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“Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” –Matthew 25:40

Seven years ago in Memphis, Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy were driving to their large home in a gated community when they saw a student walking alongside of the road.

Michael Oher, who grew up in the poverty-stricken area of the city called Hurt Village, had recently become a classmate of the Tuohy’s daughter Collins at Briarcrest Christian School.

At first glance, he was an intimidating figure, measuring more than six feet tall and weighing close to 250 pounds. But when the Tuohys looked closer, they saw a teenage boy shivering in the cold, rainy night, wearing only shorts and a t-shirt.

They stopped the car, opened their door and gave Michael a place to stay for the night. It turns out their gift was a brand new life.

Now in theaters, the film The Blind Side depicts the real-life events surrounding the Tuohys’ decision to welcome Michael into their lives on that cold, winter night.

The Tuohys gave Michael a warm bed, comfortable clothes and a stable, loving family environment in which he could thrive. With their support and the help of a tutor, Michael raised his grade point average at Briarcrest to a level that qualified him to play football.

Michael was assigned the important position of left tackle, a position that must protect the quarterback from defensive players on the left – the quarterback’s “blind side.”

He excelled on the gridiron and was courted by many of the coaches in the Southeastern Conference. He enrolled at Ole Miss, was named First Team Freshman All-American and made the Dean’s List his sophomore year. As a senior, he again made the Dean’s List and earned a degree in criminal justice. He was named First Team All-American and was a first-round pick in the NFL draft. He currently starts at tackle for the Baltimore Ravens.

Michael’s life was drastically changed when he got in the Tuohy’s car, but the Tuohys look at that night differently. “I think Michael had a much greater impact on our lives than we did on his,” Leigh Anne said in film press materials. “You take so much in life for granted, but when Michael moved in with us, he made us realize how blessed we are. We viewed life differently after he joined our family.”

I think the Tuohys looked at life differently before Michael got into the car. They looked beyond their comfortable point of view and saw a boy from a different area of town who needed their help. They didn’t want or need the approval of their socialite friends to help the young man. They weren’t bound by unspoken rules that segregated the rich from the poor, the black from the white. They didn’t have a blind side.

What about us? When we show compassion to others or help someone less fortunate than ourselves, how far out of our comfort zone do we go? Do we look at the world around us in 360 degrees or just through that narrow line of vision that is easy and comfortable?

Jesus reminded us in last week’s gospel that his kingdom is not of this world. To follow in his footsteps and truly live by his example, we must be free of worldly restraints.

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:24)

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, also in theaters now, Ebeneezer Scrooge is startled by the ponderous, heavy chain wrapped around the ghost of Jacob Marley, his late partner. Marley forged the chain himself through a life of disreputable business affairs and by ignoring the needs of those less fortunate. Scrooge learns that his own chain was the same length and weight seven years ago, and had grown considerably since then.

Later on, Scrooge receives a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Present – the jolly figure of Father Christmas who represents the fullness of life. Clinging to the underside of his opulent coat are two frail and helpless figures: a girl named Want and a boy named Ignorance. According to Father Christmas, “upon them lies the seal of Doom for mankind” unless their future is changed.

Ebeneezer learns a valuable lesson during his dreams: apathy can be as powerful a societal evil as criminal behavior. Fortunately for him, Tiny Tim and others in their fair village, Ebeneezer did not remain a passive bystander to mankind’s plight. Instead of condemning the less fortunate to a miserable life in the prisons and workhouses, he uses his time, talents and treasure to help others build a better life for themselves.

It’s a lesson Leigh Anne Touhy already knew. Fortunately for Michael Oher (and now us), she put the lesson into action on that cold, rainy night seven years ago in Memphis.

CF
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First published in the November 27, 2009 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2009 Christopher Fenoglio

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“It’s football time in Tennessee! – John Ward

Walking around the new Giacosa Stadium at Father Ryan High School last week, I felt the excitement of high school football under the Friday night lights. It reminded me of playing football in the Stone Castle for Bristol Tennessee High School.

1972 National Champions

As a junior transfer from northern Illinois, I quickly learned about the school’s winning traditions. Just two years earlier, the Vikings capped two consecutive undefeated seasons with another AAA state championship.

