Bison Game Day: NDSU embraces the blend of faith and football – InForum

FARGO — This weekend, North Dakota State will board a Delta Airlines charter at Hector International Airport with its usual tour group of players, coaches and support staff. The latter includes Father James Meyer and Sports Chaplain Jeff Curtis, two team chaplains who represent the modern way in the marriage of faith and football.

NDSU is no stranger to mixing both. After every match, win or lose, most if not all players gather in midfield for some sort of post-match thought or prayer, all of which is student-led. Curtis said that different players of different religions are giving their version of thanks with the central theme of team unity.

“Everyone, regardless of faith, gathers in the center almost like a sense of solidarity,” he said. “We recognize that this game is a gift and we are honored to endure together.”

Meyer and Curtis involve more than just being available for prayer when the team plays in Western Illinois on Saturday. In Fargo, NDSU football is as big as it gets, a nine-time Division I FCS national champion, and beyond that, there can be high pressure to succeed.

Dealing with that stress is not always easy. Curtis has seen the biggest, strongest, and toughest players in tears describing a breakup, family death, or academic struggle. He saw those fights as the Bison Long Snapper of 2005-09.

During those years he started a Bible study within the team, liked it so much that he never left the business. He became a pastoral student and later obtained a seminary degree. In 2016, he took a position with the Fargo branch of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which turned into helping college athletes under the leadership of Pastor Glen Stevens of Salem Evangelical Free Church.

“Let’s invest more time in it and get even more guys on the team,” said Curtis. were about 65 who met at the NDSU indoor athletic facility.

110522.s.ff.GDfaithfootball Sports chaplain Jeff Curtis talks to North Dakota players in Fargodome on Saturday, October 29, 2022.

David Samson/The Forum

Race day starts early for both Meyer and Curtis. Meyer orchestrates a half-hour mass beginning at 9:00 am at the Fargodome, attended by players regardless of religious affiliation.

“I’m not as wordy as others may be,” he said. “I’m trying to get to the point and give them a message.”

The players then go to the pregame meal and player meetings. A 1986 Fargo South graduate, Meyer returns to the dome before allowing fans into the game just to be with the players.

“If someone needs something to come over or if some guys ask for a blessing,” he said. “They’re just trying to get their mind around and be prepared for anything.”

Meyer first started making mistakes for the team late in the tenure of former head coach Craig Bohl, who left for Wyoming after the 2013 season. His presence with the team increased under former head coach Chris Klieman.

Instead of sitting in the stands, Meyer walked along the sidelines. For a year, he went on a few Bison road trips, a role that eventually changed in every away game.

Curtis’ role also expanded with Klieman as head coach, with Curtis asking him if he could come to spring training in 2016 and spend more time with the players.

“I knew about 15, 20 guys on the team at the time, but I had a heart for the whole team,” said Curtis.

Klieman agreed, and Curtis’ role expanded a few months later into a summer program with the incoming freshmen of NDSU.

“It was like, hey, can we help build character in these young men when they come in?” said Curtis. “He was on board with it. My heartbeat as a chaplain for the football team is to provide faith-based encouragement to those guys who want to grow deeper into the word, but really get mental health and character training for every man on the team.”

When Matt Entz was named head coach after Klieman left for Kansas State, the roles of team chaplains became even bigger.

Entz goes to the chapel every Saturday morning and he told them to bring extra chairs for the last three Saturdays. Everyone involved in the football program, from training to equipment personnel, is invited to the chapel or mass.

“We just want to make sure our kids have a balance in life between football, academics and the social demands that are made here in Fargo,” said Entz.

Curtis has spent the past two years hosting a summer weekend retreat at Star Lake near Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, for the aspiring freshmen, with the focus on getting them ready for the season’s grind. He continues to meet with them once a month during the season.

“What I love about NDSU is you bring people from all over the country and, boom, we’re here in Fargo for the next four, five years,” he said. “And let’s learn from that.”

Under Entz, Meyer’s role became even more full-time, with Meyer doing all mass services rather than rotating with other priests.

“It’s more stable and it’s better for timing,” Meyer said.

Father MeyerFather James Meyer talks to a North Dakota state employee on the sidelines before the South Dakota state football game Saturday, October 15, 2022 at the Fargodome.

Michael Vosburg/The Forum

He puts his time into it. Meyer has been a priest at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Grand Forks for the past 2 1/2 years, meaning he has gotten to know Interstate 29 quite well.

The number of players attending the Saturday morning services has grown over the years. In the beginning, Meyer said it was just a few players at Mass and a few coaches.

This year, between 25 and 35 people attend Meyer’s Mass. Over 30 players attend Curtis’s church service.

“Is everyone going to church now? No,’ said Meijer. “Does everyone cool that mentality? No, but I think the majority do and we have a complementary relationship between the FCS and the Catholic Mass, so having that faith component I think is a wonderful gift.”

Meyer tries to keep players grounded and reminds them that not the whole world rests on their shoulders. That there are greater things.

“Sometimes we lose that,” he said. “To travel with them, to be on the sidelines, I think there is a better connection and they feel more comfortable. And so it was exciting. I think presence is important.”

At mass two weeks ago, he asked players to keep quiet, put their feet on the ground, put their hands on their laps and close their eyes.

“Let the world go a little bit,” Meyer told them. “Just to get your focus and understand that this is the discipline you have to have to get rid of everything else in your psyche. There are a lot of people who put a lot of pressure on you.”

Meyer will be the first to say that he is not a psychologist. But what he can do is listen to the players and give them direction.

“It’s not just about winning the games, which is great,” he said. “It’s an experience they don’t just get in education, but sometimes education isn’t in the classroom.”

Last week, Curtis met a player for breakfast who, in Curtis’ words, faces mental challenges and roadblocks. Like Meyer’s advice, he convinced the player not to get so caught up in the performance.

“To get him off that, thinking that his performance will define his identity,” Curtis said. “That’s the kind of thing that just gets my heart drawn, when I see these guys come to college and they think the most important thing is the transition from high school to college, but we’re really going to focus on the transition from adolescence to adulthood.”

110522.s.ff.GDfaithfootball Jeff Curtis is a sports chaplain with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Fargo.

David Samson/The Forum

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