National Collegiate Group Fans Flames of Faith in Athletes
Thomas Wurtz explains Varsity Catholic’s genesis and mission via FOCUS.
With college football season around the corner, players and onlookers alike are thinking of passing routes, touchdowns and field goals. However, Catholic sportsman Thomas Wurtz is primarily thinking about God.
Wurtz is the founder of Varsity Catholic, the athletic arm of Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). Since 2007 he has been heading a team of former athletes who return to college campuses to guide current athletes in their faith.
Wurtz was a quarterback at the University of San Diego in 2001, but due to excessive partying, he left the team for Benedictine College. He later earned a master’s degree in catechetics and evangelization from the Augustine Institute in the Denver, Colorado area. He will soon release a book titled Pursuing Freedom: Becoming the Man You Could Be.
Wurtz, a Phoenix native, now lives in the Denver area with his wife and four children. He recently spoke in this interview about his faith, family, friends (in heaven and on earth) and football.
Have you always been able to integrate the faith with sports?
I went to Catholic schools from kindergarten through the graduate level, so I’ve always had the presence of the faith. However, I didn’t know how to integrate it into my life in an effective way, and that includes the area of sports.
We would have Masses and prayers before or after games, but for me it was as if Catholic items were tacked onto sports rather than sports being one of the many things that a fully Christian life included. That latter paradigm didn’t come until later in my undergrad years.
How did that come about?
When I went off to the University of San Diego in 2001, I was more interested in partying than in studying. In fact, even though I was on the football team, partying was more of an attraction to me than football. I had a lackluster time with football, so transferred to Benedictine College.
Even at a small, Catholic school in Kansas I was heavily involved with partying. Drinking was part of the rugby culture that I embraced since my switch from football. That was how things went for a time, until one Saturday afternoon in my junior year, when I woke up and realized that there had to be more to life. It started out as fun, but by then it was depressing. I was not experiencing the happiness promised by the world to those who seek it in sensual gratification.
How did you get from seeing the negatives of partying to the positives of Christianity?
My older brother went to Benedictine and became involved with FOCUS. He was so drawn by it that, after graduating, he became a campus missionary. I noticed that he and his friends had a joy that I wanted but was not getting from the world.
I learned that if you want to be happy, you have to follow God’s will rather than your own. That means attending Mass every Sunday, going to confession (which I badly needed to do), praying every day, reading good books — some of my favorites are by Peter Kreeft — and living out the other aspects of Church teaching.
On top of embracing the general structure of how God wants us to live, I learned the crowning jewel to happiness was accepting what happens to us after we have put in our best efforts. It’s like the ideal in sports: You prepare as well as you can and compete as well as you can, and then you accept whatever the score of the game is.
St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote a little book about that called Uniformity With God’s Will. It contains the blueprint for those who are living out the commandments but who may not be pleased with what is thrown their way on a given day. It shows how all that happens to us happens to us for our own eternal good.
St. Alphonsus also said that he who prays is certainly saved, but he who does not pray is certainly damned. Did you find prayer to be vital to your conversion?
I did. In my junior year at Benedictine I started praying the Rosary, which allowed me to be led to Jesus by Mary. I saw that all I had learned about the faith was actually true and applicable, not only in a classroom setting, but in every aspect of life. We can study all we want, but if we aren’t praying every day, we won’t have the grace to use what we’ve learned; we won’t see the value of the faith, and we won’t be able to put it into practice.
The theological virtue of charity is the summit of all the virtues, since it includes love of God and love of neighbor for the sake of God. This supernatural love is not something we can conjure up on our own; it is a gift of God that we have the opportunity to enhance, diminish or even reject on a daily basis, and this is done most especially through prayer or lack thereof. If we pray, we are keeping our connection to God open; if we don’t pray, we are cutting that connection off.
How did you get Varsity Catholic to become a part of FOCUS?
I joined FOCUS in 2001 and would talk to its founder Curtis Martin every so often about how it would be great to bring FOCUS into the athletic world. He would tell me that I should do that, but it took me a few years to actually make Varsity Catholic a reality.
Our first campus was the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Now we’re on 99 campuses sharing the Good News with young people who are often torn about their fundamental identity. Athletes are in the spotlight and have a lot of pressure on them to perform. It can be really easy for them to see themselves most fundamentally as athletes, but we share a vision with them of being children of God first.
Instead of seeing oneself as an athlete who happens to say a prayer or go to a Mass before a game, someone involved with Varsity Catholic is called to see himself as a deeply committed Christian who happens to be playing a sport right now. What he does tomorrow might be completely outside the sporting world, but what remains is his connection with Christ.
