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Catholic Values

Head coach of football Ravens lives by faith

By Paul Dykewicz, Catholic News Service

Winning the Super Bowl in February 2013 as the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens gave John Harbaugh a crowning achievement in football, but he relied on his Catholic faith to guide him and his players through a series of potentially spirit-crushing events during the past year.

The worst was a nighttime phone call about a catastrophic off-season accident that caused severe head trauma to one of his promising young players, 23-year-old Tray Walker. The March 17 call caused Harbaugh a sleepless night but he reached out to his team the next morning before Walker died by writing an open letter that urged them to develop a spiritual life, to live with purpose and to consider the risks when making decisions.

Harbaugh shared with his players that he viewed them as sons and wanted to offer guidance about how to live and to look after their loved ones. His deeply held religious beliefs had intensified during the past year as he prayed for the words to speak to his team during the 2015 football season when major injuries to key players led to a number of close losses as the perennial playoff-contending team had a 5-11 record.

Johnny Shelton, the Ravens’ nondenominational team chaplain, witnessed Harbaugh “grow spiritually” during the season and said that his players responded to their coach’s messages as he sought to prepare them each week. In a society where political correctness causes leaders to shy away from acknowledging God’s role in their lives, Harbaugh humbled himself in giving passionate, Scripture-based locker room talks to keep his team focused on putting aside setbacks and seizing new opportunities, Shelton added.

“We will not blink,” Shelton recalled Harbaugh telling his players. “We will not flinch.”

Harbaugh participates in a weekly Bible study with other coaches on the team that focuses on preparing them to be “leaders of men,” Shelton said. Those sessions give Harbaugh and his fellow Ravens coaches a spiritual foundation to guide their players through challenging circumstances.

Shortly before Walker’s accident, Harbaugh gave a talk to an estimated 1,300 men at the 19th annual Lenten retreat of the Catholic Men’s Fellowship of Maryland and told a record number of attendees that the faith-based way he lives his personal life also guides him in coaching his NFL team. Harbaugh tackled Baltimore’s difficult football season by turning to his religious beliefs in leading his players.

In his keynote speech March 5 at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in Linthicum, Harbaugh spoke about trying to be grateful for life’s blessings each day despite disappointments. His message of relying on faith to persevere through tumultuous times resonated with the men in attendance, said Ed Roberts, a member of the fellowship’s board of directors.

“He wrote a speech and he clearly was able to bring a spiritual and personal side to the tough season the team had,” Roberts told Catholic News Service.

Father Christopher Whatley, the Ravens’ Catholic chaplain since Harbaugh joined the team in 2008 and the pastor of St. Mark in Catonsville, Maryland, said Harbaugh regularly attends Mass the day of games along with about 20 Ravens coaches and players, including kicker Justin Tucker. Harbaugh’s parents, Jack and Jackie, are also Catholic and attend the team Mass when they are in town for a game, the priest said.

Father Whatley said Harbaugh is “one of the greatest” human beings he had ever met and described him as “highly motivated and very compassionate.”

Copyright ©2016 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

(CNS photo/Jeff Haynes, Reuters)