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Faith on the Field: Interview with Vanderbilt Kicker Tommy Openshaw

Look for Tommy Openshaw on a Saturday night, and you’ll find him under stadium lights, kicking for Vanderbilt’s football team. Check again on Sunday, however, and you’ll find him at Benton Chapel, joining Vanderbilt’s Catholic community for Mass.

As a Vanderbilt student and Catholic, I saw Tommy both on the field and in the pews. It got me wondering… how do the two intersect? So I sat down with Tommy to ask him a few questions about living the faith as a college athlete.

Why is your faith important to you? And how has it evolved up until this point?

Both of my parents were raised Catholic, and my earliest memories are of my dad taking us to Mass on Sundays. I would whine and complain about going because I didn’t want to sit there for an hour. My sisters and I would fight for elbow room while were kneeling, and that was highlight of what was going on: who could get the most elbow room. It didn’t mean much at all growing up.

Then, in high school, one of my teammates, Hunter, got me to go on a retreat in my junior year. It was good timing, too, because that year I got really good at football and realized I could play in college, which made me pretty prideful. Going to that retreat was the first time I really experienced God. I went to confession for the first time since my very first confession. That was a long time coming.

The retreat opened me to a group of people who were Catholic and desiring to grow in holiness. I didn’t have anything like that growing up. It planted a little seed and I started becoming more interested in coming to Mass on Sunday.

Then I went to Steubenville the summer before my senior year. That was the first time I had heard about Adoration, let alone went to it. I heard talks from Mark Hart, and I think Leah Darrow, too. They had a really good message, followed by Adoration for 2 hours. It was cool to witness the spiritual gifts of that experience. That was the first time I noticed anything specifically Catholic about my faith.

The next few months, my youth group friends and I would meet twice a week for BBS: Bro-ly Bible Studies. We would hang out and talk about theology until midnight or later. We would even go to daily Mass together at the Basilica downtown.

After graduation, I went to Vanderbilt to play football and spent the first summer with no other Catholics that I knew of in the team or on campus. I was feeling very out of place, but still would watch Steubenville talks and apologetics by Matt Fradd to keep up my faith. I actually got in trouble for watching those videos during team study hall instead of actually studying…

But anyway, I ended up meeting more guys once school started who I could really connect with through athletics and our faith. And that community is what is keeping me going right now.

How does your vocation as an athlete intersect with your faith?

That’s something that’s always hard to figure out. People always say, “I want to honor God through this sport.” It’s easy to say that, but what does it actually mean? Too often, you see people during interviews saying they want to give God the glory, but how do you do more than just say that? How do you live it?

This season, I’ve seen that it’s not as much about how the outside world sees you as a Christian playing the sport, but rather how your teammates see you. I’ve had multiple teammates come up to me and say, “I know you’re Catholic, and I want to learn about it.” Some people want to convert, or some people have grown up Catholic and want to get back into it. So that’s shown me that living as a Christian athlete isn’t as much about how the press or media see you, but how you can impact those directly around you, the players on your team, through that witness.

I’ve noticed you make the Sign of the Cross after you make a field goal. When did that habit begin, and what do you hope to convey through it?

I didn’t do that in high school, but I started when I went into college. Justin Tucker, the kicker for the Ravens, is Catholic and does the Sign of the Cross lining up. Being a Catholic kicker like him, I always thought that was the coolest thing ever, so I wanted to implement something like that.

I do it as I walk on the field and after the play. Also, every time I kick, I say a Hail Mary in my head as I’m lining up the field goal. That way, it signifies that the whole play is a prayer, start to finish. And, actually, my Catholic teammate syncs up a Hail Mary with mine, too, so we have extra graces flowing while we’re on the field.

Also, I do it to make a statement, to make people realize there are Catholics who aren’t just boring or old ladies in Mass — the typical stereotypes. People need to see that there are all different types of Catholics. You’re not stuck in a stereotype just because of your faith.

Football players have almost a celebrity status around campus. Especially after a good game, how do you stay humble amid all the hype?

The way people view a good game and the way you, personally, view a good game is very different. So, a good way to stay grounded, I’ve discovered, is recognizing that perfection is not a human quality, but we should still strive for it.

