Turning down ESPN to work in campus ministry

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A little over a year ago, I found myself sitting across the table from an ESPN executive at ABC’s headquarters in New York City. From my cushioned seat, I took a look around me—a sleek desk covered in plaques and awards, iconic sports photos mounted on the walls, a panoramic view of midtown Manhattan. I started to get ambitious thoughts: This could be me one day.

Working at ESPN had been my dream since my sports-obsessed childhood. In middle school, I created a highlight video of a player on the Indianapolis Colts, my favorite N.F.L. team (yes, unusual for a boy from New York). Gary Brackett, a linebacker and then defensive captain of the Colts, discovered the video I made of him on YouTube. He asked me to make another video, a career highlight video, to show at his annual charity event later in the week. I told him it would be my honor.

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Soon his teammates were asking if I could make highlight videos for them, too. Since then, I have edited hundreds of highlight montages and short-form videos for the Indianapolis Colts, the Boston College football team and various collegiate and professional football players.

The ESPN executive apparently took notice of my videos. “I have seen your work, and I know how passionate you are about sports media,” he told me. “I think you have great potential at this company.”

Working at ESPN had been my dream since my sports-obsessed childhood.

He slid a document across the table—a contract for an entry-level job at ESPN. My heart leapt as I surveyed the document, my lifelong dream manifested on the paper in front of me.

Then we made small talk.

“So what did you study at B.C.?”

“Theology and film.”

“Wow, that’s unique! And what do you do now?”

“I help edit and produce videos for a Catholic media company.”

The conversation somehow turned into a discussion of my faith formation over the last several years. I explained my background in theology and campus ministry during my college years at Boston College, as well as my time as an O’Hare Fellow for America.

He listened attentively, nodding his head. He then asked: “So you’re going to give all of that up for sports?”

I believe he meant it as a harmless joke. But something about these words led me into an internal crisis. The question seemed to put my love for sports in conflict with my Catholic ideals. Somewhere deep within me, I came to realize that this career path could potentially compromise who I have become as a person of faith.

The question seemed to put my love for sports in conflict with my Catholic ideals.

In the next few moments, I attempted to convince myself that I did indeed want the position at ESPN and that I was crazy to think otherwise. But I couldn’t go through with it.

I told the executive that I was not going to take the job. At first he was confused, then angry, and told me that I had wasted his time. I can’t blame him. I thanked the man for his time, exited the office and walked out on what minutes before had been my dream job.

Filled with despair, I crossed the street, sat down on a bench in Central Park and burst into tears. Why did I do that? How could have I walked out on my dream? What am I now going to do with my life?

I sat with these questions for about an hour. Eventually, for some reason, I sifted through my wallet. I pulled out a business card of a former mentor of mine from Boston College who had since become the president of an all-boys Catholic college preparatory school in West Roxbury, Mass. It sparked an idea.

I rushed back to my dorm and composed a lengthy email to my mentor. I wasn’t necessarily inquiring about a job but rather seeking consolation and guidance on what to do next with my life.

The timing was impeccable. The next morning, the president replied that a position had recently opened up at his school to work in campus ministry and teach theology. A few days later, I traveled up to Boston, interviewed for the job and accepted the offer.

How could have I walked out on my dream? What am I now going to do with my life?

The school year began in September. I wore many hats and changed them often. I coordinated a year-long service and immersion program, taught four sophomore theology classes, coached two middle-school sports, created a platform for staff and faculty to share their personal faith, assisted with liturgies, service programs and retreats, and most important, provided pastoral care for over 600 boys at the school.

Those first nine months were the most exhausting and demanding of my 24-year-old life. The workday typically lasted from 6:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. My gas tank was seemingly on reserve for most of the school year. I nearly pulled an all-nighter for the first time since college preparing an on-campus retreat (which was canceled due to a snow day). I returned from a service and immersion trip to the Dominican Republic over April break with severe bronchitis that lasted for weeks.

The demands of my job led me to deep frustration, anger and exhaustion. But even more demoralizing was the constant interior questioning of my decision to forgo a career at ESPN. Is this lifestyle of campus ministry and teaching worth it? Is “living my faith” worth this anger and frustration I feel daily?At ESPN, perhaps I could be making a six-figure salary in a matter of years and have more personal time on my hands. I would not be exhausted at almost every waking moment.

Why am I doing this?

The school year finally came to an end. One day during the summer I was watching ESPN at a pizzeria when the words for the love of sports came on the screen. They gave me the beginnings of an answer. Why did I choose ministry over sports media? For the love of the person, the whole person.

