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    GRIDIRON FATHERS

    Three NFL chaplains discuss their faith and ministry both on and off the football field

    1/1/2022
    Father Chuck Dornquast, Tampa Bay Bucccaneers. Photos by Spirit Juice Studios

    Sunday is hardly a day of rest for players in the National Football League, at least during the season. That’s one reason many NFL teams have chaplains to serve the spiritual needs of their athletes. While their role varies from team to team, chaplains generally are available to athletes for prayer and counsel. In the case of Catholic chaplains, they also bring players, coaches and staff the sacraments, particularly the Holy Eucharist at Mass.

    Three of these priests, all members of the Knights of Columbus, recently shared with Columbia a bit about their vocational journeys and their experience as NFL chaplains — from the excitement of watching a game from the sidelines to the real work of their ministry: being joyful witnesses of the Father’s love and mercy to the teams they serve.

    ‘Everything They Have’

    Father Chuck Dornquast joined the Knights in 2007 and was ordained a priest in 2015. That same year, he became chaplain of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After a few giddy fan moments at the outset, he quickly came to a realization: “The players don’t need someone who’s going to give them special attention because they are top-notch athletes; they need someone who can love them as a father.” Now vocation director for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Father Dornquast also mentors young men discerning a call to the priesthood.

    When I was growing up, Dad was a long-haul truck driver and Mom worked at Red Lobster. They started to have significant financial diffculties when my dad got injured. From that moment, Mom was the primary breadwinner, trying to feed five of us with her salary. The parish really began to provide in wonderful ways, including the Knights of Columbus council. They would bring us Christmas presents every year, and provided meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’d later learn that they really paid for a lot of our bills growing up while my dad was injured.

    When I entered seminary after high school, the Knights of Columbus sponsored me for years — my home council in Zephyrhills and then other councils within the Diocese of St. Petersburg. My family could not have afforded my education as a seminarian. So the Knights honestly have been an incredible blessing in my life.

    I was ordained in 2015 and assigned to St. Lawrence Parish in Tampa, which is about five minutes north of the Buccaneers’ training facility. They came to the pastor, Msgr. Michael Muhr, and said, “Hey, we’re in need of a new priest.” So he asked if I’d be chaplain for the Bucs. And I said, “Heck, yes!”

    The role of the chaplain varies drastically depending on the team and the coach. Currently, I’m in there the night before any game, celebrating Mass for the team, available for any other sacramental resources or help. And all the guys have my cell phone number, so if they have an issue or a need, they’re able to reach out. On game day, I’m present to the team prior to the game and on the field for pregame. Prior to COVID, I was in the locker room pregame, on the field for the entirety of the game, and able to meet with the players or staff at any point they needed throughout the week.

    I think the real reason it benefits a team to have a chaplain is because the guys work on Sunday, and because they’re not able to go to Mass on Sunday at a parish, they don’t have a connection to a parish priest. But 99% of these men take their faith life seriously. I’m blown away by their faithfulness and fidelity. Whatever their religion, their spiritual lives are important to them. To be available to them when they do have issues or difficulties — what a huge gift.

    We set athletes up on pedestals because they expand the realm of what we think is possible. These guys do extraordinary things. And we assume that because they’re able to do extraordinary physical things, they must be extraordinary in other areas of their life. But these incredible men deal with brokenness just like everyone else. They have their own family issues, inner limitations, temptations. As a chaplain, it’s my job not to treat them like NFL players but to have a deep care for them in the circumstances of their lives. They need someone to be a spiritual father to them.

    My favorite moments with the team come during Mass. Mass is celebrated rather expediently, but I’m always very intentional about not rushing consecration — the Lord saying, “Take this all of you and eat it, for this is my body.” I don’t want to rush them hearing that from Jesus Christ.

