Former NFL player finds fulfillment in the footsteps of Christ

Eric Mahl walked away from a career as a professional football player to take a message of hope to homeless people. (Provided)

GREENVILLE—Eric Mahl was what many would consider a blessed man. He was a man in a profession that young American males dream of but rarely experience, with tens of thousands of fans, and the fame and fortune that often comes with playing for the NFL.

But the actuality of his dream didn’t fulfill him, and he ended up leaving the National Football League and the New York Jets and heading to Texas. 

His direction was simple enough, a route carrying him to a place where Texas Hill Country meets the desert, at the Hermitage of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. It was his home for the next three years.

“Football wasn’t the life for me. I felt unfulfilled. I wanted to not only know Jesus better, but to start following Him,” Mahl said from his home in Pittsfield, Mass.

He now serves as a missionary to the homeless, spreading God’s love and mercy through the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy. That message about finding hope in a struggling world reached about 400 people at a Mercy and Mary Retreat held at St. Joseph’s Catholic School recently.

Father Michael Gaitley, formation director of the Marian Missionaries, led the retreat, speaking of a desire for greatness in the eyes of God.

“There’s only one thing that is the mark of Jesus, and that is love,” he said.

It was this desire to move from nominal faith to true faith that led Mahl to team up with Father Gaitley. The former NFL linebacker, 36, grew up in a Catholic family in a small, farming community in northern Ohio. He attended Catholic school through eighth grade then enrolled in public high school. Mahl and his family remained active in St. Joseph Church in Monroeville. 

“I was what I guess you would call a nominal Catholic. I knew what I was supposed to do to stay out of trouble,” he said.

While in high school, Mahl was drawn to athletics, competing in track, weightlifting and football, and receiving state honors in each sport. He earned an athletic scholarship to Kent State University, where he played linebacker on the school team. After graduating college in 2005, he was picked up as a free agent by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, who then traded him to the New York Jets.

“I really gave myself to athletics,” Mahl said, his faith in God “hidden” but not forgotten. It was during his senior year in high school, when Mahl was asked by his parish to speak to a confirmation class of middle school students, that he first felt God’s presence. Mahl said that even though he wasn’t living his faith at the time, he knew the Church teachings and shared them with the students. 

“But something really took place in my heart when I was sharing the faith,” he said. “It was the first time I had experienced the touch of God’s grace. I really wanted to know Jesus. I didn’t want to know just the answers, I wanted to know this person.”

Still, he continued to hide his belief through college, torn between what was within him and his public image as a star college football player. He was what he called a “closet Catholic.”

“I would go to Mass, adoration and confession; live the sacraments, all by myself,” he said. “But when I was around my peers I looked and acted like everyone else. My life didn’t match up with what I believed.”

Needing to merge the two halves of his life, Mahl left the Jets before the 2005 season, giving up his career in professional football.

Then, Mahl said, he landed a position in the medical field, while also devoting more time to prayer and adoration, and developing a closer relationship with Jesus. The faith side of his life grew and in 2009 he left his job, gave up all of his material possessions, and moved into the Carmelite hermitage in Texas.

“Jesus was asking me for my life, giving it up completely for Him,” Mahl said.

With the blessing of his superior, Mahl left the hermitage in 2012 and spent a year living with the homeless in Cleveland. This helped prepare him for his current ministry, serving the Lord through the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass.

“Jesus was a shepherd who was searching for the lost, and I wanted to be the presence of God’s love,” Mahl said. “In America there is a lot of food, shelter and clothing for the homeless, but what they really long for is a relationship; someone to give them their time, something I longed for, too.”

That longing led him to Father Michael Gaitley, director of evangelization for the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. Under his direction, Mahl helped organize the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy ministry in 2014, for which Father Gaitley serves as director of formation.

“We had this longing to share life with our brothers and sisters who were hurting — to restore their dignity and bring family and community in places where there’s a lot of loneliness and division,” he said.

They conduct the retreats across the country and love for the less fortunate is a prevailing theme. The one held at St. Joseph Catholic School in Greenville was a hit with participants.

Valerie Baronkin, a parishioner at St. Mary Magdalene in Simpsonville, said the three-year effort to land the Mercy and Mary Retreat was well worth it. 

Mahl did not attend the retreat, but Kevin, Luke and Laura Carlson, who made the trip from Atlanta, said they were uplifted by the Marian Missionaries message delivered by Father Gaitley.

“For me, his message is so genuine and hopeful in helping to combat that feeling of hopelessness,” Kevin Carlson said.

Mahl and his wife Kristie, whom he met at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Massachusetts, have a 2-year-old daughter and an 8-month-old son. Occasionally, he shares his faith journey with parishes and organizations, including Catholic Athletes for Christ. Mostly, he and his family spend time living his mission with the poor and homeless.

“We’ve been sharing our life of love as a family out on the streets,” Mahl said.