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Eckstein receives ‘Courage Award’
In living out his Catholic faith, the Nationals hitting coach acts as a role model for the young athletes honored alongside him Tuesday night.
Gretchen R. Crowe | Catholic Herald
Gretchen R. Crowe | Catholic Herald
Rick Eckstein, hitting coach for the Washington Nationals, speaks after receiving the first Catholic Athletes for Christ ”Courage Award.”

In the hallway of the Top of the Town reception facility in Arlington Tuesday night, Liam O’Connor, a senior from Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, lingered for a minute, seeing if he could catch the eye of Washington Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein.

Eckstein, finishing up a short conversation, saw O’Connor and walked directly to him, holding out his hand and asking what grade he was in. The two chatted for a minute, exchanging congratulations on the respective honors they had both received only moments before, courtesy of Catholic Athletes for Christ (CAC).

O’Connor asked Eckstein to tell his brother, professional baseball player David Eckstein, what a huge fan he was. A few seconds more, and Eckstein moved on, leaving O’Connor with a handshake and two words: “Keep pushing.”

These final words of encouragement between the teen athlete and the professional effectively summed up the evening’s event. Yes, Eckstein was presented with CAC’s first Courage Award in honor of donating his kidney to his older brother, Ken, last December. And yes, nine students, including O’Connor, were recognized by CAC for their model leadership in both athletics and their Catholic faith. But what was special was seeing the two together — the young and the not-so-young, the fresh-faced and the veteran — separated by two decades of experience, yet similar in their love of sports and Church.

As a lifelong Catholic who lives his faith daily, Eckstein stood before the young people as an example of how it is possible to succeed professionally in athletics while remaining rooted in the Catholic faith.

“Rick is a role model … in terms of his faith and his character,” said Ray McKenna, founder of CAC, to the group gathered to honor Eckstein and the young athletes. “Everybody in that locker room … respect(s) Rick. They look up to him and they think the world of him. That’s because of his character, his dedication to baseball and his dedication to his faith.”

In its turn, Eckstein said, CAC supports him and his Catholic teammates by ensuring that they have a way to attend Mass during baseball season, whether at home or on the road.

“Ray’s Catholic Athletes for Christ is a great organization for us because it allows us to express our faith,” Eckstein said. “We can go right from the chapel straight onto the baseball field and we can intertwine that. I can use that with the guys on the field.”

According to its website, CAC was formed “in response to Pope John Paul II’s call to evangelize the world of sports” and works “with athletes at all levels of sports in an effort to promote a Catholic sports culture.” Bringing young people and sports veterans together to be honored at the same venue served as an example of bridging that gap.

Led by master of ceremonies Johnny Holliday, the awards were presented first to the youths, then to Eckstein. In his acceptance speech, Eckstein spoke directly to the teens, encouraging discipline and steadiness of faith. He recognized their service to the community and participation in Church leadership roles as “very special.”

“You give outside of the norm and that’s huge,” Eckstein said. “That’s what allowed me to kind of step up, if you will, because I’m only average. I’m average in everything I do. But where I’m above average is that I’ll do whatever it takes, and I know I’ve got the Lord on my side. My faith drives me.”

“It’s really exciting to see that someone who’s got such a strong faith can also be such a successful athlete,” said Peter St. George, an honoree and a senior soccer player at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington who also serves as one of the leaders of O’Connell’s pro-life club.

Eckstein’s example is inspirational, said St. George, adding that, as exemplified by Pope John Paul II, “athletics can glorify the Lord just as much as a lot of other things.”

Eckstein said he saw himself in the young people, and he hopes the teens continue to remain active in their faith.

“I just believe that the more you give, the more you end up getting,” Eckstein said. “And the ‘getting’ isn’t so much material things. It’s the spiritual growth, the insight.”

Father Andrew Fisher, CAC spiritual adviser, said Eckstein is an important role model because “we learn by example,” he said. And “to see athletes who have their gifts and talents lead them to positions where they can serve others … what an example it is.”

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