MLSsoccer.com kicks off its second annual "What Ever Happened To..." series this week with a look back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. We continue with former New England defender Chase Hilgenbrinck, who cut his career short after one season for an alternative that surprised everyone – except those who knew him.
Where He Was Then
After playing on the same back line as US national team stalwart Oguchi Onyewu at Clemson and spending four seasons as a professional soccer player in Chile – where he appeared on covers of magazines and achieved near-celebrity status – Hilgenbrinck finally made it to Major League Soccer in 2008.
But the defender appeared in only four games for the New England Revolution – the highlight coming when he played vs. the Chicago Fire in his home state of Illinois – before hanging up his cleats for good. It was a surprising move for an emerging young defender, even more so by his choice to enter the cloth instead.
Where He Is Now
These days, Hilgenbrinck is still part of a soccer team. Only instead of the Revs, it’s the Mount Saint Mary’s University squad, a small Division I program that competes out of the Northeast Conference. And instead of knocking heads as a defender, he’s bringing everyone’s heads together in prayer as team chaplain.
Many things have changed for Hilgenbrinck who, three-and-a-half years ago, made national headlines when he walked away from professional soccer to study to become a Catholic priest at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in northern Maryland.
But the ex-New England defender is still able to get his kicks with the undergraduate soccer players at the school where he studies – even if, he says, it takes every ounce of energy not to step on MSMU head coach Rob Ryerson’s toes when it comes to discussing strategy, or joining in on player jokes on bus trips to away games.
“The one thing I miss from soccer is the locker room atmosphere and traveling with the guys,” says Hilgenbrinck, now 29 years old. “In some ways, I relate that to the seminary in that we’re all kind of a big team and I have that camaraderie. And with the soccer team I chaplain for, I get to travel with them once in a while, eat meals as a team and, of course, I love being in the locker room with them and getting fired up before games.”
While there are certainly things about the professional game he misses, Hilgenbrinck doesn’t have any regrets about his drastic life change. In fact, halfway through the six-year seminary program – he’s already gotten a masters degree in philosophy and is working toward another one in theology – he says his expectations have been far surpassed.
“At the time I left soccer, I wanted to be obedient to my faith and to the call of God I heard in my life,” Hilgenbrinck said. “I never realized that I would be as happy as I am actually going through with everything.”
When Hilgenbrinck first made public his intention to turn in his cleats for the cloth, he received considerable attention. He appeared on news programs. ESPN.com followed him around his new seminary for an entire day. Reporters from around the country sought him out.
Hilgenbrinck, who fully admits that what he did was “not a normal thing,” never shied away from the attention. And today, he even sometimes gives motivational talks and tutors other people considering the same life path – men like former Oakland Athletics outfielder Grant Desme who, two years ago, retired from baseball to study to become a priest as well.
“I actually laugh about it quite often,” Hilgenbrinck said. “I tell a lot of people I wasn’t necessarily a very famous soccer player. I only became famous when I told people I wanted to enter a seminary.”
Part of him is surprised that such a big deal was made out of his devotion to his religious beliefs when it felt so natural to him. Recently, he was reminded of the often-polarizing reactions when sports and religion intersect. A certain Denver Broncos quarterback made that clear.
“You see it with the Tim Tebow factor right now,” Hilgenbrinck said. “What I see is a guy living out this faith, just going about his business. And of course everyone is in a frenzy because he’s different than everyone else. I kind of feel that way a little bit in that you’re just trying to do the right thing and that’s sometimes an anomaly.”
But while Hilgenbrinck’s life path may be an anomaly, the reactions from his ex-teammates were uniformly positive. Some thought it was a beautiful thing that he was following his faith. Others considered him lucky because he got to choose when he left the game, while their own fates would likely be decided by coaches or general managers.
Their reactions were so strong, in fact, that Hilgenbrinck felt silly for ever being nervous about telling the New England organization of his wish to enter the seminary.
Of course, the only person that needed to truly understand why he left behind the life of a professional athlete – his own childhood dream – was himself. And despite the great moments he may have left on the pitch, he realized in 2008 that soccer, in the end, was not something that was “ultimately going to make me happy.”
He believes that even more today.
“Looking through human eyes, it seems impossible that I would leave behind everything that I knew and everything that I worked for,” Hilgenbrinck said. “But when I look with the eyes of faith and I realize that there’s so much more to life than the game, I realize just how blessed I am to be in a seminary.”
What They Said
“Even though I didn’t spend a lot of time with him and I didn’t play a lot with him, the impression he leaves on people is lasting. Chase isn’t only my friend, but he’s a role model to me. I respect the man that he is and what he’s doing in his life.”
– Wells Thompson, former Revolution teammate