Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Updated: October 28, 2:35 PM ET
Chase Hilgenbrinck, from the pitch to the priesthood
By Kieran Darcy
"For everything there is a season,
EMMITSBURG, Md. -- Chase Hilgenbrinck is alone in the middle of the field, just outside the goal box, with his back to it. He's facing his teammates, who are standing several yards away, split into two lines for pregame warm-ups. One by one -- left, then right -- they kick a soccer ball his way, and start jogging in his direction. Chase deftly deflects each ball off to the side with a flick of his foot, setting up each teammate to launch a shot on goal.
It's been a couple months since he last put on a uniform. But it still feels comfortable. Natural. His mind drifts back to the last time he suited up: Sunday, July 13, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. He was a member of Major League Soccer's New England Revolution, facing Mexican club Santos Laguna in a SuperLiga game. Now, on the final weekend of September, he's preparing to play against a team from St. Joseph's.
St. Joseph's Seminary.
My, how things have changed.
and a time for every purpose under heaven."
-- Ecclesiastes 3:1
We all have grand dreams when we're growing up. We don't just want to do something with our lives -- we want to be great at it. And for many of us, the ultimate dream was to be a professional athlete.
Chase Hilgenbrinck dreamed that dream. Three months ago, he was playing professional soccer, in his native country. He had reached the end of the rainbow. Only, at the end of the rainbow, he discovered another path he felt compelled to follow.
So he gave it all up, at the very moment he had strived for his entire life.
Ironically, Chase never made national headlines during his pro soccer career. But he made headlines around the world when he ended it.
From the Associated Press, July 14, 2008:
"Hilgenbrinck accepted the calling on Monday when he left the New England Revolution and retired from professional soccer to enter a seminary, where he will spend the next six years studying theology and philosophy so he can be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest."
|Chase Hilgenbrinck, sliding to his left to pass the ball to a teammate.|
The final Friday of September began, like virtually every day at Mount St. Mary's Seminary, in church. Chase Hilgenbrinck, clad in a gray polo shirt, black slacks and black shoes -- standard wear for new seminarians -- joined his 150 fellow aspiring priests for 7 a.m. Mass in Immaculate Conception Chapel. After a quick breakfast at the dining hall and an hour-long prayer seminar for first-year seminarians, Chase went back to his room to study.
It's a single, sparsely decorated, with no private bathroom. The closet houses hanger after hanger of identical white and gray shirts, and black pants. The bookshelf is stocked with titles such as "Catechism of the Catholic Church," "The Catholic Ideal: Exercise and Sports," and "Rediscovering Catholicism." There's a crucifix in one corner of the window, a statue of the Virgin Mary in the other. A set of rosary beads dangles from a bedpost.
If not for the chair draped in a Clemson blanket, you wouldn't have a clue about the occupant's past.
All this is not entirely new to him, though. Chase has been a practicing Catholic his entire life. His parents, Mike (a regional sales manager for a fertilizer dealership) and Kim (an accountant with State Farm Insurance), brought him and his older brother, Blaise, to church each and every Sunday. Both sons served as altar boys at Holy Trinity Church in Bloomington, Ill. But eventually Chase begged his parents to let him quit, because he was tired of finding a fill-in every time he was away for a soccer tournament. "We look back and laugh about that now," his father said.
Even as a teenager, people tended to flock to Chase for support and counsel. His mother recalls one particular instance, when a high school classmate who had gotten a girl pregnant came to their house, hoping to talk to Chase. "We were like, 'Chase, you're not old enough to be giving out advice on this kind of thing,'" his mother said. "'This boy should be talking to an adult!'"
Both Hilgenbrinck boys were standout youth soccer players. Blaise, a year older, went on to play Division I at Butler University. Chase was even better, making the United States Under-17 national team, before moving on to play for Clemson University, where he was a three-year starter, playing on the same defensive line as future U.S. senior national team fixture Oguchi Onyewu.
|Chase's room at the seminary. It's sparse, for a reason. No distractions.|
And his religion continued to be a significant part of his life. "College was a big turning point," Chase said. "I was away from my family for the first time. I no longer had to go to Mass, no longer had to practice any faith if I didn't want to. But just out of habit, I continued to go. And actually, the light bulbs came on, and I realized what my faith was, what the church was all about. I was paying attention in Mass. I started to have a passion for Scripture.
"That was the time I truly made the faith my own."