This team from a small town of 23,000 people rolled over the big city teams in Tennessee and was named the 1972 National Champions of high school football. Really.

But for all the championships and hard work to prepare for a new season, the community knew when to stop for something more important.

Blocking for THS in 1975

Blocking for THS in 1975

We were in the middle of a morning practice and Coach Johnston was pushing us hard on the blocking sleds. “Drive your legs, move it, move it” he bellowed.

Suddenly Head Coach Bingham blew his whistle. “Helmets off,” he told us. Strange, he never stopped practice in the middle of a drill.

All the coaches turned to face Edgemont Avenue, which ran alongside our practice field. My teammates and I removed our helmets and stood silently at attention. We bowed our heads and paid our respects to the hearse and the funeral procession driving by.

On this day I learned that no matter what I am doing on this earth, there’s always time to stop, pray and glorify God.

Coach Grant Taylor learned the same lessons in the inspirational film Facing the Giants.

With six years of losing seasons, his coaching career at Shiloh High School in rural Georgia is at its lowest level. After losing the first three games of the current season, he is close to losing his job and the support of the community.

At home, it isn’t much better. Coach Taylor and his wife struggle to make ends meet and take care of a smelly house, a bad stove and an unreliable car. To make matters worse, their efforts to start a family are unsuccessful, even after four years.

Outside on a walk, Coach Taylor prays: “Lord Jesus, will you help me? I need you Lord. I feel that there are giants of fear and failure just staring at me, waiting to crush me, and I don’t know how to beat ‘em.”

“Be not afraid” was a favorite phrase of Pope John Paul II, which he used many times to inspire the faithful. Referring to the pope’s book “Splendor of Truth,” columnist Larry Kudlow writes that John Paul II taught us to “be not afraid in pursuit of a life of faith. Be not afraid to trust God. Be not afraid to stand for the right values. Be not afraid to be faithful to your spouse, or unselfish to friends, or diligent in work and the many duties of everyday life.”

One day Coach Taylor gets a visit from Mr. Bridges, a man who regularly prays for the students by walking down the halls and touching the lockers. “Coach Taylor, the Lord is not through with you yet.”

Facing the GiantsHe inspires Coach Taylor to create a new purpose for the team, a purpose they can use every day. The coach tells his team “Life is not about us—how we could look good, make money, get glory and then die—it’s about honoring God. Jesus said the best thing you can do with your life is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

“Football is just one of the tools we use to honor God. If we play our best and we win, we honor him. If we lose, we still honor him. That’s how we’re going to play our games. That’s how we should live our lives.”

The team adopts Coach Taylor’s philosophy and good things start to happen. They overcome their giant emotions of fear and failure and reach the state championship game, where they must play a team of giant players.

Not settling for the satisfaction of just reaching the final game, Coach Taylor implores his team to give it all they have. They must be a stone wall to stop the other team and use their smarts to outwit them.

At the end of the game, with only the slimmest of hopes left to win it, Coach Taylor puts his faith to the test and sends in his young field goal kicker for an impossibly long field goal. He reminds his team to play their best, for in God, “all things are possible.”

He remembers the story of two farmers who prayed to God for rain. Their crops were dry and sorely needed the water. After they finished praying, one farmer sat back and waited to see if the rain would come. The other farmer got up and worked his fields. He pulled weeds, loosened the soil and did everything he could to prepare the ground and his crops for the blessed rain.

Which farmer had more faith in God? Which farmer are you?

CF

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First published in the September 5, 2009 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2009 Christopher Fenoglio.

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I am an optimist.

As I tell my son, I am “a happy man.” I try to stay upbeat, see the good in others and have faith that everything will work out for the best.

Lately, however, I’ve been walking under a dark cloud of doubt. I rationally understand that a joyous event could happen in the near future, yet I am fearful that calamity will strike again, destroying this year’s dream and adding more misery onto me, my family, friends and fellow fans.

The subject of this column is near and dear to my heart, as much a part of my genetic makeup as Italian food and Irish blue eyes – the Chicago Cubs. The possible joyous event? The first World Series championship in 100 years.

