Bishop David M. O'Connell celebrated Mass for the Catholic Athletes for Christ during their leadership conference in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral Parish.
Bishop David M. O'Connell celebrated Mass for the Catholic Athletes for Christ during their leadership conference in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral Parish.
" This gift of forgiveness gave us the strength and understanding that we can use to overcome any tragedy and adversity in our midst. "

Standing before a group of 60 young Catholic athletes Dec. 14, Dan Duddy, motivational speaker and retired coach and teacher, told the story of one of the most difficult, but transformational experiences of his life – the loss of his teen-aged son in a drunk driving accident and the role that faith has played in the family’s healing.

Duddy, who had been a teacher and football coach at Donovan Catholic High School in Toms River before his retirement, was the keynote speaker at the annual Catholic Athletes for Christ Leadership Conference.  Students-athletes along with their coaches and other advisors from Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Trenton gathered tor the first time in over a year to share their faith and camaraderie, and to reflect on the day’s theme: “Hope and Resiliency in the Face of Adversity.” 

Few were better to speak on the subject than Duddy, who, along with the late Coach John Mckenna from Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, was instrumental in establishing the Catholic Athletes for Christ program in the Diocese. Duddy is now a motivational speaker who works with educators, coaches, and athletic teams. His talks often include the theme of overcoming life's challenges.

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In February 2014, Duddy lost his son, Francis, 19, in a drunk driving accident. Francis was a passenger in the car driven by his best friend and Donovan Catholic teammate, Connor Hanifin, also 19, who lost control of his car and crashed into a row of trees. Coach Duddy publicly forgave Connor for the accident that took his son’s life. "We will stay true to who you were before this Feb. 8,'' Duddy said in court before a judge sentenced Hannifin to three and a half years in prison for vehicular homicide, a sentence much shorter than usually given, due to the request of the Duddy family.

“We grow in our forgiveness with each other and there is something that takes place when we forgive that is so miraculous,” Duddy said when sharing his story with the students.

“That is the saving truth. Forgiveness led us to the beauty of triumph over tragedy – triumph over adversity. In our forgiveness we developed a spirit of gratitude, that allowed us to be grateful that Francis was in our lives. This gift of forgiveness gave us the strength and understanding that we can use to overcome any tragedy and adversity in our midst.”

These words resonated with the cathletes, as the students are called, who together face the challenges of navigating life through a pandemic.  Participants included representatives from Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft; Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River; Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville; Red Bank Catholic High School, Red Bank; St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, and Trenton Catholic Preparatory Academy, Hamilton, were challenged to discuss that topic in breakout sessions where they focused on how faith can help their team grow and move forward when facing adversity in sports and life.

“He was so grateful for the positives in his life instead of harping on the negatives and that is something every athlete needs. Because it’s not always highs; there’s sometimes valleys in between,” Seton Smith, senior volleyball player at Red Bank Catholic shared.

A time to pray

The conference also provided the opportunity for students to participate in the Mass celebrated by Bishop David M, O’Connell, C.M., who offered his support for the organization:

“As Bishop, I am so happy that the Catholic Athletes for Christ program initiated here in the Diocese several years ago has received such a welcome reception in many of our Catholic high schools.  Although originally a national effort of evangelization geared to athletes in Catholic colleges and universities, CAC’s expansion to include Catholic high school athletes throughout our Diocese is a great source of pride for the local Church. 

“CAC’s outreach fosters an awareness in young women and men athletes of the place that the Lord Jesus should hold in their lives. Every chance I get to be with our Catholic high school athletes renews my own hope for the future of our Church.  Their enthusiasm for the faith is infectious.”

In his homily, Bishop O’Connell observed, “Our Gospel story from St. Luke today describing the different responses of the two sons to their father’s call to work in the vineyard reminds us of the importance of keeping your word.  One son agrees to work but does not, while the other son says no at first then changes his mind. 

“There is a parallel lesson here for all of us but for the young especially: God our Father reaches out to invite our faith in him and in his son.  Our initial response in Baptism and Confirmation provides the grace to fulfill the promises we have made in those sacraments.  As we grow older, we must decide for ourselves what direction our lives will take. Catholic Athletes for Christ gives us the context to make firm the promises we make to the Lord in his Church.”

Recognizing a firm foundation

During the Mass, both McKenna and Duddy were recognized for their work in cultivating the CAC program in the Diocese.

“They provided the vision and brought the energy and the zeal to make Catholic Athletes for Christ not just an idea, but a real possibility for our schools throughout the Diocese,” Father Jason Parzynski, CAC diocesan chaplain spoke.

In recognition of those contributions, Bishop O’Connell presented plaques Duddy and to Notre Dame High School.

Although unable to attend, Dr. Margaret Boland, former associate superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Trenton was acknowledged for “her labor of putting together the policies and procedures which were the foundation for CAC,” Father Jason stated.

In recognition of the founding CAC members, Bishop O’Connell said, “Thanks to the great work, encouragement and support over the years of people like the late Coach John McKenna and Dr. Margaret Boland, CAC has established a firm foundation in Diocesan high schools. The torch has now been passed to Mr. Dennis Guida, former principal of Holy Cross High School, Delran; Mr. Daniel O’Connell, associate director for curriculum and instruction in the Diocesan Department of Catholic Schools and Father Jason Parzynski, CAC diocesan chaplain who all continue to guide this wonderful program along with coaches and staff from our Catholic high schools.”

Many participating teens expressed positive take-aways from the day.

“I think the opportunity to come together to pray with other teams and not just necessarily for our team’s success but to pray for something larger is so important,” Alyson Sweeney, senior field hockey and basketball player from Red Bank Catholic said.

“It was so cool to see all of us come together to talk about our faith and sportsmanship.  Other schools may be opponents on the field, but they are our brothers and sisters in Christ,” Kitty Vernon, Notre Dame senior, field hockey and lacrosse player offered.

Her team captain and classmate, Emily Brady, agreed, “You get to see how we’re not as separated as we think we are. Today helped us make connections with one another and showed us how we are all together in Catholic Athletes for Christ.” 

Daniel Montero, a sophomore soccer and basketball player at Trenton Catholic Preparatory Academy, Hamilton, appreciated seeing how other school programs operate and how “we can use our faith to develop the strength to overcome adversity.”

While his soccer season has ended for the year, CBA junior, Dan McNamara is “already thinking to next season and how I can bring my faith to my team.”

This reignited spark of interest in further developing CAC in the high schools after pandemic restrictions within the athletic programs caused many of the activities to be put on hold is exactly what Dan Duddy hoped to accomplish at the conference.

“I hope they use this [day] as a springboard and go back to the schools and be the leaders that they innately are as athletes.  Let them carry the torch, let them know they are the light and let’s carry that light again to get back up and running!”