    Then, after Communion, we’ll take two to three minutes of silence. When you’ve only got 25 minutes for Mass, that’s a significant portion of time. But it’s the one time that these guys get to be still and quiet with each other, that they’re not being told what to do. It’s the one time that I can guarantee that my guys have a moment to be with the Lord. That’s a moment that I’m always conscious of preserving. I don’t know if they always set aside that still, small moment of being with the Lord in their lives, but I know that I can give them that.

    I never pray for our guys to win, but I do pray for their safety. And I pray that they give themselves entirely. That they bring everything they have to that moment. That they empty themselves for the sake of each other, into the team. That’s what I pray for, that they love each other well when they play the game.

    Unfortunately, because of COVID, I wasn’t able to be at the Super Bowl last year, but I watched the game with Bishop Gregory Parkes (of St. Petersburg). When the Bucs won, I was yelling and screaming, shooting off fireworks. I don’t know if the neighbors liked that too much. But it was wonderful. A couple of days later, I got a phone call around 11:30 at night from one of the guys on the team. He said, “Father Chuck, we need you to get to Tampa tomorrow. I’ve got you a spot on the boat parade.”

    So I was on the boat with the offensive line, floating down the Hillsborough River with the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, celebrating their victory. It’s ridiculous, absolutely 100% absurd. And yet that’s what the Lord does. I never could have imagined as a kid being in a Super Bowl boat parade. And it’s not because I did anything incredible. It’s because I tried to be faithful and trusted in the Lord. The Father is never outdone in generosity. No matter how much we may give him, he always gives us far more than we could ever fathom.

     

    *****

    Father Douglas Hunter, Indianapolis Colts.

     

    ‘A Ministry of Presence’

    For a decade before entering seminary in 2009, Father Douglas Hunter served as a police officer, giving him a unique perspective in his work as a priest. In addition to serving as pastor of St. Roch Parish in Indianapolis and as a chaplain with the Southport Police Department, Father Hunter has served as chaplain of the Indianapolis Colts since 2017. A past grand knight of St. Meinrad Seminary Council 15058, he is also a past state chaplain of Indiana.

    The seeds of my vocation began in the fourth grade when I began serving the 8:30 a.m. Masses at St. Joan of Arc on the north side of Indy. I was the only server for about two years, and it just became normal for me. Then, during my freshman year in high school, my mom dropped me off at my dad’s house one day. I found him on the floor and discovered he had passed away. Because of that trauma, my grades during high school suffered, so when I applied to the seminary, I was not admitted.

    A friend said, “Hey, have you thought about being a police officer?” I then made it through the academy and worked for the Marion County Sheriff’s Department. They put me in charge of the cadet program, crime prevention and youth education. But all the while, I just kept feeling this nudge of God saying, “I have more for you.” I kept running from it, but eventually I turned in my car, badge, gun — everything that I knew for about 11 years and thought was my identity in life. I turned it all in and said, “OK, here we go,” and took a leap of faith. I applied to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and, after my formation, was ordained in 2016.

    The following year, I was sitting in a parish staff meeting when I get a phone call from a priest who said, “Hey, the Colts are looking for a chaplain — you in?” That’s all he said. I’m like, “Can I get some more info?” “They need a chaplain, and you’d fit in perfectly. I think you’d do a great job.”

    So I met with the Colts’ general manager, Chris Ballard, who’s a devout Catholic himself. He wants me to be present to the players as much as possible — on the practice field, off the practice field, on the gridiron on Sundays, and anywhere in between. When new guys come in, they’re uprooting their family and moving here. They can reach out to me if they’re Catholic, and I’ll help them find a Catholic church and school. But getting to know them is the biggest part. I go out to the Colts complex a couple of times a week. I meet with people privately. I sit in on a couple different meetings. I talk to the front office personnel, the security guys. I eat lunch with the players.

    Being really present wherever I’m ministering is more important than anything else. They know I’m there for them, and they’re more inclined to talk to me and open up to me when they see me on a regular basis. Such a ministry of presence establishes a personal relationship, is very important. It’s something that I don’t take lightly or take for granted.

