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Q&A with Brad Kenney: the Rapids' Volunteer Chaplain on Guiding Toward Unity, Teamwork, and Mental Well-Being for Team

May 13, 2024 - Major League Soccer (MLS)
Colorado Rapids News Release

As part of our efforts to reduce the stigma around mental health, we are highlighting a member of our Mental Performance team each week in May. This week, we spoke to volunteer chaplain Reverend Brad Kenney about his long history with athletes and staff at the club, the intersection of faith and mental health and challenges he's guided players through.

How long have you been at the club and what are your official duties with the Rapids?

I've been a volunteer chaplain with the club for 23 years. A chaplain serves people of all faiths or no faith. Some of the ways that a chaplain serves people of different faiths than their own is by resourcing and connecting them to different parts of the community where they may have needs. For a Muslim player, making sure that they know the local mosques; a Jewish player, where the local synagogue is, and then understanding where those players, those athletes, coaches, even how devout they may be in their faith, and how they want to observe that faith so that I can be an advocate, and emissary and ambassador. In past times, we haven't had many orthodox Jewish players. Sometimes we have Muslim players who, in their Islamic faith, practice it to varying degrees. The same thing with Christianity--to talk about the three main monotheistic religions. Aside from that, I serve as an advocate and a help for someone who has no faith or perhaps they're exploring faith, as well. Sometimes caring for them is just a conversation, simply having a coffee and figuring out what does life look like for them. Maybe there's a sharing of stories or helping them with some direction or guidance and how they can overcome their challenges based on the resources that they have from their faith tradition, or if they don't have a faith tradition, what other resources (like family, friends, or education) can help them get through things. As a chaplain, I have no agenda. I don't set the starting lineup. I don't make contract decisions. But I'm here as a friend, an advocate, a guide, sometimes a clergy person to do some of the religious things--Christian weddings, premarital counseling, things like that. But there may be other things where I "contract out" and connect someone to their own faith tradition for helping them wherever they are in the game.

Today, we have myself as lead chaplain, and I cover the first team and front office. We have a Rapids 2 chaplain, Reverend Kevin Hasenack, and then an academy chaplain now, Ben Pflederer. The three of us work together to take care of the needs found within the organization.

What is your weekly* schedule at the club like?*

Before COVID, I would spend usually three days a week with the club. I would designate one of those days for first team, a second day for maybe Academy and alumni, then that third day for front office and other needs that would arise. As chaplains, there's an importance to be visible and present. But not just to hang around, but to be intentional. So we might notice that someone's head is down at training, their spirits or mood is low. We might have individual coffee meetings off site because sometimes you just can't get that uninterrupted conversation or that privacy and confidentiality that someone needs to offload. Sometimes those things come across as spiritual need, sometimes they come across as emotional need, or just a journey of life where they are in the moment. We have a presence here at the stadium during the week. We'll have some group things, moments where we're visible out at training, walk in with people, and available for that conversation in the hallway. Finding the space to kind of have those conversations is key. There's a little bit of travel this year, that's been different than years past. When a player and a coach don't have a ball at their feet, or they're off the training field, there's usually quite a bit of time to open doors to build that trust.

Kenney and Jordan Angeli speaking at the 2019 United Soccer Coaches Convention in Chicago.

What are the main differences you see when working with players in groups versus working with them individually?

When you're in a group setting, you really can't address specific, individual needs. Sometimes even though we have a group session we can only really speak to a broader range of faith experience. Groups help to form a little bit of community because now they are connecting with people who have similar ideas about God, similar ideas about certain behaviors or practices that they may find helpful. That helps create a little bit of solidarity, it creates a little bit of a support mechanism whereby they can lean into each other. But sometimes in a group setting they'll say they're not really comfortable to share the darker, more difficult things that they're struggling with because they seem personal or individualized. Then you see what I call the "parking lot conversation" where you get outside the building, they grab you in the parking lot, and you have this extended conversation. Sometimes just being in a location with some regularity creates the opportunity for people to feel comfortable that if they ever needed you, then they can go to you.