Soccer obviously took up a lot of his time, but he enjoyed going out when he could, particularly to other Clemson sporting events. He also got involved in the campus ministry organization. Once, after a retreat, a female student told him she thought he would become a priest one day. Later a priest asked Chase if he thought he had a vocation to the priesthood. Chase scoffed at the notion at the time. "Although I didn't count it out, in the back of my mind I was like, no way," he said. "I didn't see that for myself."
After graduating in 2004, Chase thought he would probably be drafted by a MLS team. But he was not selected, so he had to come up with a new plan. Claudio Aureas, the soccer coach at nearby Southern Wesleyan University, suggested going to Chile. Aureas, who was originally from there, thought he could help Chase get a contract.
Two months later, Chase was headed to South America to play for the Chilean first-division club Huachipato. He spent four seasons in Chile, with three different clubs, and grew to become a star player. He also continued to do good things for other people. Once, after receiving a prize of about $500 for being named the "man of the match," he spent it all on sporting goods which he donated to a local school in need. (His parents brought this up; Chase never mentioned it.)
|Chase was good enough to play for the U.S. Under-17 national team.|
Chase's plan had been to make a name for himself in Chile, and then get picked up by a team in the United States. But even bigger things were happening to him during those years. Living on his own in a foreign country for so long, he had a lot of downtime -- a lot of time to think and reflect. Despite having a girlfriend for two years while he was there, he sometimes felt very lonely. Often, he would go to church to find solace.
Chase realized that while he was fulfilling his dream of being a professional soccer player, he didn't actually feel fulfilled. He wondered if he was meant to do something else with his life. Eventually, Chase came to a startling conclusion, at least to himself: "I felt that [God] was calling me to the priesthood."
This feeling didn't emerge overnight -- Chase says he contemplated the possibility of becoming a priest for about 2½ years. He wrestled with the decision quite a bit, but not because of soccer. "I knew that I would miss the game," he said. "But I felt blessed that I was allowed to fulfill that goal of playing professionally."
No, giving up other things would be far tougher. "Not being able to marry, not having my own family or seeing my own kids -- all those things run through your head," Chase said. "But little by little, through prayer, those became less and less impacting factors on my decision."
The feeling progressively got stronger, and began to consume his daily thoughts. When Chase finally felt 100 percent committed, in the summer of 2007, he decided to start the process. The vocation director for the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, Ill., sent him an extensive application packet. He had to write a 20-page autobiography and submit responses to a series of essay questions, in addition to a background check and fingerprinting. In December, the day after he returned to the U.S. following the end of the soccer season in Chile, he went through an entire battery of testing. He took five written exams in one day, and was evaluated by three different psychologists.
Then he faced another test: breaking the news to his family.
Chase hadn't said a word to anyone that he was even considering the priesthood. Not to his parents, not to his brother, not to his girlfriend. He had wanted to sort things out on his own first. By the time he left Chile, he had already broken up with his girlfriend. The day he completed his marathon day of testing, Chase called his parents, who had no idea where he had been all day. He asked them to meet him at Holy Trinity, and told them to buy some champagne.
Now, this wasn't all that unusual a request -- the family had often celebrated good news by going to church over the years. But Chase's parents had no idea what he wanted to tell them. "We thought maybe he'd signed a contract with a new team," his father said.
|Chase became very well-known while he was in Chile, even appearing on the covers of magazines.|
Chase met his parents, his brother and his brother's wife, Krista, in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary -- where, unbeknownst to him, his parents, ever since he and his brother were babies, had prayed for their sons' future spouses. He asked everyone to sit down. There was no one else in the church. "There's three things I want to tell you," he said to them. "First, I want to thank you for all your prayers and support while I was in Chile. Second, what I'm about to tell you is going to change your life and my life forever."
For a few fleeting moments, Chase's mother thought he might be getting married. "I knew he had a girlfriend down in Chile; we had met her a couple times," she said. "We didn't think it was all that serious. But right then I thought, 'Maybe it was serious?'"
Then Chase revealed the third piece of information: "I'm going to be a priest in the Catholic Church."
"We were absolutely stunned," his mother said. "But he was so emotional. And Chase is not emotional. You could see he'd been thinking this through all on his own, and he was just so glad to be able to tell us, and lift that weight off his shoulders. He just broke down. And we were just so happy for him."
"We couldn't have been prouder," added his dad. "Looking back now, it kinda all makes sense."
Still, it took some time for everyone to process the news. There were many questions, the biggest one being, why now?
