Men seeking inspiration and guidance gathered at the Knights for Dads Rally in River Falls on Feb. 24. (Catholic Herald photo by Joe Winter)

Joe Winter
Special to the Catholic Herald

Men from all walks of life were there, old guys and young males, their children and grandchildren, single or married or divorced. All had in common a thirst for knowledge on how to be a better father.

There to guide them was one of professional football’s most decorated offensive linemen, who made it clear he was here as the center of attention not as a gridiron great, but on a greater and more important mission. He shared the sometimes hard lessons learned while in the muddy trenches of the NFL’s Black and Blue Division, male bonding that also extends to fatherhood.

The Knights for Dads Rally was held at St. Bridget Church in River Falls, on Saturday, Feb. 24. It attracted 225 men from 41 communities, an 180-percent increase over 2023’s inaugural event.

Doug Weiss, coordinator of the all-morning event that continued into the afternoon, attributed the increase to two factors: Support from the rally’s two new sponsors, and a dynamic pair of speakers. They were Super Bowl Champion and all-pro center Matt Birk, a Catholic and Knight; and Mark Berchem, founder/CEO of Catholic NET Ministries and author of “Step Up Dad! Your Kids Need You.”

Weiss added, “We also served lunch to wrap up the meeting, always a draw for young guys.”

Berchem encouraged the men to find and focus on one good idea to implement that day. “Your lives are busy, I know. If you pick a (large) bunch of ideas, you’ll get home and feel overwhelmed,” he cautioned.

One example from his own life focused on his drive home after a full day of work. “Instead of thinking about the details of your workday, clear your mind and focus on your family. What’s happening in their lives today and this week? Hmm, this morning, our daughter mentioned a test; I’ll ask about that. I think our son has a game coming up. I want to be there for that … Use your drive home to center your thoughts on the most important part of your life – your family,” he said.

Birk said great drive is needed to get this drill, and teamwork and asking for help, like from your lineman coach, is essential to getting the job done. Playing, coaching and otherwise mentoring your sons and daughters when they are on the field extends beyond NFL Sunday. It needs to be an everyday presence, just like on the practice field, Birk said.

He spoke about the bonds that form on a football team as the men work together, suffer together, practice together, even joke and play pranks that lead to further bonding together, and push themselves to achieve a common goal, and he cited many other life lessons he learned in the NFL.

After Birk’s football career closed, he was part of a loose-knit group of men who got together from time to time, and Birk said such support and camaraderie is vital to doing well the hard work of being a dad.

“You can’t go it alone,” he said. “We are taught to be tough and not open up and (express needs about) what we are feeling.” The point of not just stuffing it was driven home about seven years ago, when the group spent a weekend up north. For Birk, that weekend was a turning point that cemented friendships and created fraternal bonds that continue today. Birk points to that weekend and the men’s group as having the biggest continuing impact on his life.

But despite his resumé, those pros taught him, too, among other things humility. At his first day of training camp, he lined up against John Randle, one of the best defensive linemen to play the game. “I decided I was going to (thrust forward and) push my hands right through his chest, and then out his back,” Birk said in metaphor. But he ended up almost whiffing as Randle ran right past him. With that wakeup call, Birk initially thought, “Why even bother trying?”

But another lesson there was perseverance, even though that meant changing positions from outside lineman to center. “Because the fundamentals never change. What matters is how the fundamentals are (applied),” he spoke. These attributes are also truisms in Christianity and in being a father, putting in that time and effort just like you would on that endless series on mundane drills in training camp.

He also advised the men to love their wives openly. Children should see you give her a hug and a kiss, hold her hand, listen to her, bring her flowers. He advised attendees to create in their sons and daughters an expectation of how a loving couple interacts.

“You need to show up every day,” he said.

Another of his lessons grilled into him on the gridiron, in the nitty gritty of the line, is that “getting in other peoples’ way can be useful.” In a good and caring way, such as getting involved in your family’s life.

A series of lengthy silent prayer sessions was called one of the most spiritual parts of the event, with attendees invited to pray for especially what is needed to be the father God intends. Some chose to stand in prayer amidst the filled pews, and Fr. Joe Stefancin, pastor at St. Bridget, and Fr. Dan Tracy, associate pastor at St. Patrick, counted 25 who rose.

Coordinator Weiss commented about the generational groups – grandfathers, dads and sons – who attended. “I believe men are looking for this kind of support,” he said.

The Knights of Columbus councils at St. Patrick in Hudson and St. Mary’s in Big River, in the La Crosse diocese, joined as event sponsors.