Mike Zimmerman was not your average college student in a sense that most college students enjoy a restful night’s sleep in the comfort of a bed. In his senior year two years ago at Boston University, Zimmerman spent most of it sleeping on the floor. He did so living alongside nine other Catholic men in two suites that combined to make up what the guys liked to call the “Man Cave.” One afternoon, a few of his roommates thought it would be funny to move the bed from his single into the common room.
Now, one should know that Zimmerman is 6’7 and built to run D-1 track at BU; so playing any kind of prank on him may not have been deemed wise. That being said, he didn’t get angry or even appear a little bit frustrated at his friends. Instead, he merely laughed it off and did the opposite of what most might have expected him to do. Zimmerman left the bed in the common room, made the best of his situation and slept on the floor for the remainder of his senior year. Most importantly, he took it as an opportunity to grow in his Catholic faith and closer to God.
“A large part of it was a certain kind of asceticism,” said Zimmerman. “It would make me much more alert in the morning, just getting up and going. So there was a spiritual element to it, and practically, it seemed to work out.”
Though some may wonder why Zimmerman would put himself through a year of school with out a bed, the reasoning becomes clear in his faith journey and his call to the Catholic priesthood.
Zimmerman, now 24, didn’t always feel called to be a priest. His journey began while he attended Xaverian Brothers, a private, Catholic, all-boys high school. His first conversion moment came on a conference he went on called Steubenville East. The Catholic college, Franciscan University, ran the event and around 4,000 high school students attended. One evening, Zimmerman and the group spent time praying charismatically in Eucharistic Adoration (a Catholic practice in which Jesus Christ is believed to be truly present in a consecrated host). He sat back and watched as kids laughed, cried and prayed.
“I just remember being like totally weirded out,” said Zimmerman. “I’m like, these people are crazy. I was even actually kind of annoyed because I felt like these people were faking this response to God, that they were just kind of making it up. I was being really judgmental of them.”
What happened next brought Zimmerman to behave in similar ways to the others he had judged. He began to truly pray.
“As soon as I stopped judging everyone else and started focusing on God, I started breaking down, I just cried,” said Zimmerman. “It wasn’t like anything was sad in my life or at that moment. But suddenly everything in my life I had done that was wrong or that people had done to me that had wounded me in someway just came up and out of my eyes.”
He cried for half an hour in a time of prayer, but then he began to feel something else entirely.
“Then I started to laugh and not because anything was funny,” said Zimmerman. “All that was left was a sense of joy, a sense of happiness.”
After that, he felt differently about his Catholic faith as he had truly opened up to God for one of the first times in his life. Perhaps it was the beginning to his journey to seminary.
“Okay there’s definitely something here, something legit,” said Zimmerman.
Zimmerman continued to grow in his faith in high school by going on more retreats, becoming active in his youth group and even attending World Youth Day 2005 in Germany. He graduated Xaverian Brothers and chose to attend Boston University, not far from his home in Needham, MA. At BU, he received his Masters in chemistry, studied teaching as well, worked for the Community Service Center, led Bible studies, attended an Inter Varsity faith group, was President of the Catholic Center on campus, and went to BU hockey games with his Dad on the weekends. Oh and he was also a Division I track athlete on top of it all.
Despite not sleeping in a bed his senior year of college, Zimmerman would need to get going in the morning, as most Division I athletes do on a regular basis. He began running track in high school and ran all four years while at BU. He was named one of the team captains his senior year. He worked closely with his coach, Gabe Sanders, who believes Mike was a great athlete but an even better man to coach.
“He was someone that people were just really drawn to, warm, welcoming, and hardworking consistently,” said Sanders. “He would ask you how you were doing, and he really meant it. He would always ask questions about your personal life, and he would always share parts of himself with you. The bottom line is he cared about other people.”
Zimmerman emerged as a leader in the BU community. He led through his words and by his example. He was also a great athlete to his coaches and teammates, but sometimes they would wonder if there was more to Zimmerman than a guy competing and working hard in practice.
“While I don’t remember him overtly making shows of faith on the track, I’m sure it was there on the inside,” said Joe Pike, a teammate two years ahead of Mike. “Many athletes seek inspiration and drive from a number of different sources, and that must have been one of them. Many of the principles guiding a life of faith and focus translate directly to qualities helpful to being a successful athlete.”
Though maybe not completely visible to his teammates, they could see something in Zimmerman that helped mold him into the athlete and person he was. Faith had become everything to him, even on the track.
“When it comes down to the sprints, when it comes down to that decision when you just go, that’s 100 percent of yourself,” said Zimmerman. “You have nothing else, and there’s nothing else left of you. It’ a complete gift of self, and that’s what faith is as well. It’s something that involves your entire self, engages yourself completely and calls you on to give yourself completely.”
Though now in his senior year of college, it was actually four years previous when Zimmerman began thinking about his call to the Catholic priesthood.
On a retreat in his senior year of high school, God began asking him to think about his future and the girl he had been dating for two years. While in is his freshmen year at BU, he went on a spring break trip with the Brotherhood of Hope called Boston Urban Challenge. Along with other BU students, Zimmerman was in charge of leading youth retreats in South Boston. Through the trip and living with the religious brothers, his calling to the priesthood began to take shape. As he continued to discern, he started to realize where God was calling him. He and his girlfriend mutually broke up after four and a half years of dating.