"That was one of my concerns when I was discerning this vocation," said Chase. "You know, why don't I wait until the end of my [soccer] career, and then I'll say yes? But it's funny, I was reading this book while I was going through this process. I came across this line: 'Delayed obedience is disobedience.' And that hit me. I was like, I've got to do the right thing. I can't tell God to wait on me."
|Chase, left, and his brother Blaise, right, served as altar boys for many years. Little did their parents know, one day, one of them would decide to become a priest.|
But Chase wasn't done with professional soccer just yet. His play in Chile had impressed a number of MLS teams, and several had inquired about his services. He could play for a few more months since his studies wouldn't start until August. He signed with the Colorado Rapids in January, but after a month of preseason training he was cut for salary cap purposes -- a blow eased by the fact that he received his acceptance letter from the bishop of Peoria and instructions to apply to Mount St. Mary's the very same day.
Also that day, right after learning of being released by the Rapids but before receiving the news from the bishop, Chase went for a walk in downtown Denver to clear his head. He wandered into a church, where his eyes were immediately drawn to a huge banner hanging from the ceiling. The writing was in Spanish, but Chase could read it, having picked up the language while in Chile. It read: a partir de ahora seran pescadores de hombres.
The English translation: "You will now become fishers of men."
"I got goose bumps," Chase recalled. "I mean, what bigger sign could God have given me?"
At that point Chase thought his pro soccer career was definitely over. But two weeks later the New England Revolution called, and after a two-day tryout, the Revolution signed him on March 28.
Chase made four MLS appearances with the team, including one start. His family got to see him play in person on home soil, in Chicago, about 2½ hours from Bloomington. His ultimate soccer dream came true.
"It really couldn't have worked out any better," Chase said.
|Chase signed with the Colorado Rapids, and even took a team picture, but he never actually played for the club.|
When July rolled around, Chase had to break the news to the Revolution that he was leaving. The team actually wanted to extend his contract. "You could see the experience that he had, and the knowledge of the game," said Revolution head coach Steve Nicol. "He was somebody who, when you need points, results, a good performance, you put him on your team."
But Chase remained steadfast about entering the seminary in his meeting with Nicol and vice president of player personnel Michael Burns. "I've been fortunate to have played and coached a long time, and I've never had a player [quit to] go to the church," Nicol said, with a hearty laugh. "We were absolutely taken aback. ... [But] there was no changing his mind, certainly. He was real calm, precise, and straight to the point. Clearly that was what he wanted to do."
And so Chase Hilgenbrinck announced his retirement from professional soccer. The day before, he was in uniform, but did not play, in his final game.
His final professional game, anyway.
|Chase got to play in four games for the New England Revolution, including a game in Chicago, near his hometown.|
Chase sat at his desk late Friday morning, studying for a Latin quiz -- well, he was studying for a little while. Soon he couldn't resist popping open his laptop and going to MLSnet.com, to catch up on some scores and highlights from the night before. "I do miss it a little bit," he said. "I still have a passion for soccer. ... But I know I'm doing something greater here than I could ever do on a soccer field."
Chase doesn't have much time to think about soccer anyway. His days are pretty jam-packed, what with classes, studying, daily Mass, mandatory morning and evening group prayers, and holy hours -- the seminarians are encouraged, though not required, to spend an hour in silent prayer every day at the seminary chapel. "The lifestyle is an unbelievable adjustment," he said. "I went from practicing 2-3 hours a day and then having the rest of the day free, to a situation where I have a strict schedule all day long."
But he's enjoying it -- particularly those holy hours. "They felt long at first, but I look forward to them now," Chase said. "It's a different kind of thrill than the one I got from soccer. But it's just so nice, to be in God's presence, and to feel at peace."
At this time Chase had only been at the seminary for six weeks. He has six years ahead of him at Mount St. Mary's, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, 15 minutes from the battlefield at Gettysburg and about an hour outside of Baltimore. His first two years are considered "pre-theology" years -- his studies will center on philosophy courses, in addition to Latin and ancient Greek. The following four "theology" years will consist of more focused religion classes and training.
It's an intense process, but Chase is not going through it alone. He has 20 fellow first-year seminarians in his class, ranging in age from 20 to 48. "Obviously not having your own immediate family -- not being married, not having kids -- we've learned, just in this short amount of time, how important fraternity is going to be," Chase said.
He isn't totally finished with soccer either. Ten years ago, a few soccer-loving seminarians at the Mount began an inter-seminary tournament, which they dubbed the Rector's Cup. (The head of a seminary is called a rector.) It's now contested each year between four seminaries on the East Coast: Mount St. Mary's, St. Charles Borromeo (Pa.), Immaculate Conception (N.J.) and St. Joseph's (N.Y.). The location of the tournament rotates among these four from year to year.
|Chase studying for his Latin quiz -- before he started checking MLS scores!|
"It's the only time, sadly, that all these seminarians can get together in one place," said Monsignor Stephen Rohlfs, the current rector of Mount St. Mary's. "It's just a great opportunity to get all these young seminarians together in one place, to pray together and join in brotherhood."
