March 8, 2013

Loyola men's basketball chaplain is full of team spirit

By JODI S. COHEN Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO - It was minutes before game time and the Loyola Ramblers entered the tunnel, ready to rush onto the basketball court.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL RELIGIOUS LEADER
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Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt says her pre-game prayer for the Loyola men’s basketball team a week ago in Chicago. Her prayers were answered when the team won its last regular-season game, 87-60, against Cleveland State University before going on the road for the Horizon League playoffs.

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

But there was one last order of business.

The team huddled with a 5-foot-tall, 93-year-old nun wearing a Nike workout top, black skirt and maroon sneakers with gold laces. "Sister" was embroidered on the heel of one shoe. "Jean" on the other.

The players bowed their heads.

"As we face the Vikings today, we know what we have to do. We can win, and we are going to go out there and do it," said Sister Jean, who stands nearly two feet below the tallest player. "We want to watch especially No. 3 and No. 21 and No. 33. We have beaten them before, and we can do it again. So get in there and do it well and don't get hurt."

"Amen."

Officially, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt is the chaplain for Loyola University Chicago's men's basketball team. But after nearly 20 years in that position, she's become so much more. Students chant "Sis-ter Jean" before games, and referees pose for pictures with her. She's probably the only nun to have her own Bobblehead.

The tiny woman with the short white hair and thick trifocals is the team's adopted grandmother, or more aptly given her years, its great-grandmother.

Last Saturday, her prayers came true when the team won its last regular-season game, 87-60, against Cleveland State University before going on the road for the Horizon League playoffs that began Tuesday night.

And as much as the student athletes say Schmidt keeps their spirits up, the truth is that Schmidt needs them, too. She is the star of Gentile Arena, and her face lights up the minute she walks in the door.

Born in 1919 in San Francisco, Schmidt said she wasn't necessarily an athlete growing up, but she played on her Catholic high school basketball team.

After graduation, she joined the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and spent two decades working as an elementary school teacher and principal and coaching girls' basketball, volleyball, softball and track.

She took a job teaching at the Catholic all-women's Mundelein College near Loyola's campus in Rogers Park in 1961, and was still there 30 years later when the college affiliated with Loyola.

Loyola's then-president saw Schmidt in the stands at basketball games and in 1994 asked if she could help the team. Its chaplain, a Jesuit priest, was retiring, and the team needed a replacement.

"I said, 'I have never been a chaplain to a basketball team before, but I would love to do it,"' she said.

And she's done it ever since, along with many other duties at the school. Three days a week, she ministers to students riding the university's shuttle bus, handing out prayer cards during finals week and reminding them of upcoming events. She lives in a dorm with 400 freshmen.

While most of Loyola's sports teams have a chaplain, she is the only woman to serve in the role.

When Loyola introduced new head coach Porter Moser last year, Schmidt was there in her customized Nikes.

"She gave me a high-five when I walked into the press conference," Moser said. "And five hours later, I got an email from her evaluating every single current player on the roster."

Schmidt prays with the team before they take the court, and leads the fans in an opening prayer before game time. When the broadcaster introduces the team, she is the last one announced -- and gets the loudest applause.

After each game she sends an email to Moser and a separate one to the players. A typical note will include some analysis: "You executed the ball well"; some religion: "As always, we ask our God to help us earn a WIN"; and some gentle reminders: "You must use your time management skills as you prepare for finals which will be here very soon."

(Continued on page 2)

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