Frassati Sports camp: Training for Heaven

Aaron Lambert

“We must remember we are training for Heaven!” the kids at Frassati Sports Camp shout before charging into the day’s first session.

The summer sports camp is part of Frassati Sports and Adventure, a nonprofit organization founded by Our Lady of Lourdes vice principal Ryan O’Connor in January 2016. Though only in its second year, the basketball and soccer camps that ran July 17-21 and 24-28 drew a capacity of180 boys. They had a ton of fun, of course, but sports aren’t just fun; they instill valuable life skills, and are invaluable tools for discipleship, virtue formation and as the boys learned, sanctification.

“I learned that sports can help you become a saint,” one 6th grader said in a testimonial on the Frassati Sports website. “I used to just stand around on defense in both basketball in life, but now I know how to defend the hoop and my soul,” another 8th grader said.

“From the beginning until now, the Church has always been clear about what the great value in sport is in forming disciples and virtue formation,” O’Connor told the Denver Catholic. 

Ryan O’Connor leads Frassati Sports Camp at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish. The camp runs during the summer and teaches kids discipleship through basketball and other sports. (Aaron Lambert/Denver Catholic)

Unfortunately, sports culture as a whole has become a far cry from this. Instead of focusing on character building and fostering those important values that sports teach so well, many athletes maintain a “win at all costs mentality,” O’Connor said.

“At best, it’s a wasted opportunity, and at its worst, rather than training for Heaven, it’s the opposite. I’ve always felt strongly about sports being a great tool for forming disciples,” he continued.

This is why O’Connor felt led to start Frassati Sports and Adventure. He named it after Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati because of the model he is to young boys and men in bringing their faith into athleticism.

“He’s a strong, young, cool athletic guy, [and] a fun-loving prankster,” O’Connor said. “Boys see such a separation in the culture [between] sports and faith life, [and] he is such a great example to bring them together.”

A typical day at Frassati Sports Camp starts with a prayer and a short introduction to the theme of the day. The theme ties into a particular skill they focus on that day; for example, on defense day, the theme is learning how to defend the soul in spiritual battle. The boys are assigned into teams, and after warm-up, they work on the skill through drills and practice. Then there is a breakout session during which O’Connor teaches catechesis. The day ends with a friendly contest between the teams and a short talk from a special guest speaker.

…There’s a correct way to thrive in life just like there’s a correct way to thrive as a basketball player.”

Among the speakers who offered their witness for this year’s camp were former Denver Nugget Bill Hanzlik, Varsity Catholic founder Thomas Wurtz, St. Rose of Lima pastor Father Nick Thompson, who played football for Central Michigan in college, and eight other Catholic former coaches and athletes who have participated in high-level sports. There is also a strong priestly presence at the camp, which included a special visit from Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila.

“They … get the message that you can be a cool guy who loves sports and even played at a high level and also love Jesus and his Church,” O’Connor said.

One of the speakers, Joshua Karabinos, coached college basketball and now serves the Archdiocese of Denver as the executive director of strategy integration.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila paid a surprise visit to the boys one day during the camp. (Photo provided)

“I would suggest these camps to parents even if all they offered was fun, great coaching, done in a way that ensured safety, but what Ryan and the other contributors are doing here is much more special than just that,” Karabinos said of the camp. “They are providing an environment where the pursuit of virtue is understood and attractive and authentic Christian witness is provided in a way that gets young people’s attention.

“It’s a real bright spot for youth formation in the archdiocese.”

Each day, the boys wrap tape around their wrists and write names of people they’re offering up the trials they face in camp as a way to bring prayer and spirituality into the game.

In an era inundated with technology and a strong temptation for boys to stay planted on the couch instead of engage in something active, sports are a way for them to become strong and strive for something more – both physically and spiritually.

The boys wrap tape around their wrists and write the names of people they’d like to offer up the day for at camp. (Photo by Aaron Lambert)

“When we’re hungering and thirsting for something, it motivates us to overcome those feelings [of laziness and selfishness] and deny ourself,” O’Connor said. “All of the self-sacrifice, the teamwork, the solidarity, the discipline, the training our muscles to be stronger and act according to the rules of the game … we translate it to that’s the reason God gives us rules and [that] there’s a correct way to thrive in life just like there’s a correct way to thrive as a basketball player.”

