Faith and family part of football life at NCC
by Brian Miller For Sun-Times Media November 8, 2011 5:08PM
Coach John Thorne talks to his North Central players prior to a game. The NCC coaches promote a team philosophy putting integrity, faith and family out front. | SUBMITTED PHOTO
Updated: January 9, 2012 1:09PM
First of a two-part installment. Part two coming Friday.
The scoreboard at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium reads 00:00 and North Central head coach John Thorne stands in the middle of all his football players, just to the left of the 50-yard line.
As is his postgame ritual, Thorne leads the Cardinals in a rousing cheer of, “I am a champion and I refuse to lose.” The players bark the mimicry of his yell. Sometimes he says “refuse” three times. It’s the most outward emotion you’ll see from him all week.
Moments later, everyone takes a knee and team chaplain and Assistant Dean of Students Gary Ireland leads a thunderous prayer.
Life at North Central, you come to find, is as much about faith and family as it is about football.
“That goes back to my senior year of high school is when that started,” said Cardinals offensive coordinator Jeff Thorne, both him and his father formerly at Wheaton Warrenville South. “It’s been going ever since, and there’s a lot of meaning to it. I think our players have bought into it wholeheartedly. Being a champion is more than winning a football game. Being a champion is how you present yourself in life, how you carry yourself and the integrity that you have. Those are the things we talk about on a weekly basis here, things other than football. It’s been really refreshing as a coach to have that opportunity with players and not just always have our meetings be about X’s and O’s.”
The early days
The elder Thorne, who just turned 64, came to North Central in 2002, having won four IHSA state football titles with the Tigers, but was looking for an opportunity in the area to coach at a higher level and stay around all his kids and grandkids.
Ireland entered at that same time with an eagle’s eye view to the changes.
He not only leads the prayers at the end of games, but leads a team talk each week that discusses the task for the game ahead with an intertwined faith-based message.
“From the very beginning of starting to turn around the program, faith has been a very important aspect,” said Ireland, who has a Master’s in theology and has worked at CCIW member North Park, part of an evangelical covenant philosophy. “It’s in the team’s philosophy statement, their list of attributes they want the players to work. They want players to work on their faith in whatever way they chose.”
Ireland has led three different player groups on Habitat for Humanity trips. There are also once-a-week Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) meetings, led by wide receivers coach and former player Brad Spencer.
“This is for people who’ve never stepped foot in church in their life,” Ireland said. “No one is made to feel uncomfortable. No one has to talk. You can come with any questions you have. It’s been exploding this year because it’s a much different experience than players thought it would be. It’s just their teammates. It’s a very open, non-confrontational place for them to mainly just listen and explore their own faith beliefs.”
The Cardinal rule
It’s a simple list, but the philosophy statement handed out by coaches on the recruiting trails highlights not what is expected on the field as much as what is expected off.
“We have a thing called the Cardinal Manual,” fifth-year senior wide receiver Nick Hicks said. “It’s a bunch of adjectives that describe great characteristics of people — love, humility, perseverance. There’s a quote in there that says, ‘A setback is nothing more than a setup for a comeback.’ That was a great quote that I’ve lived by my entire life. Every time you get knocked down, you have to get up, you have to keep fighting. That’s exactly what these coaches preach every day.”
Hicks has recovered from two ACL tears and subsequent rehabilitation. Having come to the North Central program from Miami, Fla., Hicks was far away from home and in need of a family. What he found was just what he needed.
“I’m 1,600 miles from home, came here my freshman year and came here to play football,” Hicks recalled. “I tore my ACL. The whole reason I was here was to play ball and I couldn’t. I didn’t let it get me down, but I joined FCA.”
Spencer started the group his senior year of 2002. There were five people. Currently, that number stands at 45. And as the North Central recruiting coordinator, he’s often the one passing out the Cardinal Manual to prospective players and their parents.
“If anything, parents are particularly positive about the whole faith and family thing, especially the family thing,” Spencer said. “Regardless of what religion you are, if you have a son you want them go somewhere there’s a family atmosphere and North Central definitely has that. Whenever we talk with recruits about FCA or the trips with Habitat for Humanity, there’s always recruits that say ‘Oh, I’ve done that.’ It’s always been a very positive thing.”
From the formation of FCA, the house-building trips, the openness of the coaches about their religious beliefs came a foundation for a program that has won its sixth straight CCIW championship.
Any off-field issues that were around when the Thornes took over slowly disappeared.
“You either buy it or you don’t,” Hicks said. “There will be a handful of people that let adversity and bad things get to them and they shut down and give up. Those tend to be the guys that don’t go to FCA, don’t go to all the meetings, miss practice and miss class. It’s hard because you try to intervene and help them out, but what can you do? I guess they have to figure it out themselves if they’re not going to listen.
“The majority of our team, 80 percent of our team is focused, and it’s growing. When I came here as a freshman, there were a lot of things going on behind the scenes that would not be acceptable today and now none of that is happening. Everyone’s on board and it’s a great feeling to have a bunch of positive guys that you can talk to when you’re going through something.”
For most of the team, but especially for players like Hicks, coach Thorne and the rest of the coaching staff have served as surrogate parents. There’s nothing you can’t talk to them about, whether it’s school, a girlfriend problem, or even a question over playing time.
“All these coaches, I feel like they’re a second father, every single one of them, and in different ways,” Hicks said. “One’s a disciplinarian, one’s more comforting. I’m not going to say who’s who, but put them all together and it’s just like my dad at home. And that’s a great feeling.”
It takes a lot to manage a group of 140 individuals, from the recruits to the redshirts to the senior that blows out his knee and is forced to sit on the sideline for his final year. But the non-confrontational, exploratory attitude present at the FCA meetings is also encouraged throughout the rest of the program to truly get the most out of the student-athlete.
“You don’t want to keep anything from them because they’re going to give you great advice,” Hicks added. “It’s stupid if you do. You just have to get it off your chest. You can’t let it sit there and bother you. And they do a good job of figuring out if something is wrong, too. They’re always there, they’re always listening, they’re always paying attention. You can tell they really care about us all.”
Football is life
There’s a lot of symbolism from religion apparent in football. Whether it’s a Hail Mary pass or Touchdown Jesus, all the way down to the redemptive narrative of overcoming adversity, the two have many parallels. The religious background doesn’t matter.
“When I talk to other faculty members about football — and I never played football — I’ve learned about these student-athletes that this isn’t just an activity they do,” Ireland said. “This is really their life. It’s everyone they hang around with. It’s the way they think, the way they approach life. It really goes to the core of individuals and defines who they are. And in many respects that is a very spiritual thing. In order to connect with them from a faith basis, you really have to appeal that which is at the core of everybody.
“This idea that it’s a season, while the fans may think ‘Oh, we’re winning some games,’ these are men that look at this as something they’ve been preparing for since they were eight years old. It really is a spiritual part to that. There’s Christians on both sides of the ball so I don’t think God picks who wins and who loses, but I think God gives these men talents and abilities and how they use them is their sort of witness to God.”
And as it came to be found, the role of family and faith in the North Central program played a more important role this season than was first expected. Find out why in Part 2 on Friday.