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Released October 20, 2003
Like having another coach

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SOUTHERN MISS FOOTBALL TEAM CHAPLAIN
GIVES GOLDEN EAGLES SPIRITUAL LIFT
By David Tisdale

HATTIESBURG - Missing from the Golden Eagles sideline in The University of Southern Mississippi's 17-3 loss to Alabama on Oct. 11 was the prayerful countenance of team chaplain Father Tommy Conway.

Because of a prior commitment to conduct a wedding ceremony, made long before he became team chaplain, Conway, who also serves as pastor of St. Thomas Catholic Church in Hattiesburg, was unable to be on hand for the contest in Tuscaloosa.

Some believe Conway's connections with the Almighty could have could have made a difference in the game's outcome, had the wedding party been amenable to rescheduling their big day.

"Don't ever miss another game," joked Drew Hill, an assistant with the team's football operations staff, as he stopped to speak to Conway at a recent team practice. "That one last week's (loss to Alabama) on you."

Conway smiles when he recounts the circumstances of his absence. The couple he married - Jimmy Kendrick and Ginny Rayborn - asked him if he could conduct the service on Oct. 11. "I checked my calendar and didn't see any conflict," Conway said.

After former team chaplain Irby Stanley left to become pastor at a church in Tennessee, Conway was asked shortly before the 2003 campaign began if he would like to fill the role. After accepting, Conway examined the schedule and noticed that Oct. 11 was the date of the Southern Miss-Alabama game.

"I called Jimmy (Kendrick) and asked him, 'So, what day would you like to change your wedding to?'" Conway said, laughing. But the soon to be newlyweds wouldn't budge on the date.

HOOKED FROM THE START

Conway says it's a privilege to serve as the team's chaplain. "I was absolutely thrilled to be asked to do it," he said. Since he's been a Southern Miss fan since arriving in Hattiesburg from Ireland in 1986, accepting the offer was easy.

Conway's passion for Southern Miss football took root that year when he became associate pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. That year, Sacred Heart School physical education instructor Maureen Spencer, whose husband, Ken Spencer, played football for the Golden Eagles, invited Conway to attend a game with her to cheer on Ken and the team. Conway was curious to learn more about American football and quizzed Maureen throughout the contest.

"The whole time, I kept asking her questions about how the game was played," he said, and from then he was stricken with a serious case of Eagle Fever.

"It's not just the game," Conway said. "The band, the pageantry, the tailgating, all of that is fascinating. There's a great social side to sports that I think is fantastic."

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

Conway's first meeting with the team after being chosen as chaplain came with some trepidation. Though he knew all of the coaches and some of the players by way of his association with the Newman Center at St. Thomas, home of the Catholic Student Association, there was the small detail of becoming acquainted with the rest of the team.

Two members of the squad, linebacker Eric Scott and wide receiver Pedi Causey, took it upon themselves to introduce him to other members of the squad.

Being there for the players, helping them deal with problems they face on and off the field and giving advice, or just to talk, is what has endeared Conway to Causey and many of his teammates. "Father Tommy means a lot to me," Causey said. "He's one of the nicest people I've met. I can talk to him anytime."

Having Conway's presence on the sideline is a source of motivation for the team, Scott said. "He's like a coach, too. He keeps people up," he said.

"I knew him before he came out here," Scott said. "I'm glad he got that spot (chaplain)."

Would having Conway at the Alabama game have made a difference? Scott isn't certain, but like Hill, he would have preferred having him there.

"It might've helped," he said.

DIFFERENT FAITHS, SAME PATH

Although he isn't Catholic, the difference in faiths doesn't concern Causey. "I had never been around a priest before, but it doesn't matter. We all believe in the same God," he said.

While Causey has no qualms with his team chaplain being Catholic, Conway said he's mindful to make his presentations and devotionals with the team interdenominational. He said he also checked when he became chaplain to be sure that members of the team were Christian out of respect to those who might follow other belief systems.

"I wanted to be respectful (of other faiths, beliefs)," he said. "I want everyone to be comfortable with all parts of it (devotionals and other programs)."

This "second congregation" of Conway's has many differences from his regular congregation at St. Thomas with the most obvious being a disparity in physical size.

"They're big fellas, and sometimes that's all a lot of people see, but they are still young men who have to go to class, and have some of the same issues that anyone their age faces.

"It's a young congregation, with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. It brings different challenges and rewards."

More than four hours before kickoff of each game, Conway holds team prayers for the players and coaches. (Attendance is optional.) Conway's program includes readings from scripture and a discussion of what he's read. He then selects four verses from one of the Psalms that everyone recites together.

Conway also says special prayers before the game for the team's safety and their families', and then everyone recites the Lord's Prayer together. He also prepares a special scripture reading program for the coaches on Thursday mornings at 7:30 a.m., and he tries to be with the players on Monday morning for their team breakfast.

'He's more comfortable now that he's gotten to know everybody," said Southern Miss Head Football Coach Jeff Bower. "He just does a tremendous job with our devotionals. He always has a great message for us that really makes you think."

BEING A GOOD SPORT - IN FOOTBALL AND LIFE

Conway said he participated in various sports in his youth. Aside from the physical exercise, he said sports are important for young people because of the valuable lessons that can be learned by participating that will benefit them for life.

"You learn so much - teamwork, dealing with winning and losing and disappointment."

Coming back from a loss - whether on the football field or when faced with personal tragedy or disappointment - is a test for both a team and an individual.

"When learning to deal with losing, it's important to remember it's not the end of the world - someone has to lose the game," Conway said.

"In life, when someone gets sick, or there's a death in the family, or you're faced with some other kind of tragedy, it feels like a loss, but it's more like a lesson than a loss," he said. "When you face those losses, you can't just lie down and say you're finished. You've got to pick yourself up and carry on. Oftentimes, people become stronger after losses and it helps them in the journey through life."

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April 20, 2004 4:48 PM

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