Food for thought
Last year, when the NCAA relaxed the regulations schools must follow to feed their college athletes, sports dietitians took on a whole new level of importance. Now, their numbers are growing even faster on campuses – and so is their influence.
Alone in her office on an August afternoon, Sister Lisa Maurer hears a call. It’s coming from her Android smartphone, which lies on her desk among piles of printed PowerPoint slides and scribbled notes, books on Mother Teresa, the pope and the Catholic Church, and a calendar emblazoned with the navy blue and scarlet of the Minnesota Twins.
“Hello, this is Sister Lisa,” she answers.
Through the phone, a woman identifies herself as the bishop’s secretary. This fall, she explains, the Diocese of Duluth is planning a party to celebrate 125 years of serving parishes in northeastern Minnesota. The bishop is looking for someone to emcee the event. He suggested Sister Lisa.
“You were a hit the last time,” the woman says.
In the eight years since Sister Lisa joined the Benedictine community in Duluth, she has become known for her ability to command a crowd. Last spring, she emceed a conference for Christian women, where she spoke alongside the bishop. More regularly, for what she calls her “real job,” she gives presentations on the Benedictine mission to staff at Catholic nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Even when she’s teaching the history of a 1,500-year-old religious order, she engages the audience with her infectious energy and makes them laugh with unexpected quips of Benedictine humor. (“Say it with me,” she directs. “It’s time for Benedictine … Truth … Or … Fiction!”)
Is Sister Lisa interested in emceeing the bishop’s bash? Absolutely. A request from the bishop’s office is not an everyday occurrence, even for this sister.
But then she hears the date of the event, and doubt creeps in. “What time would you need me?”
“1 to 4.”
Sister Lisa knows what she must do. Sitting in her office – where one corner of the room holds a bobblehead of Pope Francis and another is decked out in autographed baseballs, trading cards and athletic awards – she explains to the bishop’s secretary that she can’t attend the anniversary party because it’s planned for a Saturday afternoon in the fall.
And for Sister Lisa, Saturdays in the fall mean one thing.
August through November, a typical weekday for the sister looks something like this: She rises at 5 a.m., says her morning prayers, hops into her bronze Honda Civic and drives from the St. Scholastica monastery to her nearby office in downtown Duluth, where she works as a mission integration director for the Benedictine Health System. At around 2 p.m., she drives back home to St. Scholastica and, dressed in her ankle-length jumper and Nikes, walks to the practice football field in the monastery’s backyard. There, she is known not just as “Sister,” but also as “Coach.”
Sister Lisa is in her second year coaching the kickers and punters at the College of St. Scholastica, the private Division III school attached to the monastery. Benedictine sisters founded the school more than 100 years ago, cementing a faith-filled partnership that endures. At its most robust the monastery housed nearly 500 sisters, including many who were teachers at the college. But today, as the monastery population hovers around 70, Sister Lisa is one of the few who works directly with students on campus.
And she is the only one whose classroom is the football field.
Football coaches come in many breeds. Some were stars from their earliest throws in Pop Warner, while others have never scored a touchdown. Some are known for their fiery temperament; others are adept at keeping their cool. There are the strict ones and the lenient ones. The win-at-all-costs and the you-did-your-bests.
But nowhere else in the country will you find a college football coach quite like Sister Lisa. The 5-foot-2, 45-year-old nun with bright blue eyes and cropped brown hair has never kicked a field goal, much less played in a football game. Last year, her top kicker knew more about technique than she did. Yet observers notice the unmistakable spark she adds to the St. Scholastica team, both on the gridiron and off.
She also, as it turns out, is good at this job. This year, she added the scout team offense to her growing coaching responsibilities. Head coach Kurt Ramler calls the decision to hire her “a no-brainer.”
Which all leads to some questions, starting with these: What could a Benedictine sister possibly have to offer in the rough-and-tumble world of football? How could you never have coached or even played the sport, yet deliver something valuable to people who have devoted much of their young lives to it? What, really, defines a coach? And what makes Sister Lisa one?
