STAYTON — Before and after CYO football practice in this small town, players get down on their grass-stained knees to pray. The hope is to make it abundantly clear that sports are just sports and God is God.
"We are all about living the gospel, and in the competitive world of football, that can be difficult," says Debbie Fessler, CYO football director in the region.
Fessler has spent her life around the testosterone-filled sport and appreciates the competitive passions of players and coaches. She know the coaches — mostly dads of players — love the sport and respect the boys. Each year she reminds coaches that there is more to their task.
"We want these boys to become good Catholic men," says Fessler, a member of St. Mary Church in Mount Angel. "We want them to love Christ and love the church. Then we teach them football."
Called the Rams after their heroes on the gridiron at Regis High, the young players come from many different schools and denominations. Fessler says she is not offering Catholic doctrine, but good living and good sportsmanship.
"We say it's not about who wins or loses, but about being good to your teammates and being good to your opponent," Fessler explains.
She comes from the Traeger family of Mount Angel, a clan of football players and fans with a passion for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, but an even bigger love for the church. The older of her six children tell her they are glad she made them attend Mass. They now see their faith as vital and irreplaceable.
The region as a grade 3-4 team and a grade 7-8 team this year, fielding 40 players. According to demographic shifts, there are sometimes as many as 75 players. Rick Schindler, principal at St. Mary School in Stayton, sees his students who play CYO football feeling inspired to work hard and excel.
"They benefit greatly from the program and it shows in their confidence, attitude, and performance," Schindler says.
Schindler and Fessler know that professional athletes are not always good role models. They try to provide better.
"Football is a big deal in Stayton — Regis has a rich history in athletics," Fessler says. "I always hope faith is the biggest deal."