Major League Soccer Player Moves Forward in Faith
Danny O’Rourke of the Columbus Crew recommits himself to Christ amid life’s difficulties.
Growing up in a Catholic family, Danny O’Rourke went to Mass regularly, but he didn’t understand why he had to. Soccer was a greater concern for him, and it continued to be so during his years at Indiana University.
His impressive Hoosier tenure included three consecutive All-Big 10 selections (2002-2004) and two consecutive NCAA Championships (2003-2004). His collegiate career was capped off by being named a first team All-American and the nation’s top player as a senior in 2004.
It wasn’t until dealing with knee injuries early in his professional career that O’Rourke had the time to reflect on the meaning of the Mass and his relationship with Jesus Christ. For O’Rourke, Mass attendance now is no longer seen as an item on a checklist, but an encounter with the Lord of the Universe.
O’Rourke recognizes the Eucharist as the source of meaning and stability in a busy and confused world. He spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie as the MLS season was getting under way last month.
What are your expectations for this season?
There are always the goals of winning games, winning the division and winning the MLS Cup, but I’m not too big on those cliché goals. They sound good, but we’re taking a more modest approach.
We’re just trying to see how players will mix with each other, and we’re trying to improve a little every day. That kind of approach doesn’t make headlines, but it is realistic. You just take one little step at a time, commit to doing as well as you can for that day, and try to play as a cohesive unit.
How long have you known teammate Eddie Gaven?
We’ve known each other for almost seven years now. We were originally supposed to be traded when he played for the New York MetroStars and I played for the San Jose Earthquakes. That didn’t work out, and now we’ve been on the same team since 2007.
It’s awesome to have a teammate like Eddie, not only from a soccer standpoint, but from an overall human standpoint. He’s a great player, but a greater man. He has an inspiring story, and I’ve learned a lot about being a Christian from him. We’ve attended Mass together, which we both have learned is a very Christocentric thing, not an impersonal one.
One of the things I admire most about Eddie is his dedication to prayer. He prays the Rosary every day, and he loves to go to Eucharistic adoration. In fact, he has introduced me to both of those forms of prayer. I really enjoy stopping by the church for adoration after practice. A million things are usually flying through my head, and adoration helps to calm me down and think in an orderly way.
The silence of the church is important, but even more important than that is the Person who is present there with you. Jesus Christ is in the tabernacle, always there for you and ready to hear you. It’s amazing how blessed we are to have Our Lord in every Catholic church.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells the apostles he is with them (and their successors) until the end of the world. This is true in many ways, but most particularly in the Eucharist.
Have you always taken the faith seriously, or did you have a notable conversion?
My story is similar to Eddie’s. Growing up, my family would attend Mass, pray and do the other things Catholics do. However, I didn’t have a really deep, personal commitment to what I was doing. There wasn’t that core connection to Jesus that should have been there.
That changed when I had to deal with knee injuries in my first professional season. Not being able to play soccer for long periods of time gave me a chance to think about life and to pray more than I had before. Prayer is the essential thing. You can go through all the motions of what Christians should do, but continual prayer makes it personal and gives you the grace to have a better idea of what it is you’re doing in the first place.
Another thing that really comes into play when you’re injured is patience. I was used to doing everything pretty much on my own, with very little practical interest in what God wanted to do for me. The injuries were opportunities for me to let go and allow God to work though my life. Physically I was held back by injuries, but spiritually I was set free by them.
Aside from the knee injuries, have there been other tough times your faith has gotten you through?
Without faith, I would never have been able to get through the death of a Crew teammate, Kirk Urso, last August. He died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest, due to a congenital heart defect. He was only 22, so you just don’t think something like that would happen, but it did. It’s a reminder that you have to be ready to die at any time. You can’t assume you have decades left, even if you’re really young.
Kirk’s death was very jarring. The only way not to be overwhelmed by it is to see it in an eternal context. Knowing that there is an afterlife makes hope possible and provides meaning to what happened. It helps you to get past all the superficial things that don’t matter and to take your obligations to God more seriously.
We just had an exhibition game last weekend against the University of North Carolina (Kirk’s alma mater). That was a great way to do something productive about a negative situation, because we publicly remembered him and raised money for heart research.
Do you find that being a professional athlete gives you a platform to influence people for the better?
People look up to pro athletes, so we have opportunities to use that for doing good things. One of the things I value most about playing pro soccer is my relationship with a boy named Evan. I met him when he was about 8, and I was in Houston at the time.
Evan and I seem to go through patches of illness simultaneously. I only have knee problems to deal with, but Evan has had three or four leg surgeries, and he has a gastrointestinal disease with a lot of bleeding. We talk often, and he has been a real inspiration to me. I’ve had to face tough competition on the field, but Evan has faced much tougher competition though illness. He’s the strongest person I’ve ever met.
St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:10 that when he is weak he is strong. That sounds contradictory, but in light of faith, it makes sense. The only way you’re going to be motivated to ask for God’s help is if you realize you need it. Otherwise, you won’t bother asking, and you’ll remain alone.
This is why so many things we see as setbacks are actually blessings. Jesus didn’t come to save the self-sufficient, but those who need saving. In our weakness, we know better where we stand with God, and it makes us cry out for help. The grace that follows makes us far stronger than we would have been on our own.
It reminds me of St. Peter, who is actually a good saint for soccer players because of his patronage for foot problems. He tried to do things on his own, but that always ended up in a mess. When he let go of his pride, acknowledged his insufficiency and humbly let Jesus set the agenda, then everything worked out as it was supposed to.
This isn’t to say that the transition is always pleasant. However, weakness and strength go together perfectly, as long as you continually ask for God’s help to be strong. Then you can move forward in faith.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.