"Big Four" Highlights


Super Bowl Catholics

Steelers and Packers both have deep Catholic roots

By James Breig

When the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers face off Feb. 6 in Super Bowl XLV , you may want to pray for your team to win. But you should know that both teams have equal favor in heaven with their deep Catholic roots.

By their nicknames, the Packers and the Steelers reveal their origins in rust-belt cities of the North, traditionally populated by Catholic immigrants. So it’s no surprise that the heritage of the two teams contains many Catholic connections.

The Packers are packed with such links, beginning with the legendary field they play on: Lambeau Field, which proclaims itself “the crown jewel of the National Football League!” The stadium is named for Earl “Curly” Lambeau, a native of Green Bay who played football at the University of Notre Dame, where he was coached by another gridiron legend, Knute Rockne.

Lambeau (1898-1965) not only coached the Packers and played for them; he also invented them, founding the team in 1919 while working for a packing company that paid for the uniforms – hence, their nickname. The team joined the NFL in 1921.

For his contributions to the sport, Lambeau was inducted into the National Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963, in recognition for leading the team to six championships.

Writing on the website of Catholic Athletes for Christ, author Jim Penrice said, “If the NFL needed a Catholic epicenter, Green Bay was a natural fit. Historically the city has been an extraordinarily Catholic community, with some estimates reporting as much as 70 percent of the population claiming membership. That identity has helped shaped the Packers from the very beginning. The team’s founder … came from a devout Catholic family, whose life centered upon … St. Willebrord Church in downtown Green Bay.”

Lombardi’s Daily Mass

Lambeau Field is located on Lombardi Avenue, which provides another Catholic connection. Vince Lombardi, for whom the street and the Super Bowl trophy are named, coached the Packers for eight years, leading them to three consecutive championships and five overall. He is as well known for his Catholicism as for his football success. In fact, he also attended daily Mass at St. Willebrord.

In the Lombardi biography When Pride Still Mattered, author David Maraniss writes: “In his coat pocket Lombardi carried old black wooden rosary beads. He had rubbed his long thick fingers over these same beads, uttering Hail Marys and Our Fathers, since studying for the seminary. … By his side in the car or at home were two religious books,” the Bible and a Sunday missal.

The Norbertine Fathers connection to the Packers extends beyond Lambeau and Lombardi, who attended a parish run by the religious order. When the team practices before the season begins, it does so at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. The players and coaches have spent their late summers on that campus since 1958.

Lombardi often attended Mass with students in the college’s chapel, a habit continued by the current head coach, Mike McCarthy, who said, “It’s the kind of Mass you like to go to. It’s a little different than the normal Sunday service,” because of the students’ participation.

The Packers’ Catholic links include more than using church facilities. For half-a-century, the team has donated to the Green Bay Diocese. According to the diocese, “each year, the Packers organization donates approximately $55,000 of its Bishop’s Charities Game ticket sales to Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay. … To date, the series has raised over $3.4 million.”

The Rooneys – Catholic Owners

The Steelers will try to top the Packers during the Super Bowl, but can they match the Green Bay team’s ties to Catholicism? The answer begins at the top with the Rooney family, long-time owners of the Pittsburgh gang.

The Rooney connection began with Art, who bought the team in 1932. One Steelers fan website credited Art (1901-1988) with this encomium: “He loved his family, was loyal to his Catholic faith and cherished his friends.

Like Lambeau and Lombardi, Rooney is a member of the NFL Hall of Fame. So is his son, Dan, a co-owner of the Steelers with his son, Art II, and current U.S. ambassador to Ireland. The Rooney family also has long-time connections to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, the Catholic college that many family members have attended.

Dan’s commitment to social justice and racial harmony is reflected in the Rooney Rule, which was instituted by the NFL in 2003. As a means of ensuring equal opportunity, the rule requires teams to interview African-American candidates for head coaching and other significant positions with teams. The team’s current head coach, Mike Tomlin, is black.

Among the Steelers who will make a Sign of the Cross before the Super Bowl will be defensive back Troy Polamalu, but he will make it in reverse order. A player on the 2006 and 2009 Pittsburgh teams that won the Super Bowl, he is a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, a rarity for someone of Samoan descent. He puts sports in perspective, with faith at the top of his list, saying that football is “my way to glorify God.”

Cardinal Connection

Someone with no mixed feelings about who should win the Super Bowl is Cardinal Adam Maida, archbishop emeritus of Detroit, although it seems his sympathies would be split.

Should his allegiance be with the Detroit Lions? No, because he also used to be bishop of Green Bay.

So, he roots for the Packers, right? No, because he was born in a small town near Pittsburgh, and his loyalty to the Steelers has not shifted with his diocesan assignments.

“You’ve got the coal mines, you’ve got the steel mills and you've got the Steelers,” he once said. “It’s part of the culture of the people and our community, and that became a part of myself.”

Regardless of which team you root for on Feb. 6, you will know that they have Catholic connections that run through the ownership, coaches and players like a running back racing the length of the field.

Go … Packers and Steelers!

James Breig, is a veteran Catholic journalist.

From the Editor:

We have received a number of e-mails telling us of an additional Catholic connection for the Steelers. This note from Father Paschal A. Morlino, O.S.B., tells the story:

The Pittsburgh Steelers hold their summer camp on the campus of St.Vincent College and Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa., home of the first professional football game. The Archabbey (the first and oldest Benedictine monastery in the U.S.) runs St. Vincent College and is home to 160 Benedictine Monks who have a very close relationship with the Rooney family and the Steelers. You can bet there will be lots of cheering on that campus and in that monastery.
Rev. Paschal A. Morlino, O.S.B.
Monk of St.Vincent Archabbey

(Homepage photo: Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II, center, admires the Lamar Hunt trophy with his father, Dan Rooney, left, Steelers great Franco Harris, far right, and broadcaster Jim Nantz after the Steelers’ 24-19 win over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship on Jan. 23. Credit: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(Photo on this page: Steelers’ Troy Polamalu. Credit: AP Photo/ Jim Mahoney)