To understand Sister Lisa, you must begin in the southern Minnesota town of Sleepy Eye, back when her brothers were the only people who called her sister. There, in this two-stoplight farming community, the first-born child of Gene and Diane Maurer dove into sports at a young age. From elementary through high school, she attended St. Mary’s, a small Catholic school where athletes rarely limited themselves to just one sport. For Lisa, the rotation was always volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter, softball in the spring.
Her father taught sixth-grade science at St. Mary’s and coached a variety of junior high sports, including football. Lisa loved being around him and his players and helped any chance she could – mowing lines, painting markers, collecting stray balls. During basketball season, his junior high team shared the school’s gymnasium with the high school squad. No gym available on practice day? No problem. Gene Maurer was content running his practices in the cafeteria. You can learn sports anywhere, he figured.
He was the kind of coach who hammered home the fundamentals, teaching novice players the correct way to tackle, throw and run drills. Bad habits are hard to break, Gene Maurer believed. And if you’re going to do something, you need to do it right.
These lessons were ingrained in Lisa’s everyday life. Discipline came naturally to the young girl. Over and over and over again, she practiced her swing, her shot, her spike. Every breakfast, lunch and dinner, she said her prayers. She attended Mass with her family on Sundays, where she grew fascinated by the highly structured Catholic service – the recitations, the gestures, the incense.
Sisters of the church often taught in the school. Lisa was in fourth grade when she realized nuns weren’t all serious and strict – they could also have fun. Her teacher, Sister Arnold, incorporated games into her lesson plans – and prizes! – and she was approachable in a way no other sister had been.
Lisa moved away from Sleepy Eye for the first time to attend Southwest Minnesota State University. She played catcher for the softball team during her freshman year, but after a nagging shoulder injury kept her off the diamond and in the trainer’s room, she quit. In the classroom, she studied elementary education with the intention of becoming a teacher and a coach. Just like her father, she was invigorated by the idea of molding young minds and helping kids realize their potential.
After graduation, Lisa took on new teaching and coaching opportunities that brought her closer and closer to her beloved hometown. First she worked in a town called Tracy, 50 miles away from Sleepy Eye. Her next job was a mere 14 miles west, followed by another 14 miles east. By that time, she was coaching basketball and volleyball in the evenings back at St. Mary’s, back on the court that shaped her leadership skills and tireless work ethic. There, she could pass those lessons on to a younger generation.
Lisa was in Sleepy Eye the day her father’s health crashed in 2003. Walking had become difficult for Gene Maurer, and he had developed a bad cold that made it hard to breathe. He was working a Sunday dinner at the church when the congestion became unbearable. Lisa helped her mother, a nurse, rush him to the hospital, where doctors put him in a temporary coma to stabilize his ailing body.
Gene remained in the hospital for the next month as a new reality became clear: He would not be returning to his sixth-grade science class or his junior high teams. Substitute teachers rotated in and out over the weeks and months that followed. Finally, Lisa felt pulled to action. The students needed a permanent teacher, and she was ready. The next school year, she stepped into her father’s former classroom armed with a lesson plan and a determination to carry on his legacy. She was fulfilling her dream back in Sleepy Eye, the only place she had ever wanted to be.
But, the way she tells it, God had a different plan.
At first, the tug was subtle. Lisa was chaperoning St. Mary’s students on a mission trip to Guatemala when the thought entered her mind: She was meant to serve God in a bigger way.
Was it the simple lifestyle she witnessed on the trip? The introduction to a bigger world so far outside Sleepy Eye? Whatever the trigger, Lisa soon realized it could not be ignored. Back in Minnesota, she tried adding more to her religious life – more involvement with the church, more prayers. Still, the pull persisted.
OK, God, Lisa thought in a moment of desperation. I know you’re calling me to be a sister, but if I stop coaching, I will die. Getting married, having children, raising a family in a house like she grew up in – at 35, she could accept a life without those traditional trappings. But giving up coaching? That seemed impossible.
Clarity came in the middle of a basketball game. Her team’s point guard stole the ball, took it down the court and made a layup. Lisa was about to call a timeout when, over the cheers of the crowd, she heard the calling louder than ever. You can leave this.