I remember receiving a text late in the season one year, during playoffs. It was from an athlete, and the matter was very concerning and they'd gone through something very difficult. I asked him later, "Why did you reach out to me?" He never came to a group meeting, he never was part of a pre-match prayer or anything to that extent. He told me, "Those little writings you've put into our lockers every week, I've collected them over time. I realized through what you had written that maybe I could share this difficult thing with you, and you can help me." And so by virtue of that presence, there was a level of trust and then a reach out that happened outside the stadium walls, and it was able to hopefully help that person on with their struggle and the thing that they were going through in a difficult moment.

The athletes, coaches, staff, they have my number, they know that they can call. Even when they leave this club, I'll be there to follow up with them. Maybe it's on a birthday. Maybe it's on a high note, like Tim Howard being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Maybe it's in a low moment when one of those pressures of life comes crashing down, and you're still available to them.

Kenney leading a memorial service for former Rapids player, Colin Clark, who passed away in 2019 .

How do you see your role as chaplain elevating the mental well-being of the players as not just athletes, but human beings?

Within faith, especially within the monotheistic faiths, there are a couple of things that I think help anyone--athlete, coach, staff member-- with the mental health struggles that they face. One is prayer. That might look a little bit different from tradition to tradition. Not everyone is well practiced in prayer. They may feel like they don't understand it fully. But they experience it bringing themselves peace. A second thing that's helpful is focusing the mind. Many different traditions have meditation. Some traditions will meditate to openness and some will meditate to something more fixed. Within the Christian tradition it's a meditation upon fixed things, it's a meditation to fill rather than to empty. Sometimes you might need to help someone realize what kind of meditation is most helpful for them. Maybe it's memorizing a piece of scripture, maybe it's meditating on a certain word or phrase, or maybe it's engaging the body in the senses in a different way that helps that person to calm down. The third thing is a sense of purpose and a sense of community. When I realize that there are others around me engaged in similar practices, that share similar beliefs or a similar journey towards understanding those beliefs, we gain from each other, we help each other.

As a chaplain, here's where I see some distinctions amongst the different disciplines. Seeing a psychologist or a psychiatrist for mental health can sometimes feel more transactional. I pay a fee, I get 55 minutes of time with them, I have a contractual relationship. But when I see my therapist or counselor, it's like I must be the initiator. Where I think a chaplain is different is because we're not compensated by the club, we don't have service for fees. Our support tends to be more relational rather than transactional. There are professional guidelines that the mental health industry needs because there must be clear client boundaries. The chaplain has a more moldable place where we're open, and willing and ready to do life, as appropriate. Sometimes the most therapeutic thing that I do as a chaplain is going hiking with people, teaching them how to camp, teaching them how to play disc golf, or play the guitar together, show up at their immigration ceremony, or have them come over for a barbecue. Sometimes it's saying, "Let's do something else that gets you away from the game and humanizes you as a person and doesn't have the demands of performance or achievement that come with elite levels of the sport."

Has there been a moment in your 23 years here where you felt like your work was really paving the way to success for the team or a player's performance?

2010 was probably the most special of seasons because of winning MLS Cup. This year feels a lot like 2010. There was a different level of inclusion from coaching staff, from the administration that I see now with Coach Armas and his inclusion of this mental health support team around the athletes. 2016 was a special year as well. In the moments when the team has achieved something, is that down to the chaplain? No, we cannot take credit for any of those things. One of my chaplains used to say, "If a chaplain takes credit for the wins, they have to take credit for the losses, as well."

Another example, when Cole Bassett went to Europe, we kept up a series of meetings on Zoom. Europe was exciting but very, very challenging. There were things that I think Cole knew he was getting into and things that were unexpected and out of his control. As a chaplain--to be with him before he went to Europe, while he was in Europe, and after--those become the spaces that are most special for us because we get to journey with someone. We might say Cole's on an upward trend or progression as an athlete, I think he would even say that. Cole has strong, high standards and ideals for himself. I think as a chaplain, I don't want to take any credit for what Cole's progression has been. But I might say the privilege and joy of the journey is to be able to be with Cole in the high and low moments, in the times that he's been very present at the club and then not present at the club as well. And so that becomes special for us - to be with people throughout their football journey, as chaplains.