As the program continues to grow, O’Connor hopes to expand it to include other sports like baseball. This fall, he will be holding two pre-season basketball clinics for boys in grades three through eight to “tune up their game and tune up their souls.”

For more information about Frassati Sports and Adventure, visit frassatisports.org. High school and college aged men are encouraged to sign up as volunteer camp counselors. The camp filled to capacity quickly this year, so parents are encouraged to sign up for alerts regarding next year’s camp.

COMING UP: CSU basketball player keeps ‘Big Man’ at center

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Julie Filby

When Caitlin Duffy, 20, spoke with the Denver Catholic Register Feb. 18, it was shortly before she boarded a charter flight from Fort Collins to Boise. There she and Colorado State teammates would take on Boise State in women’s basketball.

Duffy, who leads the team in free throws and the conference in three-pointers, went on to score 11 points in the Ram’s 71-51 victory, further sealing their first-place position in the Mountain West and achieving a record-breaking amount of wins in conference action (13-2 in MW and 21-5 overall as of Feb. 24).

Despite a jam-packed schedule that includes travel, games, practices, meetings, classes, homework and everything else demanded of a college athlete, Duffy has kept things in perspective and remained strong in her faith with support from her family, her team and Varsity Catholic, a division of Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).

“Coming to college was a big adjustment for me, I was really nervous,” she said. “Finding Varsity Catholic was life-changing … it’s really been what’s kept me going a lot of times because there are so many ups and down with coming to college, and then balancing that with playing a Division I (National Collegiate Athletic Association) sport.”

Varsity Catholic was launched in 2007 at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln as an outreach to student-athletes offering Bible studies, one-on-one mentoring and other events.

“It’s extremely difficult for athletes to live out their faith due to time restraints, pressures and temptations that can come with their platform,” said Thomas Wurtz, director. The organization seeks to “develop the complete athlete,” he said, and beyond that, impact the wider industry.

“We believe collegiate athletics is the springboard to the entire world of sport which is a $400 billion industry in the U.S. alone,” he continued. “Athletes are some of the most influential men and women on their campuses, and will continue to be so in society after they graduate.”

Duffy, a native of Rapid City, S.D. and one of eight children to Karrie and Dan Duffy, welcomes the chance to share her faith when the opportunity arises.

“It all starts with developing relationships,” she said. “I could not be with a better group of girls and I think this, especially at this point in the season, is one thing that sets teams apart: we really are great friends on and off the floor; we love to be together, to play together and really push each other.”

As those relationships have developed, some teammates—Catholics, non-Catholic Christians and even those identifying as atheist—have started to ask questions about faith.

“It’s been so cool for me,” said Duffy. “Because at times I think all athletes … with sports playing such an important role in their lives wonder: How does this fit in?

“My faith is the foundation of everything I do,” she continued. “And one of the biggest things for me this year is beginning to share that with the girls on my team and other athletes at CSU.”

Christina Wirth, 26, a former professional basketball player in Europe and Women’s National Basketball Association team, the Indiana Fever, is the first full-time Varsity Catholic missionary on the CSU campus. She mentors members of not only the women’s basketball team, but also the swimming and diving and volleyball teams.

“I understand the demanding schedule these girls have,” Wirth said, adding that it’s important for her to meet them “where they’re at”—to ask about their lives, listen to them and develop bonds of trust.

“I work with a varied group, a lot of non-Catholics as well,” she added. “It’s really beautiful.”

Nationwide Varsity Catholic has 22 full-time missionaries, who were all college athletes themselves, on 15 campuses; plus another 43 part-time missionaries at 28 additional campuses. Last semester, some 550 student-athletes were involved in Varsity Catholic Bible studies.

“We prepare the athletes to be effective leaders; to be someone that young people and peers can look up to,” Wurtz said. “We really try to help them live their faith in that ‘real life’ environment.”

For more information, visit www.varsitycatholic.org.

Varsity Catholic | By the Numbers
Missionaries nationwide: 65
Campuses nationwide: 43
Student-athletes in Bible study last semester: 550