A glorious night singing the National Anthem at Wrigley Field.

Singing the National Anthem at Wrigley Field in 2004.

As I write this column, the Cubs are beginning their “Hunt for a Blue October” with the division playoff series against the Dodgers. This is only the sixth postseason appearance for the Cubs in my 50-year-old lifetime.

My father, the man who indoctrinated me into Cubs fandom, was only nine years old in 1945 when the team last appeared in the World Series. My Nonno (Italian for grandfather) was not even born when the Cubs last won the World Series in 1908. Now those two die-hard fans are rallying the angels and cheering for the Cubs from Heaven.

Here on earth, I am trying to stay optimistic and keep the faith, but it’s hard. I’ve seen too many slumps, slides and strikeouts to know that no collapse is impossible for the Cubs.

Ground balls through the legs, foul balls not caught, hot summer day games, a black cat on the field, a billy goat kept out of the ballpark – all of these events have kept the Cubs from winning the pennant. Why, after the mythical collapse of 1969 when the Amazin’ Mets won it all, there were rumors that the Cubs were going to be sold and moved to the Philippines, where they would be renamed the Manila Folders. Not really, but you can understand the angst all us Cubs fans feel.

What really concerns me, though, is the realization that the level of my pessimism is directly proportional to the team’s talent and success. Each win delivers a one-two punch of elation and anxiety at the same time. After so many years of failure, am I scared that the Cubs might win? Can we handle the success?

This quandary leads me to wonder if I should “play it safe” with my emotions and not get too wrapped in either the highs or lows of daily life. Is it better to stay on an even keel, or is life best experienced by enjoying the highs and persevering through the lows?

And what about faith? If we are always playing it safe, then we don’t need faith; we don’t need a loving God to whom we turn for comfort for our sorrows or to thank for our joys.

No, even though I am a man of doubt and fears, I am also a man of faith. I will enjoy this postseason. I want to remember the Cubs of 2008 as a great team, no matter the final outcome.

“How do you want to be remembered?” asks Kent Stock, the coach of the Norway High School baseball team in the film The Final Season.

Norway, Iowa is a small farming community just west of Cedar Rapids. Playing baseball is as much a part of the daily routine in Norway as feeding the livestock and hauling hay to the barn. Based upon a true story in 1991, The Final Season tells the story of a very successful baseball team.

Year after year, this small 1A high school baseball team remained independent of any conference so that they could schedule teams from much larger schools. Under the guidance of longtime coach Jim Van Scoyoc, the team focused on the fundamentals of baseball and won 19 Iowa State Baseball Championships.

That winning tradition, however, was seriously put to the test when the county school board decided that the students of Norway High School would have many more educational opportunities if they close the school and merge with the larger Madison High School.

Forcing Coach Van Scoyoc to retire, the school board hires inexperienced Kent Stock (Sean Astin) to coach the team before the merger. Coach Stock must inspire the players to work hard for one more season, one more championship. He wants the team to be remembered as winners.

It’s a story that shows us that despite the possibility of failure or the certainty of change, we should live in the moment and use our God-given talents to the best of our abilities, even if those talents are a love for the Chicago Cubs and a fervent hope that they are successful.

There are many reasons to stay optimistic: the Cubs have excellent pitching, big hitters, and they wear the Roman numeral for 100 on their caps – this has to be the year!

Eddie Vedder, a longtime Cubs fan and lead singer of Pearl Jam, wrote a song this summer titled “Some Day We’ll Go All the Way.” After 100 years, there’s no time like the present.

Keep the faith, Cubs fans.

CF
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First published in the October 3, 2008 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2008 Christopher Fenoglio

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The dew was still thick on the lush, green bent grass, testifying to the early morning tee times. At the first tee, four golfers stretched their muscles as they swung perfect practice swings.

Others waited patiently by their carts, readjusting the Velcro on their gloves and wiping their clubs clean. A light rain fell softly as the golfers prepared for a most important round of eighteen holes.

