Sixteen members of Lawrenceville’s Notre Dame High School football Bible study group pose with Eagles coach Doug Pederson at Pederson’s Faith and Football Dinner at the Philadelphia Marriott earlier this summer.  Courtesy photo

Sixteen members of Lawrenceville’s Notre Dame High School football Bible study group pose with Eagles coach Doug Pederson at Pederson’s Faith and Football Dinner at the Philadelphia Marriott earlier this summer.  Courtesy photo

By Rich Fisher | Correspondent

The weight room at Notre Dame High School has taken on a whole new meaning for a group of Irish football players.

“Coming to Notre Dame, I always thought of the weight room as some macho place you go down to and get huge, but it’s so much bigger than that,” senior quarterback Rob Buecker said. “It embodies so much more.”

The reason being, since last January, the Lawrenceville school’s strength and conditioning coach, John McKenna, along with school chaplain Father Jason Parzynski, began a Bible study for the football program that has become increasingly popular with the players. What started with 18 people has expanded to more than 30 through the summer, as the group meets every other Friday in – where else? – the weight room.

McKenna is not surprised at the turnout.

“I really think kids are dying for stuff like this,” McKenna said. “They’re looking for some kind of way to believe in each other, they’re looking for that intangible to help each other as a team, and they’re also looking for things in normal life. They want to believe. They have questions, I think we all do. I’m 64 years old, and I’m still looking for answers.”

Junior defensive back Dominick Brown, a Mansfield resident who attends Mary, Mother of the Church Parish, Bordentown, feels his faith strengthens after every session.

“Each meeting means a lot to me,” Brown said. “We always talk about our struggles and how we can overcome those struggles. I always feel great after every meeting.”

Senior running back/linebacker Evan Collins, an Allentown resident who is not Catholic, said he feels the Bible study has truly helped strengthen his faith.

“Everything I do, I know that I have God to lean on when it gets tough,” Collins said. “One of the main reasons I came to Notre Dame instead of my local high school was to come to know more about my faith. The Bible study group has definitely been a huge help.”

Each meeting opens with a prayer from Father Parzynski, who then oversees the spiritual side of things by handing out packets from different Readings and Scriptures. The group discusses the handouts and everyone is given an opportunity for input. It concludes with McKenna and Father Parzynski reflecting on the passages and prayer.

“It’s very inspirational,” Buecker said.

The club’s origin started last football season when Buecker was watching a game at the home of teammate and fellow Philadelphia Eagles fan Sam Ponticello. They watched, with interest, a special on coach Doug Pederson and how faith affected his life, and soon suggested to McKenna that he watch a tape of the show online.

McKenna loved what he saw and wasted little time in starting the Bible study. Shortly thereafter, McKenna – who sometimes works with the Eagles training staff – was speaking at a strength clinic at the Philly training facility and talked about the Bible study.

“Some of the guys from the Eagles said, ‘Wow, Pederson would love that,’” McKenna said.

One thing led to another and with help from an anonymous donor, 16 members of the study group attended Pederson’s Faith and Football Dinner at the Philadelphia Marriott, which was sponsored by the American Bible Society. Notre Dame was the only high school group among the 900 attendees at the June event.

“Pederson made a big fuss over the team,” McKenna said. “He talked to them. It was great.”

“It was fantastic,” said Buecker, an Allentown resident who attends St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square. “They had a group of people that shared the same excitement for the faith as we did. Of course they had Doug Peterson and other ex-players there, who you’d really never know they have the faith they possess until they got on the stage and talked about it; and how educated in the faith they were. It was very insightful.”

McKenna feels that the Eagles’ path to the Super Bowl was due, in part, to the team’s many Christian devotees that helped form a bond of positive belief throughout the team. He feels the same thing can occur with Notre Dame.

“How many times have you seen teams come together, and you say, ‘Wow, how are they winning?’” McKenna said. “Look at the Eagles. They believed in each other. That’s what we’re starting to see with our study. We’ve gone from 18 to 30 guys. The word gets out, and all of a sudden they become a group. I don’t think it can hurt. It makes you believe in each other.”

The coach is quick to add that the goal is not to make a better football team, but to make better people of the football players.

“You’ve got to develop the total package, and that’s strong mind, strong body, strong faith, strong life,” said McKenna, who plans on expanding the group to other Irish teams. “We’re in a day and age where kids are committing suicide and everything like that, and I think you can’t hurt by putting this out for them. Not jamming it down their throats, but putting it out there for them. The ones who want to grab it, grab it.”

The good news for Notre Dame – and the Christian community in general – is that an increasing amount of young men are grabbing it with gusto.