Faith is guiding force for several Saint Louis FC players

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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Maher

Jack Maher signed with Saint Louis FC, a professional soccer team based in Fenton, at the start of the 2017 season and made an appearance in the final game of the season. He's on the team again this year.

That's a good reason for the Althoff Catholic High School senior to miss some classes while he practices with the team on weekdays.

Up to five players may be part of a non-professional academy program within an MLS organization and earn minutes with the USL team without relinquishing their amateur status.

Maher, who consults with teachers before and after school to keep up with his work, appreciates being at a Catholic school because the belief and faith in God is in the open. "You have the opportunity to surround yourself and talk about God," he said. "I can talk with other people my own age who are going through similar life issues, and we're all working on it together in the name of God."

He's found a good fit also with the professional team. He can't always tell what, if any, faith or religious background other players have, but a significant number of players express their faith by their actions and conversations. It's all part of what Maher calls a very open and caring atmosphere that stems from the team's coach, Anthony Pulis, who also is Catholic.

"He puts his players before himself and is very humble as well as good at his job. Sometimes having faith and being so open about it is not something coaches like. But it's something Anthony has done so well. He sees that this is how the players are, that they believe in something bigger than themselves, which is amazing. Instead of pushing that off to the side, he does what he can to complement it."

Maher, who will play at the University of Indiana in the fall, said it's easy to have a deep conversation with players such as Austin Martz or Sam Fink.

Martz joined St. Louis FC last fall. A Pennsylvania native, he attended Georgetown University. He reads the Bible every day and attends a weekly Bible study with some of his teammates and the team chaplain.

After moving back to the United States from playing soccer in Malta, Martz read a Bible passage about giving with a generous heart. He prayed about it, and a couple hours later a friend called and mentioned the ministry he and his wife were doing at Westchester University in Pennsylvania. Martz linked that with his Bible reading and donated 10 percent of his salary to their work and ended up meeting his wife because of it.

After their marriage, they moved to St. Louis and learned about the Ambassadors program from the team chaplain. That, too, happened right after he prayed about what to support in St. Louis with his tithing. "Sometimes the key isn't to solve it on your own but to have an open heart and open spirit, have an open stillness and just listen," Martz explained. "We're excited to give."

Among other things, the Ambassadors program gives children from low-income families an opportunity to play at camps, clinics and with a club team.

Soccer, Martz said, "has enabled me to meet people from all over the world, provided me with a career, and it's a no-brainer to give back, especially when they're doing work for the Kingdom as well."

Other players from St. Louis FC have other charitable causes that they support, he noted.

Martz, who attends a nondenominational church, noted that the reason he gets to play soccer is "because Jesus died for me. Whether it's my money or what I can do on the ball, I try to come into the game with the attitude that it never belonged to me in the first place. It always belonged to the Lord. His plan and purpose for me was to use soccer as a platform to bring more glory to Him."

He used to play as an outlet for anger, but now with a focus on God, he plays with more freedom, he said.

"There's super-exciting buzz about the team this year," Martz said, adding that though success just eluded the club in the past, "this group certainly is hungry to change that. We want to give the fans what they deserve. We feel tremendous support from them." 

Faith prevailed through a detour

As a rising star in soccer, Jack Maher almost had his soccer-playing career — and his life — cut short a few years ago.

The Caseyville, Ill., native started his soccer playing in Belleville, Ill., and came to St. Louis Scott Gallagher Soccer Club as a U13 player by way of an inter-club affiliation.

After a season in which he was called into the Region II team of the Olympic Development Program to represent the Midwestern States, Maher fell ill with what was diagnosed as strep.

Within four days of the initial diagnosis, he was hospitalized in St. Louis and then was placed in the intensive care unit after his organs began to shut down. Doctors were baffled by what was causing the illness and were unsure whether or not Maher would survive, according to a report by the Gallagher club.

Later, his symptoms were diagnosed as potentially those of a rare autoimmune disease. Maher responded positively and slowly started to improve. The illness caused Maher's joints to fill with fluid. It would be months before he regained normal movement and, even after regaining movement, he experienced extreme pain when performing normal tasks such as sitting up or walking.

After several weeks of rehabilitation, he returned to school on a limited basis; two months after that, he returned to training in a limited capacity. After a six-month ordeal, he started and played 70 minutes as a center back for SLSG Illinois U14 Pre-Academy in their 3-1 defeat of FC Dallas in the 2013 NPL National Championship Match.

SLSG Illinois Academy Director Blake Decker called Maher "quite possibly the most mature and selfless young man I have had the opportunity to work with. He possesses the intelligence, discipline, drive and perspective of someone twice his age and is the true definition of a servant-leader."

Maher credits the ordeal with motivating him. "It helped me understand that I love playing soccer so much I would do anything to get back on the field and play with my friends," he said. "I knew God would help me get back."

He relied on his faith and "the hope that something better would come out of it," he said. "Not until I was put in that situation did I realize faith is part of how you act every day, become a better person and learn from your mistakes," Maher said.

Saint Louis FC

On May 1, 2014, the USL announced an expansion to St. Louis for the 2015 season. St. Louis Scott Gallagher, a St. Louis youth club, was announced as the owner and operator of the new Saint Louis FC. Both the youth club and the pro team are based at the Worldwide Technology Soccer Park in Fenton.

Saint Louis FC adopted a logo that has strong ties to the foundation of the city. The fleur-de-lis that acts as the focal point of the logo is a tribute to the French founders of the city, and 1764 is a reference to the year the city was founded.

The team's next home game is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 5. For information, visit www.saintlouisfc.com.

For information on Ambassadors Football, visit www.stlouisreview.com/jff. 

Maher represented the U.S. Men's National Team at U18 level and was on the 2017 Youth All-American team. 

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