She knew what that meant.
She could leave Sleepy Eye. She could leave coaching at St. Mary’s. She could leave her father, who was battling a slow-progressing form of ALS, and her mother, who was caring for him. She could leave it all – because she had to.
She began her search for the right convent, continuing at St. Mary’s while she prepared for her new life. She told her family and her friends, who greeted her decision with support. Then came the hard part.
The girls basketball team was gathered in the school cafeteria for the 2006 season-ending banquet. After the last awards were handed out and the mothers had begun to clean up the remains from their casserole dishes, Lisa approached the team before the girls rose to leave.
“I have something to tell you,” she began, her eyes already starting to water.
“I think God’s calling me to be a sister,” she told them. “And I’m going to say ‘yes’ to God.” Lisa couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. She explained that she was leaving St. Mary’s, but the girls would always hold a special place in her heart. She would forever be Coach Maurer.
Some of the players wiped away tears of their own. Others expressed excitement for their coach, knowing how much Lisa valued her faith. “That’s so cool, Mau-Pow!” one exclaimed, calling her by the nickname the girls gave her.
One of the basketball players had once said to her: “Maurer, you are so holy and cool.” The statement had hit her – back in fourth grade, it was the sentiment she had felt for Sister Arnold. She could follow in that fun-loving nun’s footsteps, she realized. She didn’t have to be an either/or: She could answer God’s call and remain herself in the process.
“It’s all going to be OK,” Lisa assured the girls that night.
It’s all going to be OK, she told herself.
The College of St. Scholastica was a school for women when the Benedictine sisters opened it in 1912. Around that time, the sisters chartered the construction of Tower Hall, a striking structure designed like a Tudor castle and built from stones quarried on the school grounds.
It was here in Tower Hall where the sisters lived among and prayed with and taught the female students for decades. Now, the building houses administrative offices, classrooms and computer labs, and one must walk down a corridor, past the chapel and through double doors to reach the monastery.
Lugging only one large Rubbermaid bin and a pair of duffel bags stuffed with clothes, Lisa arrived at the monastery doors in 2007. She had given away most of her belongings and left her autographed baseballs, trading cards and trophies behind in Sleepy Eye. Sports, she assumed, would not belong in this new life she was creating. Mementos from her former world of home runs and buzzer-beaters would only make the adjustment harder. If she was going to make this commitment to God, she was going to do it right.
Every woman who wants to join the St. Scholastica monastery must go through a ritual. Lisa took her turn upon arriving on campus. Standing alone before the large wooden doors of the monastery, she knocked. Then, she waited.
She knocked again, a little louder.
So she knocked a third time, harder than ever. That’s when, finally, the doors swung open, and she saw the sisters waiting on the other side. “What are you doing here?” the prioress asked.
“I come here to seek God,” Lisa replied.
For the community, the enactment is a sign of commitment and persistence. You should be so secure in your decision that you knock not once, not twice, but three times.
The St. Scholastica monastery sits on a hill at the center of campus. Some rooms, on a clear day, offer views of the massive Lake Superior fading into the horizon. Others look out upon a swath of pine, maple and birch trees, which help make the 186-acre Duluth campus an attractive landing spot for nature lovers brave enough to take on the harshest Minnesota winters.
When Sister Lisa was shown to her room, she found a window that looked out on something more beautiful to her than a sparkling lake or thick woods. Outside, she could see students darting across a grassy field, chasing after a ball in a game they had spent years trying to master.
If she really was supposed to forget about sports, God had a funny way of showing her.
Football came to St. Scholastica around the same time as Sister Lisa. The college turned coed in 1969, yet 40 years later, the student population was still heavily female. Seeking to improve the ratio, administrators turned to athletics.
Just months into her stay, Sister Lisa watched as the practice soccer field outside her bedroom window gradually transformed into an area that would suit a football team, as well. Artificial turf replaced the patchy field. Yellow goal posts were raised on both ends. White lines were painted in 10-yard increments. The Saints fielded their first football team in 2008.
