At 10 past 5, the bell tower at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth calls 70 Benedictine nuns to prayer. All except Sister Lisa Maurer, whose prayers will come later. Now, she's busy at football practice, dispensing fist bumps, hugs and constant encouragement. "Let's go Blue!" yelled the 5-foot-2 nun, as she weaved in and out among players towering over her.
"Is it cool that I'm coaching?" she asks. "Of course it is! But in honesty, I look at it more as an extension of my ministry as a sister."
"Helping these young men to do as God is calling them to be, great citizens, grow into great people — I get to use football to do that," she said.
You'd be hard-pressed to find many places as dominated by men as a football field. Yet when St. Scholastica takes the field Saturday against Greenville College for its final regular season game, Maurer will be on the sidelines, coaching kickers and punters.
Not only is she one of just a handful of women to coach college football; she is likely the first nun in such a role.
She sees it as a part of her calling.
The 45-year-old Maurer was raised a self-described sports nut in the town of Sleepy Eye in southern Minnesota. Her dad coached football. And she also became a coach.
"I was living the dream," she recalled. "I mean, I thought I had achieved everything I wanted. I was back in my hometown, teaching and coaching at my alma mater, and I was coaching volleyball, basketball and softball, and we were successful. We had taken a few teams to the state tournament."
And yet in the midst of all that, Maurer felt something missing. She knew she wanted to devote her life to God. But she figured that would mean giving up coaching.
"Because coaching is all-encompassing — at least, for me it was — and I knew that if I was a sister, that would no longer be my focus," she said.
"And so I was OK with not being married, OK with not having my own children, but I was not OK with that idea that I would not have that thrill of competition, and just that anticipation of game day."
Still, she decided to trade one passion for another, and in 2007 joined the Benedictine monastery at St. Scholastica, the year before the Division III school launched its football program.
The practice field goalposts were visible from her bedroom. And slowly, Maurer was lured by the blare of whistles.
"I would ... sneak out to football practice, maybe go for a walk, or say the rosary, or just sit in the stands, watch the game, just because I liked being around it," she said.
Then, last year, St. Scholastica hired a new coach. Maurer invited him to dinner. And Kurt Ramler says he was immediately impressed.
"Talked a little bit about the offense, and she actually asked what we were going to run, on defense, etc. And I was like, that's a rather inquisitive question from somebody named Sister Lisa," he said.
A few days later Ramler asked Sister Lisa to his office. She thought he was going to ask her to be team chaplain. Instead, Ramler asked her to join his staff as a volunteer kicking and punting coach.
"And I was like, I don't know anything about kicking and punting, I've never coached football before," she said.
Ramler explained: "Really, to me it was just, wow, here's a passionate, intelligent person who wants to be involved in the program. How can I best utilize her energies and her skills?"
So she studied up on kicking and reached out to other coaches for advice. She also leads team prayers and counsels players about off- field issues.
Ramler said that despite a few raised eyebrows at first, the move has been seamless.
"She's tremendous," he said. "She's able to wear her habit, go out there and yell at our guys when they're not toeing the line, and I just can take a step back, and go, I'm over here, being a figurehead, letting Sister Lisa do her thing."
Freshman kicker Donovan Blatz said it was a little shocking to learn a nun would be his position coach. But he and other players, like Mike Mensing, a senior quarterback from Blaine, said she offers something other coaches don't:
"Off the field, there's definitely the sister part of her job, so you can go to her with maybe a little bit more personal level than other coaches. She asks me how my family's doing, how my girlfriend's doing. So it's nice to have a coach like that as well."
Last Saturday, St. Scholastica trounced Westminster College of Missouri to clinch its fifth consecutive conference championship, and a berth in the NCAA Division III playoffs, where Sister Lisa Maurer will be on the sidelines, doing something she never thought she'd be able to do again — coaching.
"All that I get to do radiates and comes from God. And right now this is what it is, and I'm grateful."
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