“Even though I knew it was over, it was still the hardest decision I had made in my life,” said Zimmerman. “But after we mutually broke up, I received a lot of consolation from God, like that was the right think to do.”
Zimmerman began to share his thoughts with God and focused on developing a relationship with Him. What’s unique about Mike is that he actually began feeling a call to a life of celibacy, that is, abstaining from any sexual relations.
“That’s kind of backwards. Most people feel that they’re called to the priesthood and then having to deal with this celibacy thing,” said Zimmerman. “I was the other way. I think I’m called to celibacy, but now what?”
Zimmerman continued his discernment and began to hear his call to the priesthood more clearly. In his senior year at BU, he applied to seminary. After interviewing with the four Chairs and the Rector at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, MA; he was invited to become a seminarian and begin his studies in the next fall semester. He accepted their decision right then and there, and like any normal college student, posted it on Facebook the next day.
Today, Zimmerman is living at St. John’s Seminary and continues to listen to God’s call. On a normal day he wakes up at 6:00 AM, chants morning prayer at 7:00 AM, goes to daily Mass, and eats breakfast all before his day really begins. The rest of the day is filled with class, studying, prayer, and reflection. His curfew is 11:00 PM.
In his free time, Zimmerman likes to stay active and even goes to boxing training several times a week with fellow seminarians. Sinisa Ubiparipovic, a fourth year seminarian, is one of them.
“Mike is an intimidating athlete,” said Sinisa. “He’s tall and well built and has an advantage in almost every sport. Sometimes it’s not even fair that God made him so tall. But what makes him a great athlete is his sense of keeping calm when everyone else is anxious. He keeps a composure of peace and intensity in an extraordinarily balanced manner.”
Despite feeling somewhat intimidated by Zimmerman, Sinisa hopped into the ring with him one evening and sparred for two rounds. Sinisa was more experienced, but Mike was taller and stronger. The two did some damage to one another. Sinisa couldn’t remember his last name and bled from his lip, while Zimmerman says he couldn’t close his mouth completely for a few days. It may not have been Tyson and Holyfield going at it, but the bout may have meant something more than just a friendly match between the two seminarians.
“Preaching the Gospel is no easy task in these days,” said Sinisa. “Priests do not receive immediate respect but have to earn it through hard work and love. Boxing teaches you to keep going even after you’ve been hit and directly builds your virtue of perseverance and courage.”
Although he’s just about through one and a half years at St. John’s, Zimmerman still has a ways to go. His journey will take perseverance and courage as he will be taking his studies to Rome next fall where he will finish the remaining four years of his seminarian studies. After four years, he will be ordained a priest. While in Rome, he will be living at the Pontifical North American College that is located on a hill overlooking St. Peters Basilica. He is required to stay on the European continent and will be unable to return to the United States for his first two years of study.
“Mike is going to be a great priest one day,” said Sinisa. “People will be intrigued at his devout prayer life, his intelligence, and the ability to relate with them on a more basic level like sports. God has given him many gifts and graces that will help him one day to bring many souls to God.”
Zimmerman knows he has a lot to look forward to, but he also realizes there are challenges ahead. Some may wonder why he made the decision to enter the seminary considering all of his gifts and talents. It’s not a choice that he made over night, and it’s not a decision that he made on his own. He’s come to know through his unique life experiences and most importantly his dedication to God through prayer. Zimmerman trusts in Him wherever He may be leading him.
“I think it’s essential to the priesthood to not be afraid and know that God has a specific plan for us,” said Zimmerman. “We have to learn to say yes to Him with our whole selves.”
“All he had known about Bridget, all he had been told through a mutual friend, was that Bridget’s brain tumor was finally proving too powerful and that she wasn’t going to get out of the hospital again. And she loved Notre Dame football and Manti Te’o.” (Greg Couch)
Athletes in society today are idolized and looked up to as role models. They are in the spotlight because they chose to be. Too often professional athletes are making news for the wrong reasons. Too often athletes fail to be the proper role model for kids today. Fortunately, we find hope in one young athlete making a difference for others in his life.
Manti Te’o, 21, is a linebacker for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and is in the running for the Heisman this season. He’ll go high in the NFL Draft and is beloved by thousands of fans. He has it all. Or does he? Te’o recently lost his girlfriend and grandmother on the same day, yet he played the next game to honor them. He’s a man of faith and does things for others out of the goodness of his heart. The following story by Greg Couch is about his email to the parents of a dying 12-year-old.
Te’o’s story should serve as an example for all athletes. He didn’t even know this girl, yet he felt the desire to reach out to her family. He wrote the email from his heart and with the intent of it being solely for Bridget and her parents. Te’o did this on his own in a sincere act of compassion.
What if all athletes had the heart and desire to serve others as Manti Te’o? Too often athletes are looked up to for all the wrong reasons. It’s rare that an athlete, such as Te’o, is brought into the spotlight for something far greater than his play on the field.