Sister Lisa couldn’t stay away. Day after day, she walked out the back door of the monastery to watch practice. She sat in the bleachers and took in the familiar sounds. She traveled to “home” games played on a nearby high school field.
Sometimes, she clasped her rosary and encircled the field as her fingers encircled the prayer beads. She felt more at ease indulging in her sports passion when she was doing something holy, too.
Season after season, the football players knew Sister Lisa would be around, and the relationship between the nun and the team stood out to Kurt Ramler when he was hired as head coach in spring 2014. After meeting him at his introductory news conference, Sister Lisa invited Ramler to prayers at the monastery. The two discovered they had a lot in common. They talked about how their fathers died from the same heartbreaking disease. About their experiences with Saint John’s University, another Benedictine college in Minnesota where Ramler attended as an undergraduate and where Sister Lisa is pursuing a master’s degree.
Most of all, they talked about their similar philosophies on coaching.
In Sister Lisa, Ramler saw a person who loved student-athletes. She was a natural teacher with an openness to learning, an unrelenting work ethic and an obvious passion for the game. That’s why, when you ask him why he wanted Sister Lisa to be a volunteer coach on his staff, he answers like you just asked him why he bothered to eat breakfast this morning. “Well, to me it just made sense,” Ramler says.
Sister Lisa wasn’t so sure. When Ramler asked her to coach the kickers, she thought she needed to decline. “I really felt I should say no,” she recalls. “Not that I wanted to say no, but that I should say no.”
Of course, there was the obvious factor: She didn’t know much about kicking. And what about her work schedule? The idea of fitting in football seemed far-fetched.
But the real hesitation stemmed from her faith life. She went to then-prioress Sister Lois Eckes with Ramler’s request, expecting the monastery leader to advise her not to coach. Instead, she told Sister Lisa to pray about it.
And pray about it, she did.
If I do this, Sister Lisa pondered, would I be doing it because I want to coach, or is God really leading me to do this?
As time passed, Ramler occasionally checked in. He never pressured a decision, just listened to her concerns. He knocked, then waited.
Is this going to be beneficial to my vocation as a sister? Is it going to be beneficial to the college?
She returned to the prioress for more guidance. She confided in her mother and a close friend. She imagined advice from her father, who had died in 2010.
Ramler remained resolute in his request. “We’ll take whatever you can offer,” the head coach assured her.
Finally, after two weeks, Sister Lisa opened the door to her life and let coaching back in.
'The key to being a very good coach is to be a very good teacher.”
That’s John Gagliardi, the winningest coach in college football history. During his record 60 seasons at Saint John’s, he coached thousands of football players, including Ramler.
Gagliardi, now retired, has had plenty of time to reflect on what it means to be a football coach. And he believes the most important role of a coach has little to do with the X’s and O’s. “For me, it’s helping young people become good citizens and go on to a great career,” Gagliardi says. As for football plays and position techniques, he explains, coaches can learn those on the job. “You can learn to be a brain surgeon, for God’s sakes.”
That idea is popular among many of those who know the game best. Grant Teaff, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, says you can learn the fundamentals, “but you can’t coach unless you can communicate.”
Take Teaff himself. The former longtime coach at Baylor University says he never kicked a football in his life, but he became skilled at coaching punters because he studied, then clearly communicated, the basics. Such on-the-job training is common in a sport that involves 22 different positions among offense and defense, on top of special teams.
Less common is a woman who undertakes the training, though trailblazers exist: Just last summer, Jen Welter accepted a preseason internship coaching inside linebackers for the Arizona Cardinals, becoming the first woman to coach in any capacity in the NFL.
“Coaching is nothing more than teaching,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said at the time. “One thing I have learned from players is, ‘How are you going to make me better? If you can make me better, I don’t care if you’re the Green Hornet, man, I’ll listen.’”
Mike Theismann was entering his senior year when Sister Lisa was named his new position coach.
The starting Saints kicker’s first reaction was what might be expected: What can a nun teach me about kicking a football? Still, a kicking coach in Division III is a luxury most student-athletes don’t have; football coaches who focus on the kicking game can be rare even in Division I.