I’ve definitely not had a perfect game, or even a great game, by my standards this season, so it’s easy not to get too full of myself. But I even if I make all my kicks, and to the outside eye it seems like I’ve done my job, I still recognize that there’s so much more I’m capable of. This striving to be better helps me to not get complacent.

Complacency is the first way to get prideful; you think, “Yeah, I’m good enough.” Then when people tell you that you did a great job, your “good enough” turns into, “Yeah, I’m doing great, aren’t I?” which becomes a bunch of pride.

On the flip side, the whole campus gets very critical after a bad game. How do you keep the negativity from affecting you?

That’s my biggest struggle: not getting too worked up over missed kicks. That’s the quickest way to get humbled, missing a kick.

Most college kickers are capable of making every single kick that they’re put in the play for; they’ve made them before. It’s just, in that moment, you don’t play to your fullest potential. And it’s frustrating, but you have to recognize that kicking a football is the most meaningless thing in the grand scheme of life. God doesn’t care if I can kick a ball through two yellow posts or not. It’s not what defines who I am.

But it’s hard to remind myself of that. I spend 60 hours a week playing football and when it doesn’t come to how you want, you get pretty frustrated and it’s hard not to define yourself by it.

But that’s why it’s so important to spend a lot of your time praying and receiving the sacraments because that takes your mind out of what you’ve been doing all day and puts it in tune with something else.

Although the sport is a multi-million dollar business, it’s still just kicking a football.

Is it difficult to maintain an identity rooted solely in the fact that you are God’s son—not on how you play each time you take the field?

Oh yeah, it’s extremely hard. The way I look at it is that, I’m God’s son and He’s given me these talents for a reason.

But most people only pay attention to kickers when they’re doing poorly. When you’re doing great you don’t get attention at all. So when everyone says you want to bring glory to God through your sport, I think, “Well, if I’m doing poorly how am I going to bring Him glory?” because they’re just going to negatively look at me. So I get frustrated; “God, how could you let me do poorly? I can’t bring you glory by doing poorly.”

That’s a very dangerous mindset to get into, but still very prominent. I get frustrated, asking God, “if you could just let me be 100% on field goals, then I’ll be sure to thank you in my speech.”

But how much is that really giving God glory? It’s more like making you look good in the eyes of the world. You just make yourself feel better about it by saying, “Thanks, God!” at the end.

So I recognize that… but I still get frustrated that that’s not the way it works.

If I was doing great, though, I feel like it would be easy for me to put on the front of being a Christian athlete. I would get very complacent, thinking there’s nothing more I need to do since I’m doing so well. And I would equate kicking well with having a good spiritual life.

Whereas, if I’m doing poorly, not only am I motivated to do better athletically, but I also know that playing poorly affects me spiritually, so I know I need to get better spiritually. So I’m killing two birds with one stone.

It’s honestly beneficial, but you don’t see it as such in the moment.

Any message you’d like to share with other college-athletes trying to live out their faith?

It’s extremely important to find people that you can connect with on that level, because you can’t do it alone.

In addition, there are always players on your team that grew up in the Church or have a desire to know more, but they may not say something about it. Having those conversations with your teammates beyond the scope of the sport can go a long way.

From a specialist’s perspective, having these conversations makes you so much more part of the team than you otherwise would be. They see you less as a kicker and more of a brother.

It’s also about turning your focus outward. When you’re only focused on “how good can I be?” and not “how good can I make this team?” that’s where the problems come up.

The most important thing is to invest in your teammates. When that happens, the rest takes care of itself.

About the Author

Faith Noah

Howdy, I'm Faith and I'm an avid fan of chocolate chip cookies, golden retrievers, and St. John Paul II. I enjoy spending time outside (kayaking, climbing, biking, you name it!). I nerd out on neuroscience, bioethics, and anything related to NCIS or the MCU. But at the end of the day, you'll find me either engaging in sugar-induced fits of hyperactivity or having a deep stimulating theological discussion--one extreme or the other. Fun fact: my whole name (together) is in the Bible. Hebrews 11:7. No big deal.

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