No, it wasn’t the Masters at Augusta; it wasn’t even a city tournament at McCabe. It was the Fenoglio Family Golf Outing held during our Fourth of July reunion. There’s a fondness for golf that runs through my family.

Some family members have monthly, even weekly love affairs with the sport. They’ll meet regularly at their neighborhood course or fly to distant cities for nearly five hours of passionate play. Afterwards, no matter the outcome, they’ll always look forward to their next rendezvous.

On the other hand, golf and I are sporadic daters, getting together only a couple times a year. We’ll see each other for nine holes one afternoon, share a few laughs, part amicably without regret, and then forget about each other for many months.

So, when I read the reunion schedule included a golf outing, I accepted with a little trepidation.

Will it be fun? Will my uncles give me helpful tips, even though I play left handed? Will I just completely embarrass myself?

Suffice it to say, the highlight of the round was the final hole. Not because the round was over, but because it was the only hole that I shot par. As the final putt dropped into the hole, I ignored the game’s etiquette and shouted “Par!”

Up on the hill, already finished with his round, Uncle Mike shouted in praise and raised his arms in salute. “You still hit from the wrong side of the ball!” he added.

On the whole, the day was quite enjoyable, with fine weather and long walks to find my ball on adjacent fairways. It was humbling to watch my cousin’s teenage sons play so much better than me. Yet it was a day with unexpected joys – the par on 18, a straight drive down a narrow fairway, a well-placed pitch in front of a meandering creek.

Within this game are spiritual elements that also serve as lessons for life.

I found some of these lessons in the book Golf and the Spiritual Life by Father Mike Linder, a priest in the Knoxville diocese. I lived next to Mike in a dorm room years ago at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, IL and we enjoyed a few rounds on the school’s golf course.

As I look back over my weekend of family golf, a few of the life lessons from his book come to mind:

Play it as it lies. It’s very tempting, especially when no one is looking, to nudge the ball up onto a tuft of grass from a poor lie in the rough, making it easier to hit. Not only is “improving one’s lie” against the rules, it also shows that we are not taking responsibility for the swing that drove the ball to the poor lie in the first place.

In golf and life, bad breaks sometimes happen, even when we’re doing the best we can. For that matter, good breaks sometimes happen when we don’t do anything at all. By “playing it as it lies,” we live honestly with truth behind all our actions.

Focus on the task in front of you. Yes, it can be difficult to focus on one task during golf, as so many things have to happen at the same time: keep your arm straight, bend your knees slightly, etc. etc. But none of these tasks matter if you are not keeping your eye on the ball and hitting it squarely.

“Be the ball,” says Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) to Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) in the hilarious golf film Caddyshack. Too often I want to see where the ball is going, so I lift my head before the shot is completed, thus changing the position of my hands and the path of the ball. If I had a little more patience, I’d complete one task before looking ahead to another.

Let go of the past and continue to practice. Jack Nicholas writes in his book Golf and Life that the most important practice is the time immediately after a round, when that day’s swing is still fresh. It’s important to forget those bad shots, as they are gone. Instead, work hard now to improve your swing in the future.

On the Web you can find photos of Tiger Woods, age 3, following through his golf swing in perfect form. Most of us would love to have the swing Tiger had at 3. Yet he has reshaped his swing twice through endless hours of practice just to improve and be the best.

If Tiger thinks he can get better, then I’ve got tons of potential. I think I’ll head to the driving range so I can get ready for the next family golf outing.

CF
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First published in the July 11, 2008 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2008 Christopher Fenoglio

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In 1965, 20th Century Fox released the film John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. A comic spoof on the Cold War, the film depicts the mad-capped events after a spy plane flown by John Goldfarb, a former Notre Dame football player, crashes in the fictitious Arab country of Fawzia.

John GoldfarbThe King (Peter Ustinov) keeps Goldfarb (Richard Crenna) prisoner, forcing him to teach a group of Fawzians how to play American football. Jenny Ericson (Shirley McLain) is a reporter who goes undercover as a member of the king’s harem.

Ambitious to make Fawzia known around the world, the king blackmails the U.S. State Department into arranging a game between his team and the icon of American college football – the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Jenny and the harem become the Fawz U. cheerleaders for the big game.