For me, one of the most special moments, a "sacred" moment if you will, was in 2014 when a former Rapid, Omar Cummings, had triplets that had been born prematurely and the oldest tragically died. I led a funeral memorial service for the oldest daughter and then spent time with them in the hospital. This is a place where I don't know that the counselor or the mental performance coach or the psychiatrist gets to share in such sacred moments with people. But that hug in the hallway, and the tears that you share, and the words that you don't have to speak at all because you've journeyed with someone through the highs of a 2010 championship and the lows of losing your firstborn daughter, you share those moments together, and they humanize you and you become brothers and sisters. They are and will be forever part of our family, part of my family, and part of the Rapids family.

It's always great to see someone succeed on the field. But it's so much more fulfilling to see them succeed in the other aspects of life. I think the chaplain moves differently than anyone else within the helping profession. We're not there for every moment. We're not there for every training session. We're not there for every low and high. But we're the biggest cheerleaders, and we're the biggest crybabies, we're all of it. Sometimes that can be a challenge to carry all of that, but there's a beauty in it. I liken it sometimes to stained glass. Stained glass is broken, put together, melded together. Around this game, around mental health issues, the work of the chaplain becomes helping to pick up the broken pieces and then helping to assemble them into some beautiful picture.

What challenges do you faces in this role?

I would say in some years, some of the challenges have been people who hold belief systems that are of a small sample size. One year we had an athlete who was Wiccan. I didn't really know many of the Wiccan beliefs, traditions, practices. I did a little bit of reading, I tried to figure out to see what I could do for them, but they appreciated it, but they were fine themselves. One year we had an avowed atheist. I thought I was doing a great job to tell him that the atheist convention was coming to Denver and if he wanted to go, I'd go with them. He admitted that he was actually more of an agnostic, so we clarified some things there. Sometimes those are challenges because I will come in eager to help, and someone goes, "Yeah, I don't really need your help."

I think another challenge is sometimes people hear the words chaplain or pastor or Christian, and they have something specific in their mind. I don't wear a clerical collar, I don't wear robes, and sometimes being called "Rev" gets in the way for people because maybe their experience of faith or Christian faith has hurt them, so then you have that challenge to overcome and win back trust. Sometimes an athlete or person has been at a different club that employed someone like me and maybe that person had a different way of doing their job. Maybe they pushed them up into a public space where they said, "Hey, let's get you out there speaking about your faith," and then maybe they felt used, or maybe they felt unseen or unheard, because maybe that person had an agenda.

Kenney and Rapids defender Lalas Abubaker at his American citizenship ceremony in February 2024.

What would you like players, fans, anyone following the game, to understand about the importance of this role within a sports team?

I know that there's usually skepticism, hesitancy or resistance to faith, religion or spirituality. Usually, it comes from our own stories and our own woundedness or our own experience and the hurt at the hands of people who might claim themselves to be Christian, or might claim themselves to be of a different faith tradition. A thing that gets said is religion divides or faith divides, even a locker room. My hope is that people would give a chance to see how a chaplain brings a sense of unity, a sense of teamwork, a sense of joy, a sense of wholeness and well-being.

One year we had a Muslim athlete who wanted to observe the fast of Ramadan during the month of August. I asked if he was going to observe, and he said yes, but he wasn't going to tell the coaches because he was afraid they'd bench him. I asked for his permission to go to the coaching staff and advocate for him. I did my best to educate them on what the fast looks like, ways that they can support the athlete. I went to the athletic trainer first and we developed a plan, then we went to the coaches. Their initial reaction was 'it's August in Colorado, we can't do this, we've got to bench him.' So the player's fears were founded. But myself and the trainer, as advocates for this player, shared our plan and the coaches really listened. I think the team did well, he started every match for us, and we got on with it. I think in those moments, the ability for the player to say, "Okay, I'm going to trust you with this sensitive, private, intimate part of me, because I've seen you around, I've seen the way you approach things, I trust you to go and be an advocate for me," then turns into a moment of advocacy that became a success because it allowed him to play and perform. At the end of it, he goes, "Why did you do this for me? You're from a different tradition. You're Christian. I'm a Muslim." All I said was that I loved him, I cared about him, and I wanted to see him do well. From then on, we have a cemented friendship that continues to this day.

That's what we're here for. We're not just here for matchday. We're just here for people. Sometimes they can't get to those places of worship, the parish, the synagogue, the mosque. So we just try and help bring faith and advocacy to them here where they're working, where they're playing, and where they're engaging in the beautiful game.

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