Why did I choose ministry over sports media? For the love of the person, the whole person.

I realized that my visceral reaction to prioritizing sports over faith a year before was more fundamental than comparing two career paths. It was a choice of working for a system or for a person; of working for an idea or for a living human being. At the ESPN office in New York City, I made a decision about what matters most to me. Is it sports or is it human beings? Do I work for the love of sports or for the love of the person?

My work at the school is not for the love of sports, or at least not directly. After all, an all-boys school in Boston is naturally a very sports-centric institution. Most boys play at least one sport per season, talk incessantly about the Patriots, Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox and believe Tom Brady and Jesus Christ are synonymous.

What I have come to understand, though, is that sports cannot be the end in itself. A vocation in sports, a system, cannot supersede the vocation of serving a human being. Sports promote human flourishing but only as a means of personal formation.

Do I work for the love of sports or for the love of the person?

A career in sports media and a career in Catholic education are not diametrically opposed. Both ESPN and Catholic education serve human beings. Through game highlights and athlete interviews, or lesson plans and service programs, both aim to care for the person. However, one career allows me to serve the person more widely, deeply and directly than the other.

My job at Catholic Memorial School is to care for the whole person—in this case, the adolescent boy being transformed by the world around him. Sports have a vital role in this transformation, but equally important are the big academic and spiritual questions. Why are we brought into being and for what purpose? Questions like these extend the students’ horizons far beyond that which sports and entertainment can offer.

 

As a campus minister and educator, my greatest day-to-day task is the practice of hospitality—providing the open space for boys to encounter God. The task of hospitality requires physical spaces other than just the gymnasium and athletic fields. It also requires the classroom, the faculty office, the hallway and cafeteria, the chapel, the local parish and Boston itself. All of these spaces, in tandem, allow for the care of the whole person, which a sports venue and production studios alone fail to offer.

Coming to this realization did not end my deep interior grappling with my vocational question. After the school year ended, just this summer, I once again sought out a work opportunity in sports media. I applied to summer fellowship position at The Players’ Tribune, a cutting-edge platform founded by Derek Jeter that produces articles and videos from athletes themselves. Maybe I still wanted the prestige and money in sports media, or with the Tribune a more direct way of relating to people. Life choices are not always so clear cut. As much as I love my school, the sports media world continues to entice me. I initially received interest from the company but ultimately did not receive the offer. With much spiritual reflection I reaffirmed the grace of working at the school.

I believe I can find God everywhere—in all things and places. Sports are not excluded from God’s grace. But faith cannot be reduced to an idea or a system. It has to be centered upon and enlivened through a person—Jesus Christ, God incarnate.

This past year, I had the privilege to celebrate the Eucharist in community and walk with boys through the most formative times of their lives. The face of Jesus Christ is the high school student I am privileged to serve every day. There is no greater privilege I could ever have. And in my lifetime, there is no greater joy I have ever experienced.

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Jorge Luis Luaces Rabaza
6 months 3 weeks ago

This is an awesome and beautiful story, Nick. You were right to turn down a corporate job that has as its only purpose to grow markets and hence revenue. You are growing the kingdom of God and growing hearts for God. Your return on investment is out of this world.

BARBARA LEE
6 months 3 weeks ago

A deeply inspiring story, beautifully written. Who knows what ripple effect it can have?
Keep writing!

emma ferris
6 months 3 weeks ago

You do not need to attend a church to be a member of the body of Christ. If your On-Campus Group speaks negatively of other Christian faith who can do my assignment groups I suggest you leave that group. Find another like yourself and fellowship in prayer and bible study

Tim Donovan
6 months 2 weeks ago

I agree that this was a well-written story about the often difficult challenge of choosing your life's vocation. Despite always being shy, growing up my dream was to become President. Although having such power certainly can and does effect people, I decided that my interest in politics didn't match my ability to assume such authority over people. Sister Mary Amelia, my fifth grade teacher, inspired me to become a teacher. The fact that I loved history and did well in it made me think that I'd become a history teacher. However, after high school I went to work with disabled adults after one semester in college. As I grew close to and became friends with some of the clients, I returned to a different college, graduated with a degree in Education, and became a Special Education teacher. I enjoyed the challenge of teaching children with brain damage and behavior disorders. Every day I think of my former students, and continue to send Birthday and Christmas cards each year to one student. I believe that God gives each person a purpose in life. I think that enjoying your vocation in whatever field is very important.

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