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Fired by ESPN for a racist headline, he’s finding his second chance as a Catholic priest

Anthony Federico is now a seminarian at Theological College in Northeast Washington. (Essdras M. Suarez for The Washington Post)

Within moments, what started as an ordinary late shift in the office at ESPN turned into one of the worst nights of Anthony Federico’s life.

Federico lived for the big stories in sports. And the biggest on that night in 2012 was Jeremy Lin, whose remarkable tear in the NBA was making him a sensation not just in New York, where he played for the Knicks, but also abroad, where fans were thrilled to see such a successful Asian player in professional basketball.

While Lin was making headlines, Federico, as a journalist at ESPN, was writing them. Federico read a column that night with a critical viewpoint on Lin, and he thoughtlessly penned the headline “Chink in the Armor.” Then the barrage of social media outrage started, and he saw what he had done.

“I went to the bathroom and vomited,” he said at the time, describing the sickening realization that he had inadvertently made a racist pun that was now circling the world. What came next was predictable: As angry emails poured in from readers all over the world, Federico was fired from his dream job in sports media.

What came after that, however, was not predictable at all. Five years past the night he thought had ruined his life, Federico is on the brink of becoming a Catholic priest.
Now, he’s preaching the gospel of second chances.

“Looking back, I think God allowed this to happen to me to put me on a path to being a priest, a path that I was avoiding,” said Federico, now 33. “I’ve never been happier.”

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In his five years at Theological College, the seminary at Catholic University in Northeast Washington, Federico has worked in several parishes and with all sorts of people — from young students to hospice patients, from new parents preparing for a baptism to couples celebrating their weddings to families burying a loved one.

Often, when someone seeks his counsel while in the depths of despair, he gently tells them his own story — the hate mail, the death threats, the despondent struggle even to get out of bed as the world condemned him as a racist.

Federico and Lin had lunch after the outcry, and he said Lin accepted his explanation that he had no racial connotations in mind when he wrote the headline. The two men, both devout Christians, ended up spending most of their lunch talking about faith, Federico said. Lin did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.

“Everyone thinking of me as a bad person, an evil person — it was the worst 30 days of my life,” Federico said in a coffee shop in Brookland recently, just as he sometimes tells parishioners. “To think I could be in a place now where I’m genuinely happy with my life and excited about serving the people of God — if you told me that then, I wouldn’t have believed it. I think the thing that Jesus does best is second chances.”

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The skills he learned in his first career are often useful in unpredictable ways — the art of telling a story in a way that’s relevant to listeners and gets quickly to the point is invaluable in the homiletics class he’s taking right now. Sometimes, the best way to interest a young kid is to talk sports and share some behind-the-scenes stories from his days on the road with ESPN before talking about Jesus.

“He’s a good communicator. That’s one of the gifts he brings with him,” said the Rev. Jeff Gubbiotti, who as vocation director for the Archdiocese of Hartford is supervising Federico’s training as a priest. “God uses those life experiences as part of the whole journey.”

Federico said that when he entered seminary, he explained why he was fired from ESPN, and few people in the Church have ever given him any trouble about it. As Gubbiotti sees it, the incident left Federico better able to empathize with parishioners. “That particular moment of being misunderstood, that was in a very public way. Many of us, I’m sure, experience moments of being misunderstood, moments of feeling let down, and he can speak from the midst of that experience,” he said.

Working in sports was Federico’s lifelong goal, ever since competing fiercely with his brothers and cousins when he was a child. He played every sport he could: baseball, tennis, soccer, swimming and his favorite, hockey. Landing the role at ESPN was a dream job. Yet once he got there, he wasn’t satisfied.

“I thought I had everything I was supposed to have to be happy. But I would lay awake at night, thinking, ‘What am I missing?’ ” he said. He threw himself into volunteer work. He started thinking back to his Catholic school upbringing and his college major in theology.

As the call to the priesthood felt stronger and stronger, he found himself bargaining in his head with God. “I remember just driving to work every day thinking, ‘You can’t be serious, God. I know what you’re saying to me, [but] I’m in the media. This is what we’ve settled on.’ ”

When he was fired, a company emailed to offer him a job because someone there saw how he was handling the condemnation in the media and came away impressed by his reaction, he said. He went to work, doing consulting, but the call to the priesthood returned. When he finally entered seminary, he said, he felt as though he had stopped fighting God.

Would he have done it if he’d never been fired from ESPN?

“I don’t know,” he says. “I do know that I want to be a Catholic priest more than anything in the world. If being fired is what it took. … I can look back years later and say, ‘Thank you, God, for that.’ ”