The tournament has grown increasingly intense over the years, with major bragging rights on the line. The Mount had won the previous three Rector's Cups coming into this year's tourney in Emmitsburg on the final weekend of September.
Needless to say, when word got out that Mount St. Mary's was adding a professional soccer player to its ranks, the excitement and anticipation surrounding this year's Rector's Cup was ratcheted up even more.
Chase even admitted to feeling some pressure in the days leading up to the tournament. "People I don't even know have been coming up to me, asking me if I'm ready," he said, chuckling. "I hope I don't let them down!"
|Monsignor Stephen Rohlfs, rector of Mount St. Mary's Seminary, holding the Rector's Cup.|
How would you guess all the seminarians spent the night before the soccer tournament? Studying? Praying?
No, they were all hanging out at the pub.
That's right. Mount St. Mary's Seminary has its own pub, in one corner of its giant first-floor recreation room. That's where approximately 200 people, from all four participating seminaries, gathered to eat, drink and be merry on the eve of the 2008 Rector's Cup. They enjoyed a feast of homemade Italian food, and many of them sipped from glasses of wine or red plastic cups of beer, as they bonded with their brethren from the other institutions.
"We love the Lord, but we love to have fun, too," said Matt Hoelscher, another of the Mount's first-year seminarians.
It's definitely not all prayer and no play here, despite what many people would probably expect. Besides the pub (which is open four nights a week, and beers only cost a buck!), there's a 65-inch HDTV in the rec room. And a second large flat-screen TV, in another room, has a Nintendo Wii hooked up to it.
Monsignor Rohlfs strongly believes in providing his students with these forms of entertainment. "They need time to relax and unwind, too," said Rohlfs. "And it's a good way for them to spend time with their fellow seminarians."
Some of the current residents were taken aback at first by all the amenities. "I definitely had this view of seminarians coming in, sitting in their rooms, praying all the time," said Hoelscher. "I was nervous about that. Then I saw the place and I was like, are you serious? I had no idea it would be like this. It's awesome."
Many of the Mount seminarians are huge sports fans, too. One minute you'll be talking to a Purdue alum all jacked up for the Boilermakers' upcoming game against Notre Dame. The next minute you'll find yourself consoling a die-hard New York Mets fan distraught over his team's latest September swoon.
In fact, Rohlfs added the NFL Sunday Ticket to the seminary's DirecTV package this year, since so many of his students are big football fans.
More than one seminarian mentioned that he felt sports would actually help him in his future ministry as a priest. "You have to be able to relate to your parishioners," said first-year Mount seminarian Curtis Verner. "So many people in general love sports. What better way to connect with them?"
|Chase and his fellow first-year seminarian, Matt Hoelscher, standing by the seminary pub. (Note the framed picture of Pope Benedict XVI behind the bar.)|
The Mount's seminarians don't just watch sports either. Besides the soccer team, they also field intramural teams in everything from racquetball to beach volleyball, and compete against teams from the rest of the university at large. (Mount St. Mary's has 1,600 regular undergraduates). And the seminary has three -- that's right, three -- flag-football teams, one of which is currently undefeated.
"Some of the undergrads get a little embarrassed. They don't think they should be losing to seminarians," said Hoelscher. "We get a kick out of that."
The festivities at the seminary ran a little later than usual Friday night, with good reason. And before the night was over, Chase received a very pleasant surprise when his parents showed up. He had no idea they were planning to come.
"We came and cheered for so many of his games before," Chase's mother said. "So we figured, why not now?"
|Have you ever seen Franciscans play foosball? Didn't think so.|
After Chase and his teammates were done warming up on Saturday afternoon, they huddled on the sideline for a few moments. The team said a prayer, and the starters ran out to their places for their semifinal match against St. Joseph's.
Although he was a defender in college and the pros, Chase played as a midfielder, so he could be more involved in the flow of the game. But he didn't dominate the ball, as one might have expected. That came as no surprise to Father Brett Brannen, the vice-rector at Mount St. Mary's. "He's just a wonderfully humble young man," Brannen said of Chase. "When you consider how willing he was to give [soccer] up ... he feels very strongly about what he wants to do. He just wants to study and become a priest."