In the closing zany minutes, Shirley McLain’s character enters the game as quarterback and scores a touchdown to defeat Notre Dame (while simultaneously striking oil to scatter all the players, belly dancers, camels and goats). The university unsuccessfully tried to stop the release of the film, especially because the way-out plot depicted the Notre Dame players “as undisciplined gluttons and drunks.”

Some people say that the film is one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of Notre Dame football – at least until this season.

This was a tough year for Notre Dame football fans. The young Irish team struggled most of the year, losing many games by lopsided scores.

For me, the low point of the season was the loss to Navy, snapping a 43-game winning streak by the Irish over the Midshipmen.

Afterwards, the TV announcer asked Coach Charlie Weis what the end of the winning streak meant to him. Coach Weis responded by saying “I don’t care about the streak. I care about these young men.”

“Don’t care about the streak?” I yelled at TV? For us alums, “that’s our history too!”

The words hung in the air as I gave more thought to Weis’s care about the players. Earlier that week, the older brother of one of the freshman players had been shot dead in Chicago. Coach Weis spent hours consoling the family. On Friday, the day before the Navy game, more than 50 players and coaches traveled to Chicago for the funeral. They went to pay their respects and support their teammate, a member of their Notre Dame family. Years later they may not remember the tough games, but they’ll remember the valuable life lessons taught by Coach Weis.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul wrote “we, though many, are one body in Christ.” We should not “grow slack in zeal,” but “be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord, rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, and persevere in prayer.”
(Romans 12:5, 11-12)

I learned the lessons of family and Notre Dame at a very early age. Dad and I would drive from Illinois to campus to watch the games during the “Era of Ara,” the great years under coach Ara Parseghian. While Dad never attended Notre Dame, he was a devoted fan of the football team.

Later, a month before I entered the university as a freshman, we visited my grandparents in Indianapolis. Grandma was baking Snickerdoodle cookies in the kitchen and Granddad was sitting in his favorite chair, writing in a black scrapbook.

He then called me over and gave me the scrapbook. It was filled with newspaper clippings about the life of Knute Rockne, his amazing career at Notre Dame and his death from a 1931 plane crash.

Inside, Granddad had written “To Christopher Fenoglio (on the occasion of his acceptance by Notre Dame); the first born grandchild of our first born, this scrapbook is presented in the hope that his sojourn under the Golden Dome will increase and nourish his faith in Christ and His Mother Mary. – His proud Grandfather, A.D. 1976”

While Granddad never attended Notre Dame, his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mother created a strong tie with the university.

Notre Dame football ticketsThe scrapbook included a ticket stub to the 1935 football game between Northwestern and Notre Dame. I figured that Granddad was a fan and had gone to the game in his youth. I stuck the ticket stub in the scrapbook and forgot about it. Eight years later in 1983, Granddad passed away.

Just this past September, twenty-four years after her husband preceded her in death, Grandma passed away at the spry old age of 92. They are now reunited in heaven after so many years.

A couple weeks ago, I received a letter from my aunt after the family sorted the collections of my sweet, pack rat grandmother. Inside was a ticket stub to the same football game. On her ticket she wrote “I had a good time – but did it rain.”

A call to Mom brought to light more details about these two tickets, now reunited after so many years.

Since my grandparents married in June 1936, they must have traveled together to the game during their courtship. They probably stayed with Granddad’s sister, who married a Notre Dame graduate in the Log Chapel. I had no idea there was another family connection to Notre Dame.

The Irish lost that game in 1935, but our family has thrived. Now there’s an even stronger family connection to Notre Dame. I graduated in 1980, my sister Cathy and husband Joe graduated in 1981, brother Andy graduated in 1988, nephew Rory is a current freshman and aunt Peg is working on her Master’s from the university.

The future looks bright for our team, as they won their last two games of the year. We just need to continue to support the coach and the team. The rain will stop one day; the sun will glisten again on the Golden Dome.

Stay strong and keep the family united. We are ND.

