SportsLeader helps coaches instill the right values
By John Stegeman
The Catholic Telegraph
Catholic youth athletics and Catholic youth ministry are often two separate entities.
In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati a major diocesan initiative is underway to help merge those sometimes competing groups into a cohesive unit. In addition to those efforts is the work of an unrelated organization called SportsLeader.
SportsLeader, a Louisville, Ky.-based 501c3 non-profit, exists to assist coaches at the grade school, high school and college level to instill virtue in their players. SportsLeader works with secular schools as well, but at its core it is a Catholic organization.
The organization was founded by Paul Passifiume and former Ohio State All-Big 10 standout Joe Lukens. Passifiume played high school football at Louisville St. Xavier and Lukens played at Moeller.
“Both guys had special Catholic high school football experiences,” said Chris Willertz, a mentor-coach with SportsLeader based in Cincinnati. “Kind of at the same time the Holy Spirit spoke to them nine years ago that we need to do something more for coaches so they can help their players.
“It was very, very, very Catholic at its inception,” Willertz said. “It has changed in the sense that some coaches are very Catholic, some are Catholic but not very Catholic, some coaches are Catholic but they teach or coach in a public school setting, so we’ve kind of had to adjust it based on where the level of the coach is.”
SportsLeader’s founders, and its current staff which includes Willertz and Lou Judd, are all practicing Catholics. Willertz and Lukens live in Cincinnati while Judd lives in Northern Kentucky. Passifiume lives in Louisville where he continues to use the program as head coach of the St. Agnes seventh and eigth grade football team.
SportsLeader has programs that work on the grade school, high school and college level. It incorporates virtue-based talks, parent-athlete ceremonies, as well as mentoring approaches. SportsLeader staff trains the coaches, who bring the lessons back to their team.
“I think the Holy Spirit is really moving theses days,” Willertz said. “Sports is God to many many people. We’re meeting these people where they’re at and then trying to help them.
“Your best youth groups are your sports teams,” he added. “What you do is help create a program for coaches so they can teach virtue. Love, courage, perseverance, sacrifice — all those things that coaches preach everyday — those are all gifts of the Holy Spirit.”
In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Willertz said SportsLeader has relationships with more than 10 schools. Some schools, like Bishop Fenwick High School or St. Bernard grade school, adopt SportsLeader for their entire athletic program. At other schools certain teams, such as Moeller wrestling or St. Xavier baseball, participate.
Among SportsLeader’s supporters is current Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer, who wrote an open letter to coaches extolling the program’s virtues.
Another supporter is long-time Moeller wrestling coach Jeff Gaier, who has been involved with SportsLeader since 2006-07.
“Our school has now taken a direction where we have a full-time person that works on character with with the different teams,” Gaier said. “We’re working a lot on our Marianist characteristics and SportsLeader has been a nice supplement for that for us.
“What’s nice about SportsLeader is there are pieces in that program that can add to what we’re doing,” Gaier added. “In particular for us with wrestling, and what I really like with the SportsLeader program, is the mentoring, the one-on-one. They are structured to how to make that happen and that gives us an opportunity to go beyond what we’re doing as a school.”
Willertz said one of the challenges facing Catholic athletics at the grade school and high school level is declining volunteerism. Potential coaches must go through VIRTUS training and some places require CPR training or concussion-awareness classes. Adding ministry to the list of duties, Willertz said, can be daunting.
“They have the one problem of how to get more volunteers,” he said. “Then if we have a ministry program where they have to tow the line, we potentially are going to lose coaches. We already demand VIRTUS training, CPR, we have these things in place. We don’t want to chase coaches away so its kind of a fine line in my opinion. That’s tough. As a former coach and athlete… we understand how a coach thinks. We’d love for you to be the next pope, but it is all baby steps and we want to help you where you’re at.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2013 edition of The Catholic Telegraph.