This is something I’ve been honored to teach in one way or another to former athletes such as Ben Domingue and Patrick Towles. Pat just finished his year as a missionary at Louisiana State University, and Ben played football for the Tigers when he was there. Now that Ben’s here in Colorado, we are continuing to work for the glory of God and salvation of souls.
Keegan Ruddy, who will be joining you in Denver soon, commented on how young athletes are often unaware of top athletes being Catholic, even on their favorite teams. Have you found that to be the case?
A lot of young athletes we encounter have similar stories to mine. They have learned certain things about the faith and are somewhat involved in it, but not to the point of being able to name Catholic pro football or baseball players. We’re an introduction to greater meaning for young athletes, and that includes an awareness of some of the top athletes who are also Catholic.
We’ve had Matt Birk, Mike Sweeney and Trevor Williams speak at our events, and we hope to get others such as Taylor Kemp and Curt Tomasevicz at future ones. I’ve already met Taylor, since he’s back in the Denver area and is involved with the Augustine Institute and also with a group called Frassati Sports and Adventure.
However, I still need to meet Curt. Aside from getting a Ph.D. and winning Olympic gold, he played football at Nebraska around the time I played at San Diego, and now we’re both listed at CatholicSpeakers.com, so it would be awesome to connect with him.
Do Varsity Catholic events always have “on fire” speakers who talk about sports and aggressive evangelism or are there speakers such as Nicholas Lemme and William Heyer, who have a lot of experience with young people regarding topics such as sacred music and sacred architecture?
For the main hall at the big “SEEK” retreat put on by FOCUS every two years, we do get “on fire” speakers, but for smaller talks at SEEK or smaller events in general, we do get “tamer” speakers on all kinds of topics that young people are interested in or should be interested in.
Maybe Dr. Vince Fortanasce can talk about the dangers of marijuana use and Colleen Hammond, author of Dressing With Dignity, could talk about modesty.
Those are both great topics for young people, since the culture at large is lowering its standards in those areas. Our countercultural way of seeing those things is rooted in who we are as Christians. We do not see this life as a time to get high or show our bodies off, but to maintain a loving relationship with God. That cannot be maintained if we are seeking highs through drugs or the looks we get from dressing immodestly.
I encourage speakers to direct their comments at the men in the audience, because the women will also listen to them; but if you speak just to the women, the men will not listen. Women are more open to any topic, but the receptivity of a man is confined to a limited number or things. If he doesn’t think he’s being spoken to as a man, he will likely tune out what he is hearing.
This concept is similar in reading. Years ago I read Story of a Soul but didn’t get it. It was very feminine in its outlook, so I found it rough to comprehend. It took me a second try, which I’m glad I made, to start understanding what St. Thérèse was getting at.
Then I became interested in St. Thérèse’s father, Louis Martin, who was canonized with his wife not long ago. He had an unusually varied background and an unusually strong and humble sense of heavenly things for a married layman. As a father of four so far, I found him to be so inspiring that I want to name our next boy Louis. I was recently strengthened in this desire when told that [another saintly Louis] Venerable Louis of Granada [1504-1588] is the outstanding author of The Sinner’s Guide and Summa of the Christian Life.
Do you have plans for any other books to follow up on Compete Inside, which you released in 2015?
Later this year I’m going to release a book called Pursuing Freedom: Becoming the Man You Could Be. It’s designed to help inspire men to do more than sit in the pews on Sunday, while utilizing stories of the saints to deepen that inspiration. I also recently worked out the basic framework of a book that urges coaches to place Christ at the forefront of their work. Matt Birk is looking it over and will make his own contributions as co-author. Once it’s all completed, we plan on publishing it under the title Four Pillars of a Coach on Mission.
It’s really important to remember that the practice of [natural] virtue for its own sake is not the ideal of a Christian. The ideal is the practice of [such] virtue for the sake of Jesus Christ. He says if we love him, we will keep his commands, and he will give us the power to do this if we ask him.
It’s wonderful to stop leading a life of vice and to practice virtue. However, it’s even more wonderful to take natural goodness and supernaturalize it. That way, we’ll have something to take with us when we depart this life for eternity.
There are 20 million youth participating in organized sports in this country, so we need to leverage that better by integrating faith with football, baseball, soccer and every other sport. Pope Pius XII said that sport, properly directed, can develop character, strengthen the will, make a man courageous, dignified in both victory and defeat, sharper intellectually, and can render him fit for the service and praise of his Creator. That’s a fantastic list of possible benefits beyond simple physical health; we just have to tap into them by bringing faith into sports.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book, Fit for Heaven (available from Dynamic Catholic),
contains numerous Catholic sports interviews, most of which
have appeared in the Register.
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