Chicago Heights, Illinois — Dominican Sr. Mary Jo Sobieck might be the only Catholic sister to have both her own bobblehead and Topps baseball card.
Now she might just win an ESPY.
"It's kind of surreal," Sobieck said. "Wanting to grow up to be an athlete and then to know I'm going to be there in the midst of the greatest of this generation — it's going to be phenomenal."
Sobieck is nominated for an ESPY Award for "Best Viral Sports Moment."
Her moment came when she threw the ceremonial first pitch in her white habit and Marian Catholic High School jersey on Aug. 18 during Marian Catholic Night at the White Sox game against the Kansas City Royals at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago.
The sister, who teaches theology at the school, was asked to throw the pitch because she is energetic, always smiling and often wearing a St. Louis Cardinals jersey, said Daniel Kozlowski, the vice president for advancement at Marion Catholic, a suburban high school affiliated with the Dominican Sisters of Springfield.
"She's got that youth, and she's athletic," Kozlowski said.
When Sobieck walked out to the pitcher's mound last summer, she pointed to the sky. That was for her late mother, who loved baseball, she said.
Then she bounced the ball off her bicep — a little something to get some momentum, she said — and threw a curveball to White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito.
That was a risk, she admitted. But it was worth it.
"We need more people to just be themselves," she said.
"So much of social media is trying to be someone different. No, just put yourself out there and be yourself and allow God to do with you what you were created to do."
The sister was an "instant celebrity" at the ballpark, said Kozlowski.
The video of her pitch quickly went viral, leading to an appearance on "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?" and other celebrity turns for the sister. But her favorite moment came when a mother asked Sobieck to pose for a picture with her daughter at the ballpark.
The girl, it turned out, had the same name as Sobieck's mother.
One of Sobieck's sisters had told her beforehand her mother would be her "angel in the outfield" the night she threw out the first pitch. And there she was, she said.
Sobieck, 50, grew up in central Minnesota as the youngest of 10 siblings. Her mother had played a huge role in shaping her faith, singlehandedly raising Sobieck and several siblings still at home when her father passed away.
She remembers seeing her mother kneeling on the porch, rosary in hand.
Sports also were a huge part of her childhood, and she played softball, volleyball and basketball in school.
"When I was a kid, my dream was to be a professional athlete or to be in the Olympics. Sports fueled my everything. It was my fire," she said. "I remember when I felt the calling to religious life, it was like, I didn't think that I could be passionate about anything more than sports."
Sobieck was teaching at a Minnesota school also affiliated with the Dominican Sisters of Springfield and training for a half marathon when she decided to enter religious life at age 25.
"I was getting up in the morning at 5 o'clock and running. It's like the grass was greener, the sky was blue, every song on my Discman at the time was like a love song from God to me," she said.
She had what she called a profound experience of God's love when she volunteered to help one of the sisters move from the Minnesota school down to the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield in central Illinois.
During that visit to the motherhouse, she saw the sisters there working as a team and realized religious life was something she could do.
With so many siblings, she understood teamwork, she said. And it's one of the things she loves so much about sports.
"It shapes character and it inspires greatness and it pulls out your potential to be something more," she said. "All of that is religious life, too. Your religious life is a team, and we push one another to be strong in virtue and character, and we work together to do something good for the human family."
Twenty-five years later, Sobieck said, she is excited to see how God is using the gifts and interests she believes God gave her and hopes it will be an encouragement to others.
"You don't have to give up your gifts or the things you're passionate about. God integrates all of our gifts at a time when God wants to do that," she said.
The sister faces some stiff competition at the ESPYS.
Other nominees in the "Best Viral Sports Moment" category include UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi's joyful floor routine that earned her a perfect 10, which Sobieck called "phenomenal." They also include Texas A&M hurdler Infinite Tucker's Superman dive across the finish line and 7-year-old runner Rudolph "Blaze" Ingram racing ahead of his peers.
"I certainly don't belong there," Sobieck said, noting that unlike her fellow nominees, she doesn't regularly participate in the sport for which she is nominated.
"But God is putting me there for a reason."
ESPY winners will be announced July 10 at the ESPN awards show hosted by comedian Tracy Morgan at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. The event gathers athletes and celebrities to recognize the year's greatest achievements in sports.
Fans can vote at ESPYS.com to choose the winners of the 2019 ESPYS before the broadcast begins on ABC.
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