Charyl McKenna, Mr. McKenna's wife, is comforted by Msgr. Walter Nolan, a former Notre Dame High School chaplain
Charyl McKenna, Mr. McKenna's wife, is comforted by Msgr. Walter Nolan, a former Notre Dame High School chaplain
In baseball, a hook slide is a technique that a player will use in which he will run full speed, with everything he has. The player will throw himself down and slide past home plate. He will reach out on his way and touch the plate so that he is not out. He is home and he is safe.

“This is how John always talked about his arrival into heaven,” said Father Brian Woodrow to the congregation that filled St. John the Baptist Church, Allentown, the afternoon of June 25. “He would see those gates starting to close and he would hook slide past St. Peter. He’ll get up, dust himself off, look back and say, ‘Wow, what a ride.’”

The “ride” Father Woodrow referred to was that of the life of John D. McKenna, the longtime strength and conditioning coach in Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, and diocesan moderator of Catholic Athletes for Christ, who died June 21 in Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia, at age 67.

Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., was principal celebrant of the Mass of Christian Burial, with Father Woodrow, pastor of St. Dominic Parish, Brick, serving as homilist and one of the priest concelebrants.

In his homily, Father Woodrow, noted having worked closely with Mr. McKenna in Catholic Athletes for Christ. He then spoke warmly of the former coach’s love for family and his Catholic faith.

“He loved his grandchildren so much that sometimes he would even lose count of what set I was on when his grandchildren would come into the gym while we were working out,” Father Woodrow said. “But one thing he never lost count of was his blessings.

“He counted every single one of you, make no mistake about it. The people he encountered he considered gifts from God, and he loved his God,” Father Woodrow said, adding that “for John, everything was about God and about Jesus. He found Jesus and fell in love.

“You are home, John,” Father Woodrow said. “You are safe.”

After the reception of Holy Communion, Bishop O’Connell extended his condolences on behalf of the Diocese to the McKenna family, including Mr. McKenna’s wife of 46 years, Charyl, four children and nine grandchildren. The Bishop then remarked how the church, which was standing room only, served as a fitting tribute to a man who impacted so many lives.

“You may not know this about me, but I don’t work out,” Bishop O’Connell said, drawing a laugh from the congregation.

“But I got to know Coach through my brother priests who do work out with him and he meant so much to them. I got to know him through all of their stories and things I would hear about him when I had the opportunity to visit Notre Dame,” he said, as he acknowledged the many students, faculty members and school staff who were present; members of the school choir who provided the music and the members of the school’s 2019 football team who served as pallbearers.

“What a tribute,” the Bishop said.

Other football players, both former and current, reflected on the life of the man they called “Coach McKenna.”

“He was a great man,” said Cameron Bailey, a rising senior. “He changed people for the better. He encouraged others and made them want to work harder.”

Mike Horvath, a 2016 Notre Dame graduate and former football player, who is now a strength and conditioning coach intern for Pennsylvania State  University’s football team, said his career choice was influenced by Mr. McKenna.

“He’s the most selfless guy I’ve ever met,” Horvath said.

“He’s caring and selfless and wanted to make everyone around him better,” added Derek Adezio, also a 2016 graduate and teammate. “And Coach McKenna did just that.”