    On game days, I will pray with some of the guys individually, or a few of us might come together and pray. There’s a last briefing before the game, and then we all come together as a team and pray before the game begins. By then, the clock is ticking: An NFL official is coming in to give us the two-minute warning, and helmets and gloves are going on; the last hand or foot wraps are going on. They’re all getting hyped up and go into the huddle: “1, 2, 3, Colts.” Then they run out on the field. It’s an uplifiing moment — I go from that prayerful moment, being the pastor and shepherding people, to this excitement, this electricity before the game.

    When the game begins, I usually stand around the 30-yard line. If a player is injured, and they have to be X-rayed, I’ll go back with them and pray.

    Coming from law enforcement, where you have to have this stern exterior, I really had to work hard to break down the old self. I have to talk with compassion. I have to see the face of Christ in the person I’m dealing with. I have to see them in their need at that moment, and not where I think they should be in their life. And that allows for me to step out of the way of myself and let God work through me.

    In my parish, I deal with a lot of emotions and the issues people are going through in life; in the NFL, I’m doing the same thing. Those guys are just regular people who do extraordinary things on the field. Sometimes at players’ homes I have to help a guy be a loving father or a nurturing husband along the way. When men go through things, they sometimes don’t want to show any weakness or vulnerability. But with my knowledge from law enforcement, I can usually crack a person open and see what’s going on inside and minister in a very unique way.

    My first obligation is to the parish and to the parish school, but then I can venture off to the Colts or the police. I always tell my friends that I have two churches — one here at the parish and one at the Colts complex, because a lot of ministry takes place down there.

    I’m also heavily involved in Knights of Columbus. Their beautiful organization helps me in many different ways, and I help them in any way possible. I found out about the Knights when I was in seminary, and when I saw how active they were in the community, I said, “Wait a minute, I want to be part of that too.”

    What inspired me to join was a simple invitation. Someone asked me, “Have you heard about the Knights of Columbus?” I said, “Yes, but tell me more.” And he told me, and I said, “Sign me up.”

    People often ask me, “How do you balance all that you do?” I say, “It’s the work of the Holy Spirit.”

    I have to stop and check in with God throughout the day — with the Liturgy of the Hours and Mass and with eucharistic adoration. It’s just taking time out to unplug from this world and plug in to God’s world.

    *****

    Father Richard Rocha, Kansas City Chiefs.

     

    ‘Coaching on God’s Team’

    Very few people have a Super Bowl ring or a World Series ring. Father Richard Rocha has both. The pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Church in Blue Springs, Mo., Father Rocha has served as Catholic chaplain for the Kansas City Chiefs since 2017 and for the Kansas City Royals since 2006. Before entering the seminary, he was a football coach for 14 years at the high school and college levels; he later he served as vocation director for the Diocese of Kansas City–St. Joseph (2009-2017). A Knight since 1981, Father Rocha also served as Missouri state chaplain from 2004 to 2006.

    I am one of five children born to Robert and Mary Rocha. I grew up in a devout Catholic family with a strong love for God and devotion to Our Lady Guadalupe, St. Joseph and the saints. We were blessed to have attended Catholic schools. In fifth grade, the local Knights of Columbus bought us playground equipment, and I remember a football coming out of the bag. From that moment, I fell in love with the game. I played in junior high and high school, and then got a scholarship to play at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.

    After my sophomore year, my father died suddenly. My high school coach, who was like a father to me, said, “Son, why don’t you come home and help me with the team, and finish your degree at the local university.” I was 20 years old when I started coaching at the high school level.

    We were watching film one Thursday night, and he said, “Why don’t you join me at holy Mass tomorrow? It’s First Friday.” I thought, “What’s First Friday?” But I joined him and thought, “That wasn’t so bad.” So I started doing that on Fridays, then every day during Lent. Then I said, “I wonder if I can do this every day.” There was just a pull, a love for Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist.

    I went on to Northwest Missouri State and coached there for two years. After coaching at two other colleges, I became a head football coach on the high school level. I instilled into my players the “3F” philosophy that my high school coach taught me: Your faith has to be first, followed by family, and only then football.