With an experienced kicker like Theismann, who would go on to be named an honorable mention All-American, Sister Lisa had her work cut out. She dove into books, websites and videos, soaking up as much kicking knowledge as she could. When in doubt, she relied on her general sports wisdom. “Our human bodies can only move so many different ways,” she says. “Like how you’ve got to keep your head down when you’re golfing, or how your follow-through has to be at the target when you’re doing a free throw. All of those things translate to kicking the right way.”
But perhaps more than any video clip or article, Sister Lisa learned from Theismann and his teammates. “There is wisdom in student-athletes,” she says. “You’ve got to listen to them.” She knew she shouldn’t touch the veteran’s well-oiled technique, yet she offered support where she could. “Did you plant your foot?” she’d ask when she noticed the fundamentals slipping.
“She brings energy,” Theismann said after a game last year. “She knows way more about football than people realize.”
Sometimes, the men approach Sister Lisa off the field with personal concerns. A grandfather who is sick, an important test on the horizon. The exchanges are simple and fleeting – the men are supposed to be tough, after all. Yet they find some solace in having Sister Lisa on their side. They know she’ll pray for them.
Sister Lisa feels blessed to be in an athletic setting where the team can openly talk about faith. She seizes opportunities to intersect her faith and football, but she’s careful not to push too far.
Before each game, she writes a prayer card for every player. “I come to you asking for your blessing and help as I prepare for tonight’s game,” one prayer reads. “Bless my teammates and coaches. Keep us safe and strong. Give all of us the desire to find ways to excel in teamwork and sportsmanship …” Each player who receives the card can do with it what he wants. But often, the men welcome the spiritual nudge.
Even when certain four-letter words slip, as they tend to do in the throes of competition, the players think of their kicking coach. “Sorry, Sister!” they quickly apologize. Sister Lisa laughs – she is a sister, not a saint.
“I’m probably thinking the same thing.”
Picking a religious order, Sister Lisa says, can be like picking a flavor of ice cream.
The Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Little Sisters of the Poor – all are categories of orders that fall under the arc of the Catholic Church. But, just as one person prefers strawberry over vanilla, religious people are drawn to different orders, which each operate under a unique mission.
Sister Lisa was drawn to the Benedictine life largely because of her desire for rules. “I appreciate knowing what the rules are, and then living a great life within those rules,” she says. “There’s something beautiful in that.”
The Benedictines live by the Rule of St. Benedict, a collection of 73 guiding chapters on virtues like humility and obedience and balance that the saint is believed to have written more than 1,500 years ago. Sister Lisa knows the rule backward and forward, like a coach knows her playbook. It’s the primary piece of curriculum she teaches in her work with the Benedictine Health System.
This summer, 50 health system employees gathered at St. Scholastica for the annual outing, planned this year by Sister Lisa. After the corporate updates and just before lunch, the nun stepped to the front for “Fun With Sister Lisa” – a trivia slideshow. She didn’t need a microphone, she decided – her coaching voice would do.
With the click of a button, a fill-in-the-blank question appeared on the big screen
“St. Scholastica and St. Benedict were believed to have been …”
In unison, the staff members called out the answer. “Twins!”
Correct. Sister Lisa clicked another button, and the logo of the Minnesota Twins flashed on the screen. “Whoa, whoa, wrong picture.” Sister Lisa feigned surprise as the crowd erupted into laughter. “Sorry about that.”
The game show-style activities continued, all centered around the history of St. Scholastica, the Benedictine order and the principles of the Benedictine Rule. “It’s not a rule like ‘no walking on the grass’ or ‘drive 55 miles an hour,’” she clarified for the crowd. “It’s a rule about wisdom for learning.”
Though the rule was written to be a guide for monks, Sister Lisa believes themes can apply to anyone’s day-to-day life. The first time she read it, before she made her religious vows, she felt like the rule had been written just for her.