During the game, however, the fans just wanted him to score some goals. But soccer is a hard sport for one player to dominate, even if he is trying to -- and Chase was not. He had a few nice deke moves, practically faking a couple opponents out of their cleats. But the Mount was unable to break through early, and the game remained scoreless at halftime.
The second half was another story. After squandering numerous opportunities early on, the Mount St. Mary's squad eventually wore down the team from St. Joseph's, scoring three times for a 3-0 win. Chase tallied the final goal. But afterward, although happy about the win, he wasn't terribly thrilled with his own play. "It was kinda frustrating out there, actually," he said. "I just couldn't get loose. It was just ... different."
|Yes, seminarians paint their faces for big games, too.|
After another evening of revelry at the pub, the seminarians were back on the field Sunday afternoon. The championship game pitted Mount St. Mary's against Immaculate Conception Seminary, which had crushed St. Charles Borromeo 8-2 in the first semifinal. Chase watched most of that game, and he expected ICS to be tough. "They have several South Americans who look like they really know how to play," he said. "They probably have more talent than we do. We have to play better as a team."
It was a muggy, overcast afternoon. The Mount St. Mary's players were on the field early, stretching almost an hour before game time. At one point, one of the Mount players yelled to a friend sitting in the press box to turn on the PA system and pump some music.
What did the seminarians end up listening to while they stretched? Hymns? Gregorian chants?
No, "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC.
Less than two minutes in, Brian Wayne scored to give the Mount a 1-0 lead. And four minutes later, Vincent Vodjogve -- known as "Togo" (that's where he's from originally) -- made it 2-0, set up by a perfectly placed long pass by Chase. That whipped the crowd into a frenzy.
|Chase, left (in white), did his best to set up his teammates to score.|
There were some tense moments between the two teams, as the Immaculate Conception seminarians tried to claw their way back. Both teams did a little shirt-holding, and on one occasion some pushing and shoving broke out (which was kind of refreshing to see, actually). The referee even doled out one yellow card, which led to this tongue-in-cheek chant from a Mount St. Mary's fan: "Pur-ga-tor-y! Pur-ga-tor-y!"
Early in the second half Chase retreated to his customary defensive position, content to direct the players in front of him and try to protect his own goal. At one point, when attempting a header, he collided with an ICS player, opening up a cut on his chin. He came out of the game to get it bandaged up, but quickly returned to the field.
"Togo" scored his second goal of the game with just under 27 minutes left. After that, Chase looked a little friskier, like he wanted to work the rust off. He began running upfield a little more. And although he didn't score, he was an absolute blur at times. He juked defenders. He dished nifty touch passes to his teammates. He dazzled the crowd with his ballhandling.
He looked like ... a pro.
|Monsignor Rohlfs and Father Brannen, right, led the players in a prayer.|
When the game ended -- another 3-0 shutout -- 50 or so Mount St. Mary's fans rushed the field. They set up an honor guard, which the victorious players ran through. Then Monsignor Rohlfs presented the team with the highly coveted Rector's Cup.
But there was no raucous celebration afterward. Both teams exchanged embraces. Everyone kneeled down for a prayer. And then both teams posed for a picture, together.
"The goal was to build fraternity," Chase said afterward. "That was the beautiful thing -- that it brought us all closer together."
|The Mount St. Mary's squad was ecstatic to retain the Rector's Cup.|
Where does Chase Hilgenbrinck go from here? Well, first he had to go to Gettysburg Hospital after the game to get seven stitches in his chin. But he arrived back at the seminary in time to celebrate with his teammates Sunday night.
It's a long road ahead. Six years of hard work and dedication. But if all goes well, in 2014 Chase will be a parish priest, somewhere in the Peoria Diocese. He'll be living pretty close to his family, and tending to his appointed flock -- filling a role so desperately needed in a time when priests are in such short supply.
Chase will probably never lose his passion for soccer. Right now he volunteers one day a week with the Mount St. Mary's varsity team. And he surely has a few more Rector's Cups in his future.
But his focus is on preparing to be a priest. "I don't have any regrets," Chase said. "I look at the priests around me. I look at the older guys in the house that are about to be priests. And in my heart, I genuinely want what they have. There was a time, three years ago, that this was the last thing I wanted for myself. Now it's the only thing I want."
On Sunday night, Chase sat on the porch with his new brothers, savoring a couple beers and a victory cigar. It had been fun to be a soccer player again for a couple days. But on Monday morning, he was ready to get back to his new life.
Time to go back to church. Time to get back to work.
Kieran Darcy is an editor for Page 2. He can be reached at email@example.com.
|Chase with his proud parents, Mike and Kim, after the championship game.|