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Athletic leaders at Catholic institutions react to Bengals-Steelers game

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Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals. (Public domain photo/Derek Jensen)
Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals. (Public domain photo/Derek Jensen)

Fans of NFL football in southwestern Ohio tend to root for the Cincinnati Bengals, but an 18-16 playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 9 left many disappointed. Not only did Cincinnati lose for the fifth consecutive time in the first round of the playoffs, but cheap shots, poor sportsmanship, and bad fan behavior made for the night’s most memorable moments.

Local student-athletes were among the 27 million to watch as professional athletes and coaches failed to contain their emotions and uphold the spirit of fair play.

Lou Judd is the director of SportsLeader, an independent Catholic nonprofit dedicated to helping coaches instill virtue in players at the high school and collegiate level. Having seen the game, Judd said the best thing coaches can do is use the Bengals and Steelers’ respective performances as a teaching moment.

“Let’s remember that virtue and leadership really do matter,” Judd said. “If anyone tells you that stuff isn’t really that important, record your television with your phone of the final three minutes of the Bengals-Steelers game. It does matter. At least a lack thereof can destroy everything that you have.”

Summarized, the Bengals had an opportunity to win the game with little time remaining. After turning the ball over to Pittsburgh, two Cincinnati players committed personal fouls. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict illegally hit Antonio Brown in what many called a “cheap shot.” Following that, cornerback Adam Jones got into an altercation with a Steelers’ coach who was illegally on the field. The ensuing penalties gave Pittsburgh an easy field goal to win the game.

A handful of other unsportsmanlike incidents took place throughout the contest.

In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, there are 15 Catholic high schools that play the game, and two universities. While football isn’t part of religion curriculum, coaches at these schools are tasked with forming young men who can represent the name of the Catholic institution on the jersey.

At the University of Dayton,  Head Coach Rick Chamberlin said the hard-hitting nature of football is part of the sports’ appeal, but some things crossed the line in Saturday night’s contest.

“Football is a physical game,” he said. “That’s part of the attraction to it, outstanding athletes in a very physical arena. But again, you have to do things within the rules. We as coaches, we don’t stand for (illegal hits) here at Dayton. You’re not going to win consistently if you have individuals that don’t play within the rules. You want to compete at your best level, but you want to make sure it stays within the boundaries of fair play.”

Mount St. Joseph University Head Coach Rod Huber echoed those sentiments. With his Lions, if a player commits any kind of personal foul, they are taken out of the game and spoken to by a coach before returning.

“They call them personal fouls because one person has hurt his entire team because he was being selfish and out of control,” he said. “You have to understand what you’ve done, and that’s what I didn’t see happen and that’s why I’m so disappointed. I never saw (Burfict) taken out of the game and sat on the bench with a coach saying, ‘Cool down now…’ He had lost all sense of what the game was about. It looked like he was trying to hurt someone on the field rather than play a game. That scares me as a coach.”

Bill Tenore, head coach at Badin High School in Hamilton, added that Cincinnati’s loss came down to the little things. With two teams seemingly equal in skill, virtue and discipline were the deciding factor.

“At one of the Rosary Rallies Father Anthony Brausch  talked about the rosary and how the meditations of the rosary are mental rehearsal for life and being a follower of Christ,” Tenore said. “For me being a Catholic school coach, the thing I thought of was you can as much as you can be ready for a game like that physically and skill-wise and everything… It is always the little things in football that make the difference. In a case like this, I think I’d talk about having virtue and mental rehearsal.”

The actions of players and coaches in the Bengals’ latest playoff loss made for teachable moments for area coaches. While Steeeler Ryan Shazier celebrated after his brutal hit left Bengal running back Giovannie Bernard injured, Tenore teaches his players to handle things differently.

“We emphasize hard play, best effort, hitting hard,” Tenore said. “That’s part of the game but all in between the whistles and using safe proper technique. The rules are there so that respect is possible for your opponents… If there is a hard, legal, good hit, there’s definitely celebration and cheering. But if the opponent isn’t moving and can’t get up, then the emphasis is definitely shifted to say a prayer that he’s all right. We care for and respect our opponent, but there is still a place to play hard.”

Huber, who has worked with Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in the off season and called him a “class act,” watched the game in person from the seats of Paul Brown Stadium. He understands players will do the wrong thing from time to time, but teaches his student-athletes that if they break the rules, they’re coming out.

“As a college coach, I just can’t tell you how disappointed I was in the entire show,” Huber said. “From the middle of the first quarter on, you could see where it was going… It’s happened to me. I’ve been doing this 36 years. I’ve seen kids throw a cheap shot, but their rear ends are on the bench and they’re being talked to… Both sidelines lost control of what the sport is about and what the game is about. It is about playing great football. It’s about winning a playoff game. It isn’t about who can hurt each other or hit each other the hardest.”

As easy as it may be to point fingers and the players and coaches involved, Huber said the fans aren’t off the hook either. Some in the stadium cheered when Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Rothlisberger, a Miami (OH) University alum, was carted off the field with an injury. At least one fan threw a beer can at the quarterback.

“I’ve had season tickets forever and I’ve never seen our fans like that,” Huber said. “I was embarrassed for our city and our Bengals.”

Reports of assault and drunken behavior after the loss also cast a black cloud over the city’s reputation.

“From the refs to coaches, to media to fans it was an absolute microcosm or poster child of what’s wrong with sports at all those different levels when you don’t have virtue and integrity,” Judd said. “The positive is let’s learn the lesson in our own lives and coaching. Let’s do everything possible to teach virtue and leadership more intentionally.”

Judds’ words are heard and understood at Mount St. Joseph.

“Discipline, character, sportsmanship,” Huber said. “Those are the lessons when its all said and done. I saw a whole lot of lessons that could haven been learned.”

For Chamberlin, whose Flyers compete in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League, the purpose of the football program is to do more than just win.

“We want to develop them physically, educationally in their academics, but also we want them to grow as young men to be good husbands, good fathers, good employees at whatever company they’re going to be a part of,” Chamberlin said.

Whether in learning the lessons of sportsmanship or in building one’s physical strength, Tenore said it is important to remember that some things are bigger than the game.

“We live in a very imperfect world. In a football game there will be good calls and bad calls and mistakes by officials coaches and players. I guess the final call is God doesn’t make mistakes. We’re either with him or we’re not. As diligent as we are in preparing for a football game, we have to be as diligent in preparing our souls for eternity.”

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