    I really felt that football and being married with a family was where God was calling me. But there was that pull again. I was struggling, not being able to sleep at night, so one day after daily Mass, I told the priest, “Monsignor, I am struggling with the fact that I don’t know if I should be coaching. I’ve been coming to Mass earlier thinking, ‘Maybe God wants me to spend more time in front of the Blessed Sacrament.’”

    He looked straight at me and said, “Coach, are you sure God’s not calling you to the priesthood?” I remember my face just falling into my hands, and full of tears. I said, “Maybe he is, but I don’t want to be a priest. I want to coach football. I want to be married. I want to have a family.”

    And he said, “Coach, let me give you two pieces of advice. First, have you ever asked God what his will is for you? And second, don’t rule out the priesthood if you see yourself as a husband and a father, because God wants good strong men to be husbands to his Church and fathers to his people.” After he said that, a big weight lifted off my shoulders.

    Later, when I told my mom I was entering the seminary, she said, “Ever since you started coaching, I’ve been praying a novena to Our Lady Guadalupe and St. Jude, that God might call you to the priesthood.” I think 14 years of tears fell right then and there, since that was my 14th year of coaching. It was a wonderful, joy-filled moment.

    “It’s important to remind them that in this game of life, football will pass, as everything else will go away. God wants us to be hungry for the things of heaven, so how are you preparing yourself?”

    When I later became vocation director, we had about 19 seminarians. I told my mom, “You gotta pray for more vocations since it’s my job now.” When I left, we had 37 seminarians. And when I became the Royals’ Catholic chaplain, I said, “Mom, throw the Royals in there, too.” She died in January 2015; the Royals won the World Series that November. The same thing with the Chiefs, “Mom I’m taking over the Chiefs, you need to start praying.” Obviously, she has a better seat now.

    It’s just wonderful how her prayers and, obviously, God’s grace, drew me into the priesthood. Yet I figured that as a priest I’d never be involved in sports. I never would have thought that in a million years I’d be able to have an influence on professional coaches and players, bringing them close to God. It’s awesome how God works.

    With the Chiefs, Mass and confessions usually take place on Saturday night, which is the big night. I’ll set up for Mass and just be available for players and coaches to go to confession. One of them always reads at Mass. And afterward, there’s an opportunity to interact with them. They always want to know if I’m going to be there at the game.

    I try to go to most of the games. I’m not always there, but I’m there for them for their spiritual lives. It’s important to remind them that in this game of life, football will pass, as everything else will go away. God wants us to be hungry for the things of heaven, so how are you preparing yourself?

    And being an NFL chaplain also connects to my parish work. I treat my Sunday homilies like a halftime talk — you’re coming here, you need to be fed in order to go out and get through the week to next weekend. It’s that kind of challenge: “Hey, we’re down by seven. We got to get out there in the second half and finish the game. It’s a game of life.” So there is a strong connection. I’m not coaching football on a particular team, but I’m coaching on God’s team.

    I’m the chaplain for our local K of C council as well as our Fourth Degree assembly. I remember when I was entering seminary, right away a couple of councils called and said, “We want to sponsor you. Come talk to our group, our men want to know your story.”

    And then after becoming a priest, I was asked to be Missouri district friar and then Missouri state chaplain. I truly love the Knights of Columbus. They do so much for our Catholic faith; they’re the right arm of the pastor. When you want something done, go to your Knights, and they get it done. They’re really performing the corporal works of mercy that God wants us to do.

    These last two years with COVID, I haven’t had a pregame field experience. But to be on the field before a game is electrifying.

    And of course a high moment was to go to Super Bowl when we played the San Francisco 49ers to end the 2019 season. When the game seemed to be slipping away, people were looking at me in my collar as if to say, “Do something.” And I remember breaking out the rosary beads and calling on my mother and Our Lady Queen of Victory. The rest is history.

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