When Xavier Lezynski was a senior in Notre Dame High School, he fondly recalled attending a Kairos Retreat during which Coach John McKenna gave a reflection and asked the students to think about what they would want to talk with Jesus about when they entered the Kingdom of God.

“The excitement he displayed when pondering the various subjects he would be able to discuss with Jesus couldn’t help but make me smile,” said Lezynski, who graduated from the Lawrenceville high school in 2016.

“Coach McKenna lived a virtuous and fruitful life. He was the kind of man who made the most of every day that he had, and cherished every person in his life,” Lezynski said. “But he was always aware that he was preparing for something better when his time ran out.”

Days after the June 25 funeral services were held for the school’s beloved strength and conditioning coach, Lezynski, and Rob Buecker, a 2019 graduate, shared memories about the man who helped to hone their skills as athletes and also as Catholic Christians. Coach McKenna, who in addition to serving on the Notre Dame High faculty, was also the diocesan moderator of Catholic Athletes for Christ at the time of his June 21st death.

“Coach McKenna meant a lot to me,” said Lezynski. “He was a great influence during my transformational years in which I grew from a boy into a man. Everyone knows about his expertise in the realm of coaching, but I think I learned most form him as it related to my faith and how to live morally.”

“It’s surreal” to think that he’s gone, added Buecker. “He made the most of every day he lived. … It meant so much to us as young men growing up that he was always there for us.”

Buecker, who is currently a member of the Army Black Knights baseball team at West Point Academy, recalled being the student president of the school’s CAC chapter when he was a senior in Notre Dame. With Coach McKenna’s OK, Buecker and teammate, Sam Ponticello, started a Bible study for the football team.

“He was super fired up about the idea,” Buecker said of Coach McKenna. “He was largely responsible for fostering that spiritual culture. The fact that he had guys on his team who could come to him and propose that on their own was so great for him. It made it very authentic that [starting the Bible study] was coming from the team.”

Lezynski, who was the CAC’s student president as a high school  junior and senior, talked about the influence Coach McKenna continued to have during the  years he played college football for Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.

“He lived with me each time I ran out of the tunnel for a home football game and his spirit continues to live on in me,” Lezynski said. “He etched various aspects of my character that are permanently a part of my fabric. I gain strength from the overwhelming support that he offered to me in chasing my dreams of playing football for Notre Dame [University]. I gain strength from the opportunities that he gave me to use my platform to have the same kind of impact that he had on me.”

Along with former students, colleagues of Coach McKenna, including Pat Smith, assistant athletic director in St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, and Dan Duddy, former football coach in Donovan Catholic, Toms River, expressed sorrow over Coach McKenna’s death. Like Coach McKenna, both Smith and Duddy were on the ground floor of helping to initiate CAC programs in their respective schools nearly 10 years ago. In 2013, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., had asked that each school in the Diocese begin its own CAC organization.

“It kind of slaps you in the face with your own mortality,” said Smith. “He had a lot of energy and ideas, but the biggest thing that kind of oozed out of him was his passion for Christ and for instilling that in the athletes in our Diocese at different high schools. Smith added how impressed the students at St. John Vianney were when he invited Coach McKenna and Father Jason Parzynski, Notre Dame chaplain to speak at a freshman retreat.

Rich Roche, Notre Dame’s current athletic director, admitted that whoever succeeds Coach McKenna as the school’s strength and conditioning coach, will certainly have big shoes to fill.

“He’s part of the fabric of Notre Dame,” Roche said. “He loved this place. Next to his wife and his family, he loved nothing more than Notre Dame and the athletes he mentored.”

Roche also remarked on witnessing firsthand the impact that Coach McKenna had on students as athletes and as Catholic Christians. But the Coach never strong-armed students into following him. One of his great traits, he said, was to let athletes decide how intently they wished to follow a spiritual path.

“He was more of a guide than someone who would push it on you,” Buecker said, noting that Coach McKenna welcomed all students, regardless of their faith, to be part of CAC. “You didn’t have to be Catholic to participate and find your spirituality. That was what made him such a special facilitator for that.”

Lezynski added that “It was definitely a match made in heaven given the strong Catholic presence among Notre Dame’s student-athletes and Coach McKenna’s great desire to instill in those student-athletes strong foundations in faith.

“Catholic Athletes for Christ’s mission is to serve Catholic athletes and share the Gospel of Christ in and through athletics,” Lezynski said. “CAC helped to provide a structured framework that Coach used to create a community of ‘Cathletes.’”