But the chapter on humility made her nervous. “I was always taught that we are supposed to be proud of ourselves,” she explains. Would her competitive spirit fit within these humble commands? Could she live up to these lofty expectations?
Gradually, Sister Lisa’s worries subsided. She learned that St. Benedict’s call for humility did not mean people should abandon their talents. Benedictine sisters in Duluth had been making use of theirs throughout the monastery’s history. One group of sisters received international recognition for their contributions to cancer research. Another sister, who studied marine life, was one of the first women to winter over in Antarctica. The monastery has been home to an architect, a college dean and an award-winning photographer.
Sister Beverly Raway, the new prioress at the monastery, encourages sisters in her community to remember a lesson from Matthew 10:8. “The gift you have received, the gift you are, give as a gift,” Sister Beverly summarizes. “I think that’s what Sister Lisa is doing; she’s giving her gift.”
The prioress doesn’t consider herself a great football fan, though she’ll enjoy a game here and there. Her bedroom overlooks the football field, too, but she likes the view most when the trees are full – for her, green leaves trump yellow goal posts.
Still, Sister Beverly appreciates Sister Lisa’s passion for coaching. “I see the joy and the life that it brings her,” the prioress says. “It’s just natural.”
To the world outside of St. Scholastica, it might not seem so natural. But Sister Lisa has become comfortable in her sporty, sisterly skin. She lets herself make an impact on student-athletes in the one place she feels closest to God outside the chapel.
“She’s a real positive influence on the coaches and I,” Ramler says. “Just having Sister Lisa around, you want to be your best around her. And I think the players do, too.”
But, isn’t football too violent for the peaceful Benedictine beliefs? Not so, says Sister Lisa. Football and her faith go hand-in-hand. “At our college, yes, we’re going to tackle a guy, but we’re also going to help him back up,” she explains. “We going to be tough, but we’re not going to be vicious and we’re not going to be deceitful, and we’re not going to go against the rules.
“Playing hard and doing your absolute best,” she adds, “is a beautiful thing.”
When you talk with a coach about philosophy of the game, you often end up hearing something about life. You hear about the lessons athletes gain, the discipline, the leadership, the perseverance.
“We live in a society that has lost a lot of values and work ethic,” said Teaff, the American Football Coaches Association executive director. “The opportunity to teach a child to have values and develop character and develop work ethic will do for them what no play in football can ever do. It is the teaching of how to play the game that makes the difference.”
Sister Lisa has built her life around these values. Now, coaching a sport shrouded in stereotypes, she perceives virtues you won’t hear about on SportsCenter: humbleness, temperance, patience.
They are what drive her to rise at 5 in the morning, even on the days when she’d rather sleep in, knowing her student-athletes have to be just as disciplined. They are the reason she stands for hours on the football field, even in the cold, pouring rain, to help a couple of kickers improve their swing. And they are why, when she hears the chapel bells ring during practice, she hustles off the field and down the hill, to another round of prayers.
On a sunny, 50-degree afternoon in Minnesota, the Saints’ defense has just taken the field after another touchdown. Fans decked out in royal blue and gold, bunched in portable bleachers and colorful lawn chairs, sing. “When the Saints … go marching in …”
As the whistle blows and shoulder pads clash near center field, the offense settles in on the sideline. Backs are slapped, water is sloshed into mouths and sweat is wiped from rosy faces. From somewhere in the middle of the adrenaline-fueled, testosterone-laced action, you hear her.
“Let’s go D! Let’s go D!”
At first, it’s hard to tell where, exactly, the female voice is coming from. The Saints’ sideline is a sea of royal blue helmets. But then, when a cluster of towering players shifts, you spot her, dressed in black wind pants, a Saints T-shirt and a visor, extending a fist that an athlete knowingly pounds.
The Saints are winning easily, but Sister Lisa doesn’t want them to lose their edge. “We need energy over here, gentlemen,” she calls. “Let’s go!”
As she weaves up and down the sidelines, Sister Lisa reaches for the medallion of St. Benedict hanging from her neck and presses her fingers against the metal. You can’t take the coach out of the sister or the sister out of the coach. This one already tried.