CF
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Originally published in the November 30, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio

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Two weeks ago I was at Wrigley Field in Chicago, watching the Cubs beat the Pirates and step toward the playoffs. As I drove home, I imagined conversations that might be heard if a Chicago sports talk program aired on a religious radio station.

This is Father Michael Patrick O’Connor, talking to you live from our studio and devotional chapel on Waveland Avenue, overlooking the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. Go ahead, caller, you’re on the air.

Caller 1: Hello Father Michael, it’s Cathy from Elgin. I have been a Cub fan all my life, but some of my friends have lost faith in the Cubbies. They think the team will always find some way to lose. What should I tell them?

FMPO’C: Well Cathy, it’s interesting that wrigley-layout.gifyou use the word “faith,” as that is exactly what us Cub fans need right now.

Sure it’s been a long time since the Cubs won the National League pennant in 1945. Whole generations have come and gone since the team last won the World Series in 1908. But we can’t switch allegiances and cheer for an American League team. We must have faith that this could be the year the Cubs win it all.

“Hope springs eternal in the hearts of Cub fans everywhere,” my father used to say. Despite the losing streaks, the lack of clutch hits with men on base and a reliable closer, we still believe in the Cubs. They are the team of our fathers and our fathers’ fathers. They are so much a part of us that cheering for them is like cheering for ourselves. We can overcome; we can grab the brass ring.

Cathy, tell your friends to keep the faith. How about another call?

Caller 2: Hi Father, it’s Andy from Omaha, listening on the Internet. Do you think they should make a movie about the Cubs?

FMPO’C: Yes and hopefully a better one than Rookie of the Year. In that film, Henry Rowengartner (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is a twelve-year-old Little Leaguer who breaks his arm. When the cast is removed, he celebrates by going to Wrigley Field with his friends.

When an opponent hits a home run that lands nearby, Henry follows tradition and throws the ball back onto the field. But since the tendons of his arm healed tighter than before, his throw goes all the way to home plate.

Desperate for good pitching and greater ticket sales, the Cubs sign Rowengartner to a major league contract with funny and predictable results. Some of it is just plain silly, much like the Cubs in the mid 1970s.

A better movie would be like Fever Pitch, except with scenes of Wrigley Field, the Bleacher Bums, and the joy felt by 40,000 fans singing “Go Cubs Go” after every victory.

Millions of fans have loved the Cubs since before the days of Banks, Kessinger, Santo and Williams. Now with Lee, Theriot, Ramirez and Soriano leading the way, there’s bound to be a happy ending. We just don’t know the day or the hour of its arrival.

When we read the Book of Job, we find that Job endured many long years of affliction and disaster. Yet he did not curse God or start cheering for another team. We too must have faith that in God’s time—we will be rewarded for our devotion. So, who’s on line one?

Caller 3: Hey, it’s Steve from Chicago. Do you have a good prayer to get rid of all the curses put on the Cubs over the years?

FMPO’C: I know some people say that the years of last place finishes and excruciating near misses are evidence that the Cubs and their fans are jinxed. I disagree.

Granted, trading Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio was an All-Star mistake, and the College of Coaches was a very bad idea. But those were just poor choices made by human beings. Since God gave us free will, we have to live with the consequences of our bad decisions. That’s baseball; that’s life.

C.S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you will find that you have excluded life itself.”

Like Job, we are stronger from our suffering. We enjoy every small victory that comes our way, yet still know the pangs of humility. Not many Yankees fans can say that.

As for the Curse of the Goat, the story goes that Billy Sianis, a Greek immigrant and Chicago restaurant owner, brought his pet goat to the 1945 World Series—the last one played at Wrigley Field. When the Andy Frain ushers ejected him from the stadium, he cursed the Cubs. But they were right in kicking him out—goats can really stink by the seventh inning.

Forget about curses and believe in the Cubs with a sincere heart. Lou Piniella will do the rest. Of course, a prayer to St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes, can also help. Finally, we have time for one more call.

Caller 4: Hi Father, it’s Rory from South Bend. Do you have any advice for this year’s Notre Dame football team?

FMPO’C: Oh, Rory my son, the lessons of faith are even more important there, but we’ll have to wait until next week. Keep the faith!

