By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published diciembre 13, 2007 | Available In English
“Why should kids have all the fun?” That is the question that greets you when you log onto the official Web site for Atlanta Catholic Sports, one of the largest adult Catholic sports programs in the country.
With perseverance, patience and prayer, the organization, which began in 1994 with a loosely organized softball league and some flag football pick-up games, has grown from just a handful of participants to approximately 120 teams involving more than 2,100 adults in seven sports.
The all-volunteer organization was formalized nearly 10 years ago by a small group of co-founders headed by Wayne Pickell. From its humble beginning, ACS was led by individuals who understood the power of fellowship and fun.
Pickell holds a special place in his heart for sports-related ministry. He was involved with sports as a child growing up in Indiana, but when he moved to Atlanta to attend graduate school at Georgia Tech, he found that sports had another dynamic.
Not Catholic at the time, he was introduced to the Catholic Church through a prayer group at the Cathedral of Christ the King. After learning more about the faith, he began attending Mass at St. Jude Church, Atlanta, where he learned of a pick-up-style softball league.
“During that time, I was inspired by all the fun and fellowship we had,” recalled Pickell. “That kind of drew me into the church, and I went through the RCIA program in 1996.”
ACS began a small flag football league in its early years and slowly but surely started adding other sports to offer new opportunities for people of all skill levels.
The organization took its first major step in 1998 when ACS became more formalized. Pickell began a Web site called ChurchSports.com and put together the first flag football Web page, while his friend Edwin Marcial organized the softball Web page.
During the next few years, Pickell, along with Brian Didier of Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta, and others officially founded a ministry named Young Adult Sports, which featured soccer and basketball leagues in addition to flag football and softball.
In 2002, a special committee was formed to develop by-laws for the organization. Comprised of Amy Mitsch, Rob Thompson, Pat Hanna and Pickell, the group met monthly for three months, and eventually changed the ministry’s name from Young Adult Sports to Atlanta Catholic Sports to better represent the organization. Also during this time, ACS began speaking with Ann Blasick, then the director of the archdiocesan Young Adult Ministry, to establish a working relationship and partnership between the two ministries. The following year, ACS’ first executive board was established with Pickell and Anthony Diroma serving as co-presidents.
While there have been some changes in leadership since that time, with Pickell stepping down as president and serving now as flag football commissioner, the community-driven focus of ACS has remained the same. Last year the Archdiocese of Atlanta and YAM awarded Pickell a Living Stone Award for helping to develop and build community through the sports ministry.
ACS, which reaches out to men and women over 18 in the archdiocese, pursues a mission of not only bringing Catholics, but other adults as well, together for fellowship and fun.
“We’re really trying to bring Catholic fellowship and sportsmanship together through our various leagues,” said Lauren Taylor, current president of ACS and parishioner at the Cathedral of Christ the King. “I feel the ministry serves two purposes. One, we’re able to minister to current Catholics and provide them with an outlet to go and have fun with their friends and families and to help build relationships within their parishes. Two, we enable them to bring in other non-Catholics who may feel a calling to join the Catholic Church.”
According to Taylor, who plays in the softball and basketball leagues, 70 percent of the participants are Catholic and 30 percent non-Catholic. In fact, ACS enforces this regulation, so if a team has 10 players, for example, seven of them must be Catholic. The group believes that since they are a Catholic organization, teams must have a substantially Catholic composition.
Throughout the last 10 years, the organization has expanded and evolved to satisfy the interest in this ministry, adding other sports.
ACS now features seven sports at three possible skill levels. All of the leagues are coed and most offer a division for advanced players, intermediate players and a recreational division for any adults new to a sport or those who simply want to have fun.
This year’s flag football league kicked off its season in September and wrapped up on Nov. 18. This season there were 12 teams in the flag football intermediate division, including groups from Atlanta’s Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Jude parishes, and six groups in the recreational division, with teams from parishes such as St. Brigid in Alpharetta and the Cathedral of Christ the King. All of the games were played on Sunday at either Southern Polytechnic University in Marietta or Mercer University in Atlanta.
All Parish Red, a team comprised of players from various parishes, captured the 2007 championship for the intermediate flag football division, while a team from Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta, was awarded the championship title for the recreational division.
ACS offers several other sports throughout the rest of the year. According to Taylor, the beginning of the year is the busiest time for the organization.
January through March ACS features basketball and bowling leagues. The basketball league, which was established in 2001, comprises all the skill levels and in 2007 included four teams in the competitive division, eight in the intermediate division and four in the recreational division. Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta, had two championship teams in the competitive and intermediate divisions. A group from the Cathedral of Christ the King claimed the recreational title.
The bowling schedule also runs during the first three months of the year. This league, which began in 2004, is solely recreational and is played at the Brunswick Zone bowling facility in Roswell. Fourteen teams participated this year and a team of four from St. Brigid was crowned as league champion.
Beginning in February is ACS’ soccer league, which ends its season in May. The soccer league began in 2001 with only six teams but grew to include 14 teams in its 2007 season.
The group also has two volleyball leagues. The indoor volleyball teams play from March to May, while the sand volleyball league runs from June to August.
Also scheduled from June to August is ACS’ softball league. Comprising teams at every skill level, the league plays on Sunday mornings and afternoons at Southern Polytechnic.
ACS is funded through league fees and the Archdiocese of Atlanta. To participate in a league, one must pay a small fee to cover the cost of the facilities, the officials and any other needs the specific sport requires. According to Pickell, the archdiocese also began helping with some funding for the organization a little more than a year ago. These funds were used to help cover insurance costs, among other things.
ACS has also grown in its involvement with the civic community. The group participates in service projects around the Atlanta area to help build on the relationships formed on the playing field. From volunteering at career days to helping with facility development, members of ACS are very involved with the people around them.
Over the last few years, ACS volunteers have done several projects for Atlanta-area schools, including a cleanup of Creekview Elementary School’s recreational field and repairing the walking track at Dunwoody Springs Elementary School, among others.
ACS also has big plans for the future. According to Pickell, one of the most difficult aspects of sustaining this type of program is securing a playing field or court.
The organization is pursuing the construction or long-term lease of a facility that would provide all the necessary space to accommodate the group’s busy schedule. The idea is that the facility could serve as a venue for other events, while allowing the sports ministry to expand even further and offer new sports and more flexible schedules. ACS is potentially interested in developing unused land for recreational and ministerial activities, so they are open to many possibilities.
With many opportunities and a lot of skill levels, it is no surprise that ACS continues to grow and attract more and more people searching for an informal way to connect their everyday life with their faith.
“A lot of people have come closer to the church” through the friendly outreach of ACS, said Pickell. “For my example, (ACS) was really what sustained it, led me to become Catholic. I’ve met a lot of good people and saw what being Catholic was all about.”
For more information, visit www.acsports.org or contact Atlanta Catholic Sports president Lauren Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.