Super Bowl Catholics
Faith is more than a footnote for football’s champions
By James Breig
One of the greatest mysteries of Church teaching is the Immaculate Conception, the dogma that the Blessed Mother was conceived without original sin. With no disrespect, one of the greatest mystery plays in football history is known as the “Immaculate Reception.”
Super Bowl champion Mark Bavaro joined other Giants to make a pro-life video.
Back on Dec. 23, 1972, Franco Harris, a Pittsburgh Steelers’ running back, snatched a deflected pass an inch from the ground and ran it into the end zone with seconds remaining on the clock. The maneuver won the AFC divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders and earned the “immaculate” title.
Harris’s score is not the only time Catholic terms have been used to describe a play. Every pigskin hurled into the air as a last-second attempt to win is labeled a “Hail Mary pass.” In other words, the toss goes heavenward alongside a prayer that the ball will be miraculously snagged in the end zone.
The original use of the phrase came from Roger Staubach, the Catholic quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. As the final seconds ticked away in a December 28, 1975, playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings, Staubach planted his cleats at midfield and heaved a long pass. It was caught for the winning touchdown.
After the victory, he said to the media, “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”
The QB meant it literally. Staubach, a two-time Super Bowl champ, has always been public about his faith, opposing abortion and speaking to young people about living their Christian beliefs. Catholic News Service reported in 1994 that he told high school students: “You should change your priorities because you have a responsibility to yourself and to Almighty God. Give a darn about somebody else.”
Another winning Super Bowl quarterback was Mark Rypian, who led the Washington Redskins to the 1992 title and was MVP of the game. He said after the victory, “I’m a Christian first and foremost,” adding that living his faith is “an everyday deal.”
A more recent (2006) Super Bowl star is Troy Polamalu, who played with the Steelers. He declared that the game was secondary in his life, telling Catholic News Service: “Success in football doesn’t matter. Success in anything doesn’t matter. As Mother Teresa said, ‘God calls us not to be successful but to be faithful.’ My prayer is that I would glorify God no matter what, and not have success be the definition of it.”
Catholics also pace the sidelines, where the coaches make decisions that lead to victory or defeat. The most legendary NFL coach, after whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, was Vince Lombardi. As widely known for his Catholic faith as for his winning legacy, he led the Green Bay Packers to three successive Super Bowl titles.
Lombardi, who died in 1970, remains such a storied figure that he is currently the subject of two media treatments: a documentary on HBO and a Broadway play. In his biography, When Pride Still Mattered, author David Maraniss wrote, “It would be difficult to find someone who conjoined sport and religion more deeply than Lombardi. … Prayer was the essence of Lombardi’s religious practice and the constant of his daily routine.” The coach once said, “I derived my strength from daily Mass and Communion.”
Don Shula, a daily communicant, led the Dolphins to a 17-0 season in 1972.
Another outstanding coach, Don Shula, also attended daily Mass. He guided the Miami Dolphins to a perfect 14-0 regular season in 1972, the only time that has happened in the NFL. The team then won three post-season games, including the Super Bowl, to notch a flawless 17-0 record. A graduate of John Carroll University in Cleveland, Shula also won a second Super Bowl the following year.
In Everyone’s a Coach, Shula wrote that he learned to live his faith from his parents. “We never missed Mass,” he explained. “Even today, I try to attend Mass every day. … Attending Mass and looking to God for guidance aren’t just habits for me. They matter deeply to me. … It makes a real difference to me when I start off each day by giving thanks and asking for help from God. … There’s something good about kneeling down, asking for help, and listening for answers.”
Catholicism can also be found in the owner’s box during football games, with perhaps the most outstanding example being the Mara family. Owners and executives of the New York Giants, the Maras have been staunch Catholics whose dedication to their team is matched by their devotion to their faith.
In Wellington’s 2005 obituary, The New York Times said that “he devoted his life to his large family, his Catholic faith and his extended Giants family, whose members revered him for his integrity and kindness.”
After the Giants’ 1986 Super Bowl victory, Mara helped produce a 9-minute video “Champions for Life,” in which leading players expressed their pro-life views. (See the YouTube video.)
The team owner once said with great clarity, “The Church has never changed its teaching on the sanctity of human life. It didn’t make up a rule for the convenience of a particular time like a rule at a country club.”
(Homepage photo: Dallas Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach prepares to pass against Minnesota Vikings during 1975 NFC playoff game, in which he threw the winning 'Hail Mary' pass. AP Photo)
James Breig is a veteran Catholic journalist living in upstate New York.