"Big Four" Highlights


Gridiron Forgiveness

Dan Duddy finds hope and healing after son’s death

Things were going well for Dan Duddy in early 2014. The father of eight and head football coach at Monsignor Donovan High School in Toms River, N.J., had recently been named head of the high school chapter program of Catholic Athletes for Christ. The program was starting to expand exponentially around the country, and Duddy was happy to lead the charge.

However, on the cold winter morning of February 8, 2014, Duddy had a rude awakening to the reality that his 19-year-old son, Francis, had been killed in a drunk driving accident. What made things worse was that the one responsible was a friend of Francis and a former player of Coach Duddy. Yet through all the anguish, Duddy and his family have been able to forgive and be healed, as he recently told Fathers for Good. The following interview conducted by veteran Catholic journalist Trent Beattie.

How did you become the head of Catholic Athletes for Christ’s high school program?

Francis Duddy, shown at left in the Monsignor Donovan High School jersey, was killed in a car driven by his teammate. Dan Duddy, his father and coach of both boys, expressed forgiveness.

I had come to know Ray McKenna, the founder of Catholic Athletes for Christ, through work that was being accomplished in the Trenton Diocese with CAC. After several conversations with Ray, I began to coordinate the high school program about two years ago. The growth has been nothing less than explosive. We’re now running or about to be running in over 120 schools across the country.
Before The Cathletes Program, which is what it is officially called, started at Monsignor Donovan High School, we had already started a mentoring program on the football team. Each player would regularly meet with me or an assistant coach. We would talk eye-to-eye, man-to-man, about specific virtues. This is a great way for players to become more virtuous, but it’s not a cure-all, as we would see later when one of my former players would drive drunk and kill my son.

How did you take in that tragic experience?

The whole thing, which took place about a year-and-a-half ago, had an unreal quality about it. My 22-year-old son had fallen asleep on the couch, so he was the first one to hear the police knock at the door at 3:00 a.m. He got me up and I was told by two officers that my fourth oldest son, Francis Xavier, had been killed in a car accident. The driver, Connor Hanifin, was drunk and speeding when he crashed, killing his only passenger, Francis.

Francis and Connor had been teammates not only on the football team, but also on the wrestling and lacrosse teams. It was so shocking to learn that someone you had been close to was responsible for the death of your son.

How were you able to forgive Connor?

It would not have been possible without my Catholic faith, which gave me the right perspective on what happened. Satan wants us to be bitter and angry, because that drives Christ out of our souls, which then become dwelling places for evil. Not forgiving may seem like an empowering thing initially, but it actually weakens you and draws the very life out of you. Forgiving, on the other hand, may seem like a weakness, but it really is empowering because you’re letting go of what is causing you harm.

Do you think people have other misconceptions about forgiveness?

Some people might think forgiveness means you’re endorsing what the offender did, or that the offender should not be punished in any way. Forgiveness is not endorsement; it is an acceptance of living in a fallen world filled with sinners. We should forgive the sins of others, and others should forgive us our own sins.
However, this doesn’t mean that all punishment should be removed, because there are often legitimate needs of justice that need to be met. This is what purgatory is all about: the perfection of sinners whose guilt has been done away with. The prosecutor wanted to put Connor in prison for 20-plus years. We lobbied for a shorter term, but not complete abolition of punishment.

You’ve also found healing by telling your story.

I’ve told the story to many groups, including a Knights of Columbus chapter in New Jersey. I want people to know that things like this happen to real people, so I don’t hold back the tears, and I describe things as they happened, like how one of my children fell to the floor when told about Francis’ death, and how there were so many mourners at the funeral that they couldn’t all fit into the church.

The story doesn’t end in mourning, though. We’ve found the answers to our questions at the cross of Christ. That’s where all human suffering is sanctified and healing takes place. We were able to forgive Connor through the Cross, and it is also through the Cross that he has experienced deep regret over his actions. Once he gets out of prison in 42 months, I hope to take him with me on talks and have him share his experience as well. That would be the ultimate in living out forgiveness.