Lisa Kochanowski
Freelance Writer
June 23, 2015 // Local

Flag football game offers life-changing impact at St. Augustine Parish

Lisa Kochanowski
Freelance Writer

The group huddles before scrimmage in preparation for the Boys vs. Men Father’s Day Flag Football Game sponsored by the St. Augustine Parish, South Bend, youth ministry.

By Lisa Kochanowski

SOUTH BEND — It started as a small Nerf ball tradition pulled from Deacon Mel Tardy’s trunk after youth ministry classes and has become a life-changing tradition for males — young and old — in Michiana. A great youth ministry class session meant the young boys could get the football out and play on the church field. As the boys became teens, the interest in playing football continued and a tradition was born.

On Father’s Day this year — and for the past seven years — the St. Augustine Parish Youth Ministry Program hosted a boys vs. men Father’s Day flag football game with the goal of raising funds for the youth ministry, creating fellowship among generations, giving youth guidance and having some pigskin fun.

The mission of St. Augustine Youth Ministry is to serve the needs of youth and their families within the parish and neighborhood; to involve youth in Church life; to develop youth leaders; to evangelize and catechize interested youth; to advocate for youth; to create awareness of Catholic opportunities and resources for youth; to help families develop youth into responsible, Christian adults, according to Deacon Mel Tardy, the St. Augustine youth minister.

The Father’s Day football game started as a service project for the first youth RCIA class in 2007. The youth became involved in the parish via neighborhood outreach activities such as Summer Movie Night, Monthly Teen Ministry and Wednesday Youth Ministry.

“This led several of them to begin attending Mass, and that culminated into a large RCIA class of youth/teens,” Deacon Tardy said. “At that point, all of them were African American and male. Many were the first to become Catholic in their families, which presented several challenges for maintaining their faith.”

“For them, we created several new programs that benefited the parish, such as a youth choir and an African drum group,” Deacon Tardy said. “As they became older, they created their own activities, such as First Friday teen game night. But the annual football game is probably their favorite event, especially since a rivalry has developed between the boys (now teens) and the adult men.”

Deacon Tardy coaches the men’s team, and the deacon’s son, Trevor Doakes, coaches the boys’ team. Teams get in about eight practices before the big game, and attendance at practice is mandatory to play in the game. Each player gets a T-shirt with the logo St. Augustine’s “Crew Saders” on the front and their name on the back. The logo, created by the kids seven years ago, remains the same each year except for a T-shirt color change each year.

The game was held at Father Walter Bly Field at Leighton Stadium at Saint Joseph High School. Tickets sold for $5 each and included admission, a hot dog, drink and a cookie. Each year the group gets an event sponsor, and this year’s event sponsor was the Deb Childs Agency.

“We started doing the game on Father’s Day because many of the young men don’t have positive relationships with their fathers. So this provides a positive memory for them on Father’s Day,” Deacon Tardy noted. “They feel good that some family members come out to watch them play. Roughly half of the young men are parishioners, but we allow them to invite friends to play too. This makes it more fun for them, plus some of their friends start getting involved in youth ministry.”

“Most of the boys from that first RCIA class still play; a few are young adults now,” Deacon Tardy said. “Even though some drift away from Church during the year, they always start coming back for football practice and the game. The youngest participant this year is nine, so we have a mix of ages.”

“It’s like the gift that keeps on giving,” Deacon Tardy said, “The game brings them back to Church each year and the game brings in new youth and adults each year.”

Deacon Tardy appreciates the chance to have one-on-one time with kids through this program. Car rides to practice offer a chance to talk about future goals and plans, ways to overcome adversity and ways to integrate God into daily life.

“We hope they realize they can have fun through Church,” the deacon said. “We pray as community at every practice about what concerns them. We talk about life skills that will help them.”

The main theme of this year’s event was “End the Violence.” Deacon Tardy said the kids witness violence all the time. Some have been bullied at school or home. The program tries to encourage kids to keep their grades up so they can get involved in organized sports.

“One challenge we have with the game is that many of their fathers aren’t around to play in the game so we recruit positive men from the parish, from Notre Dame, through word of mouth. We appreciate these men so much,” Deacon Tardy said. “It’s a big deal to spend Father’s Day with young men who aren’t your sons; but these men do it every year.”

The boys and men held some joint practices this year to develop interaction. Deacon Tardy said, “We hope it breaks down generational divides so they can develop positive relationships with men.”

And the deacon hopes the event inspires more men to get involved as mentors and youth ministers. “Someone who can throw footballs with young men, but then also pray with them and encourage them is such a positive moment,” he said.

“We need to get youth away from violence and into relationships with God and the Church,” Deacon Tardy advised. “The only way to do this is through creative, positive ministry alternatives and by developing relationships with our youth and their families.”

The first game was held in the afternoon after a rainy morning. Visitors were asked to bring chairs to the soggy field and nothing filled Deacon Tardy’s heart more than seeing a sideline full of people cheering on the teams.

“Strong support is what keeps the kids coming back each year to be part of such a wonderful moment,” Deacon Tardy noted.

“We hope it boosts their self-esteem, fosters community,” he said, “let’s them know they can make a difference and reinforces the good values that are already inherent within each of them.”

“We hope this becomes a positive Father’s Day memory that encourages them later in life to spend time with their sons (and other people’s sons) when they become fathers,” concluded Deacon Tardy.

 

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