All-Time NFL Scoring Leader Speaks of Need for Fatima

Kicker John Carney of Notre Dame highlights courage and hope in new movie about Marian apparitions in Portugal.

The message of Fatima is important to the Carneys.
The message of Fatima is important to the Carneys. (photo: Courtesy of Carney Coaching / CC)

John Carney capped off a great kicking career at Notre Dame in 1986 with a game-winning field goal against the University of Southern California (USC). His future looked bright, but things turned dim when he was not taken in the 1987 NFL Draft.

Carney could have given up, but decided to rededicate himself to kicking. All the physical and mental work paid off, as he went on to become a two-time Pro-Bowler, Super Bowl champion, and, when his career ended in 2010, the NFL’s No. 3 all-time scoring leader.

There are parallels, Carney believes, between his playing career and how the visions of Fatima can be heeded. The parallels have come to the forefront as the movie, Fatima, was released on Aug. 28. John and his wife, Holly, are executive producers at Origin Entertainment, a company that partnered in the production of the movie. Fatima was made in the hope, not simply of catching an audience’s attention, but of transforming their souls.

The record-setting Carney sees the answer to all mankind’s ills encapsulated in the simple and stark revelations of Fatima. He explained his belief, in this interview, that the more the revelations are heeded, the more peace, hope and love will prevail.

Of all the sports to play, how did you get into football?

Soccer was my sport in grade school, but football was very big at Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, Florida. It was a rite of passage for boys to play for Coach Sam Budnyk, who won many games over four decades of coaching.

I tried being a wide receiver, but when that didn’t work out, I turned to kicking. That went well, but my teammate, Alonzo Jefferson, was even better at his position as a running back. He was an All-American and was recruited to Notre Dame. I was able to latch onto him and be a “preferred walk-on” or “lottery pick,” or whatever term might be used. Alonzo basically got me in the door, and things kept getting better from there.

You played for Gerry Faust and Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. Do you remember any differences between the two coaching styles?

My first three years were under Coach Faust, who had a big heart and a winning record, but wasn’t quite able to meet the Notre Dame standard. We had some key injuries in the first three years I was there; our win-loss records were 7-5, 7-5 and 5-6.

My senior year — 1986 — was the first for Notre Dame under Coach Holtz, who was very demanding. He had high standards he expected the players to live up to, but he also gave them the tools to meet his standards. He prepared us thoroughly every week, not taking any game as unimportant. He got all the players on the same page to play as one team with one goal, and he managed games very well.

In my senior year, we actually posted the same win-loss record as my junior year. However, five of our six losses were very close, so things were turning around. The only solid defeat — by 18 points — was at the hands of No. 2 Alabama, and the last game of the year — and my [college] career — was a victory over USC.

Steve Beuerlein experienced the same thing, since he was also a senior and my holder. Together, we kicked the game-winning field goal against USC to close out our college careers, and we’re still good friends to this day.

Despite a great kicking career at Notre Dame, you were not drafted into the NFL. Pittsburgh Steelers’ Alejandro Villanueva was also undrafted (in 2010) but went on to two Pro Bowls. Would it be fair to say that the scouts were not paying much attention in 2010 or in 1987?

Although my college career showed promise, I soon discovered that I still needed to improve physically, mentally and spiritually. It was difficult at the time, but looking back I see what a blessing it was to go undrafted and spend three years at tryouts and then on and off rosters. I went through so many experiences that made me a more balanced, steadier player.

Maybe the biggest thing was the need to become very, very consistent in order to play in the NFL. In my first season out of college, Massimo Manca — who was from Penn State — and I competed with veteran Jim Breech for the Cincinnati Bengals’ starting position. Massimo and I could kick the ball higher and farther than Jim, but here was the important thing: I don’t remember Jim ever missing a kick — not one — the whole time I was with him in training camp. He was the epitome of accuracy on a daily basis, and that was everything, then and now.

Have other things changed in the kicking world?

In the 1970s and ’80s, a lot of NFL kickers were shorter, foreign-born soccer players who were recruited by NFL scouts, sometimes overseas, to play American football. They had precise footwork and were very talented, but were not known for making extremely long field goals. This was the case with one of my early mentors, Garo Yepremian. He was a famous Miami Dolphins kicker in the ’70s, and he ran a kicking camp that I attended in the early ’80s.

In the ’90s, kickers were evolving into taller and stronger players, which had much to do with moving the kickoff spot back 5 more yards in 1994. At first, these bigger kickers were stronger, but lacked some precision. Finally, the two ideals of length and accuracy united, where we now have more players who are not only tall and strong, but accurate. Even further, there are kickers today that could play many other positions or even other sports at a professional level, but you couldn’t say that of me — I was a “one-trick pony.”