CF
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First published in the October 5, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio.

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On a Saturday afternoon in late January, I turned off Interstate 74 onto Indiana highway 101.

Wide, flat farm land stretches out from both sides of the two-lane road. Brown stubs of corn stalks dot the empty fields, once filled with six-foot green guardians of varieties of corn. Small farm houses appear every other mile, with kitchen lights burning and white wisps of smoke twirling from the chimneys.

Farm life has not changed much for these people during the last one hundred years. The sun and the seasons still set the schedule for their lives. With the harvest in the barns and planting not scheduled for months, they can now concentrate on their passion: high school basketball.

I took a journey to the small town of Milan to see an icon of Indiana high school Milanbasketball. As my dad used to tell me, all Indiana high schools, large and small, used to compete in one state tournament. Against all odds, the team from this tiny town defeated the big city team from Muncie to win the championship in 1954.

At the gym, a side door was open for visitors. A solitary player was on the court, practicing jump shots. “Milan Indians” was screen printed on his shorts.

“You guys win last night?” I asked.

“No sir, we should have,” he said. “We were just too slow.”

“Well, keep up the hard work,” I said, leaving him to his shooting.

Folks in Indiana live and breathe basketball every Friday night, a truth that was superbly illustrated in the film Hoosiers. Written by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh, the film stars Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper.

Based loosely on Milan’s run for the state championship, the film chronicles the Hickory Huskers’s improbable victories against much larger schools.

But within the portrayal of last second victories, granny shots and picket fences, we find personal stories of faith, courage and redemption that inspire our own lives.

“Each of the principal characters was stuck (living their lives) in a certain way. They needed to get beyond where they were (but) were unable to do it on their own,” said Pizzo in the film’s commentary on the Collector’s Edition DVD. “They were each provided an opportunity to move on, either by another individual or by a group like the team or the community.”

Norman Dale, banished from coaching because he struck one of his players in Ithaca, NY, had spent the past twelve years in the Navy. He was given another chance to coach by his friend Cletus, the principal of Hickory High School.

The townspeople of Hickory, who took tremendous interest in every detail of the basketball team, were stuck believing that outside shots and zone defense were the best strategies. Coach Dale, modeled somewhat after Bobby Knight, showed them that a different strategy of hard work, a deliberate offense and man-to-man defense can win more games.

HoosiersShooter, the town drunk and father of a player, bummed change for a living but still remembered much about “the greatest game ever invented.” He was given a chance to help the team by Coach Dale, despite the concern of the town and Shooter’s son.

Jimmy Chitwood, the best player in town, avoided the game while he mourned the passing of the old coach who was like a father to him. When he saw the stern, tough love tactics instilled into the team by Coach Dale, he returned to the game he loved.

Myra Fleener, who looked after Jimmy, was afraid that he would only know success in Hickory and be stuck there. She herself was stuck in Hickory, caring for her family.

In a scene deleted near the end of the film because of time restraints, we learn that she planned to leave Hickory and finish graduate school in Chicago. “When I gave you a chance,” Myra says to Coach Dale, “it made me realize what I had to do for myself.”

At one time or another, we all need to get “unstuck” from bad habits, sinful ways or even the apathy that creeps into our routines and daily schedules.

These last few weeks of Lent are a great time to reflect on how we are stuck and what we can do to live freely again. It is clear that we can’t do it alone.

In the Gospel of John (9:1-41), we read how Jesus cured the man who had been born blind. But the Pharisees, stuck in their traditions and laws, could not recognize the obvious power of God. They were only concerned about how Jesus had performed this miracle during the Sabbath.

In Hoosiers, redemption comes at the end of the film as a coach wins the big game, a father reunites with his son, a star player hits the winning shot, a teacher gives herself a chance to grow, and the town enjoys a success unlike any they’ve ever known.

In our lives, redemption comes from our Savior, who wipes our sins away with his suffering, death and resurrection on Easter Sunday. We only have to let him into our hearts to free us from our sinful past, so that we can rejoice in a new life with him.

CF
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First published in the March 23, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio

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