame, I barely had time to get to the grotto again. A man named John Shaughnessy helped me to get there and back to the team bus on time. That brought back a lot of memories, and it was a very special event because it involved so many aspects of life that are dear to me.
You also use a sacramental, on a daily basis, that was given to us by Mary.
Yes, I wear a Miraculous Medal around my neck, and it is sometimes a great conversation piece. Earlier this year, I met Victor Saenz, a Rice grad student, because of the medal; he saw me wearing it on the bus and then introduced himself. He studied philosophy at Notre Dame and is now pursuing a doctorate at Rice, so he has plenty of interesting ideas on the natural law and theology.
I also use a brown scapular, which was given to me in August by Father T.J. Martinez. He died of stomach cancer in November, but despite being only 44, he was able to accomplish so much during his life. He earned five graduate degrees, including one from Harvard, and established Cristo Rey Jesuit, a school in southeast Houston for low-income families. They started out with around 80 kids five years ago and now have around 500.
Father Martinez was an inspiration to me and many others. He reminded me to use this life as a preparation for the next life or, in other words, to be actively and persistently Catholic. He had a saying that “We do the difficult things first and the impossible ones soon after.”
One sure way to make the impossible possible is through Marian consecration. I recently read the popular book 33 Days to Morning Glory and made the consecration at the suggestion of Father Tony Lackland, the pastor at All Saints' Church in Dallas. He has been a huge help to me in my faith journey.
Do you find certain aspects of the Church to be challenging?
I like how the Catholic Church teaches us what Christ lived and died for. We are challenged by the Church to live thoroughly Christian lives, which is not an easy task. However, in the Church, we receive the grace to do this. We have all seven sacraments Christ gave us, and we have a rich tradition of prayer and self-sacrifice. To see this lived out, we need only to look at the extensive list of saints who have been completely dedicated to Christ, even to the shedding of their own blood.
The source of all grace is Christ, which can be summed up in one portrait I have in my room. It is of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, shown burning with love for mankind. Because true love is always followed by suffering, a cross and a crown of thorns are depicted in the portrait as well.
Christ’s self-sacrificing love is made clear in a most amazing way in the sacrament of confession. Where else can you be forgiven of your sins after baptism like you are in confession? There’s no doubt; because you hear the merciful words of Christ through the mouth of the priest: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Without absolution, life is a great burden. With absolution, life is a great joy.
Life being a joy reminds me of my best friend, Stephen Rivers, whom I played with at LSU. I’m sure it’s funny to see us playing football together, because it’s almost like we become little kids. It’s especially striking to see Stephen, who is 6 foot 7 inches, jump up and down after making an exciting play.
I got to meet Stephen’s older brother, Philip, and he helped me to remember that I should enjoy the game of football. Anyone who plays in college or the pros has to take what he does seriously and put a lot of effort into it. However, having no sense of humor and having no fun actually make you a worse player. Enjoying something helps you do it better, and so does laughing at yourself, because then you’re freed from unreasonable expectations, and you just play like a kid would.
Do you know what field you’ll go into after completing your master’s degree?
I’m not sure what I’ll do yet. It might be investment banking, oil and gas or commercial real estate. Whatever it is, I already have so many positive experiences to take with me because I’ve met so many great people in high school and then at LSU and Rice. I’ve been repeatedly blessed in so many ways that I can’t help but see the mystical body of Christ vibrantly. We are connected in ways so profound that we won’t be able to understand them until we get to heaven.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.