Do you know former NFL punter Maury Buford or kickers Greg Zuerlien, Justin Tucker and Harrison Butker?

Maury and I played for the Chargers at different times, and, even though there was some overlap in our playing careers, I don’t remember meeting him as an opponent. I do remember meeting him at an NFL golf tournament though.

I don’t know Greg or Justin personally, but professionally, they are among the best kickers in the league. With Harrison, there’s a little more of a personal connection, and, in fact, I just thanked him for taping a short promotional video for the Fatima movie.

How did you get involved with the movie?

My wife, Holly, and I have three children, two sons and a daughter. When they were going on Hollywood auditions, they brought home some really awful scripts. That helped us to realize, even more than we already knew, the desperate need, not only for acceptable family entertainment, but for transformative art that elevates our vision.

We live in San Diego, so Holly and I know former Chargers’ QB Philip Rivers and his wife, Tiffany. They are devout Catholics who decided to invest in Fatima. I’m very grateful that people like them, who can help, do help. This is an investment with effects that will likely be not only far-reaching, but that will live on forever.

Are there other films, such as The Song of Bernadette (1943), that Fatima could be compared to, or are there books that would help to explain it, such as Fatima: 100 Questions and Answers About the Marian Apparitions by Paul Senz or The Fruits of Fatima: A Century of Signs and Wonders by the Register’s Joseph Pronechen?

I’ve been so involved in the Fatima movie itself that I haven’t had much time to compare it to other media. Yet there are probably similarities to the classic Lourdes movie [The Song of Bernadette], and there are many books about Fatima that can help to prepare for the movie and others that can help the learning continue afterward. Presently, my wife is reading The Fatima Century by Thomas McKenna, another great read.

Our movie was set to open Aug. 28 in hundreds of theaters across the country, but with the health restrictions, we’re not sure exactly how many theaters it will be in. Quite ironically, our situation bears similarities to 1918, the year after the apparitions occurred. The Spanish Flu was rampant, much worse than what we see today with COVID-19, but we’re being given a glimpse of what could have happened.

World War I was also occurring in 1918, and that can be a similar reminder of how bad things could be now. There’s been so much unrest that who knows what else could happen? Despite not being in as many theaters, Fatima is coming out at the perfect time, and all the platforms it can be viewed at are listed at the site. …

What are some of the aspects of the film you appreciate the most?

From a behind-the-scenes perspective, it was a project that turned out to be the largest movie ever made in Portugal. We had 2,500 extras for crowd scenes, 400 animals, and it turned out well enough to get the approval of the Shrine of Fatima in Portugal.

The visions themselves are remarkable, but so are the courage and determination of the children who had to stand firm against the disbelief of families, neighbors and government in order to bring Our Lady’s message to the world. It would be quite something for adults to persevere through all that, but it was even more amazing for children to be so steadfast.

The visions of Fatima have been summed up in phrases such as “Prayer and Penance” or “Rosary, Reparation and Consecration,” or “Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.” Do you have a preferred summary of Fatima?

I think the message of Fatima is one of peace, hope and love. There is so much agitation, doubt, hatred and even despair today. However, we have been given the remedy, thanks be to God, through the Catholic Church. Now, it’s up to us to use the remedy, which includes the daily Rosary, at least weekly Mass attendance and reconciliation monthly.

Some of us need a reminder, outside the standard public revelation of the Church, to get back into the sacramental life of the Church. That’s what Fatima was: a maternal reminder that we should be taking Our Father’s commands seriously — that doing so will ensure complete happiness in eternity, but will also make us happier here in the interim.

With the many sport-faith initiatives, such as Catholic Athletes for Christ making a Vin Scully-narrated Rosary album, do you see a connection between Fatima and football?

Fatima is for everyone and for every situation, so sports are certainly included. I can see how Fatima’s call for deeper conversion parallels my entry into the NFL. I was a good kicker, but needed to be more consistent; I needed to grow. If that concept is taken to life in general, there are many of us who are good but who could certainly do better, who could grow. We need to step up our game, so to speak.

That call might intimidate people, but if we start small and do one thing at a time, our souls can be built up. Out of college I never thought of making the Pro Bowl or winning the Super Bowl — which I did with Joe Lombardi and the rest of the Saints in 2010 — and I certainly didn’t think of making the all-time NFL scoring list. I just wanted to make it onto a roster. Yet, after learning how to do small things well, I was able to move up the list, kick by kick.

There will always be challenges, but it’s even easier to improve in the spiritual life in the sense that God wants us to do so infinitely more than we do. It’s not a matter of our own unaided effort; it’s a matter of receiving the grace through prayer and the sacraments to do better. God does the heavy-lifting; we just need to continually allow him to work through us.

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.

His book Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015)
contains numerous Catholic sports interviews,
most of which have appeared in the Register.

His latest book is Apostolic Athletes.