With 17 wins and only one loss this season, the Carolina Panthers are favored to win Super Bowl 50 over the Denver Broncos. However, the one team to have beaten the Panthers — the Atlanta Falcons — knows exactly what it would take for an upset by the Broncos.

The Falcons’ 20-13 victory over the Panthers in their second-to-last game of the regular season was the latest surprise in the career of Paul Worrilow, a Falcons’ middle linebacker. The 25-year-old Wilmington, Del., native was not offered a Division I scholarship out of high school, nor was he drafted out of college — despite being named an All-American. However, Worrilow left the University of Delaware without any anxiety over a possible career in the NFL. By then, he had come to trust in God’s providential care over everything.

Worrilow spoke of his lifelong Catholicism and passion for football with Register correspondent Trent Beattie, in time for this weekend’s Super Bowl 50.

 

The Falcons started the first half of the season at 6-2, but completed the second half at 2-6, resulting in an 8-8 record overall. Why did the team slow down late in the season?

The second half of the season was tough for us. We were competitive in all six of those losses, with the exception of the first Panthers game. However, we did not finish like we should have. It always comes down to finishing: finishing drives, finishing halves and, of course, finishing at the end of the game.

Finishing is an element of our team that we hold in such high regard, so for that not to show up in many of those losses is tough. There’s no doubt in my mind that finishing is an aspect of our team that will be better next season. It’s kind of like: The questions you get wrong on a test are the ones that stick with you for so long afterward. Then on the next test, you do better.

 

Despite the general lack of finishing, the Falcons had a huge bright spot in the second half of the season — being the only team to beat the Panthers this year. What is the key to doing that?

The Panthers are in the Super Bowl for a reason: They play great ball in all phases. We saw that firsthand when we lost to them 0-38. No question they’re a great team, but being able to see them up close helped us to win our second matchup late in the season, because by then we knew who they were.

The big difference for us in our second matchup wasn’t any specific strategies or adding new plays; it was a totally different mindset. We had become familiar with how the Panthers played, so instead of going into the contest with a mix of uncertainty and nervous anticipation, we went into it thinking we needed to play our own game, and the Panthers needed to deal with us. We weren’t going to sit back and see what they’d do; we went forward on our own terms. I think that’s an important mentality when playing a team that strings wins together like the Panthers do. You have to be willing to break up the momentum by being proactive and setting the tone.

 

Coming out of high school, you did not receive a NCAA Division I football scholarship, and coming out of college, you were not drafted into the NFL. Did being overlooked motivate you to prove yourself?

When I didn’t get any Division I scholarship offers going into my senior season, and even throughout it, that did motivate me. I wanted to prove my worthiness, so I really worked to become a great player my senior year, despite the lack of positive feedback from colleges. I took that mindset of just putting everything I had into the game on a day-to-day basis with me into college.

I was also shaped by [Super Bowl XLVII MVP] Joe Flacco having gone to Delaware. I thought of how he had played on the same field, used the same locker room and had the same coaches, so why couldn’t I go where he went professionally? That’s why, by the time I was not drafted in 2013, I wasn’t worried. By then I knew I could play in the NFL, so it was just a matter of showing that at tryouts and training camp.

There’s never been a moment when I think I’ve “arrived” or how special a player I am to get to the NFL or something like that. I just think anyone with good fundamentals can make it here if they commit themselves to doing it. You have to not care too much about what others think of you or get concerned about something happening in the future that might be favorable to you. Instead of getting caught up in all that, you just have do your job as well as you can and trust that God will take care of everything.

 

At Delaware, you signed up for a marrow-donation list and were then called on to donate. How did that come about?

The Villanova University football team had already been signing up for the donation registry, and then our head coach at Delaware decided to encourage us to do it, too. I put my name on the list and didn’t think much of it, because most of the signees never get called. However, I was surprised to be matched up with a patient and called, all within a year.

 

Is it a painful process to donate blood marrow?

The way I donated, it was not painful at all. They took my blood from one arm, passed it through a machine, which drew peripheral stem cells out, and then returned the blood back into my other arm. It took less than a day to do, and I, stubborn as I am, even went to a workout with the team later that day.

The important thing is that people who can benefit from the stem cells get them. It’s a small price for a donor to pay, so the recipient will have a greater chance at being healthy. It’s also great to see how adult stem cells can be used in ethical ways, as opposed to using embryonic stem cells, since those are obtained by killing little human beings.

 

Do you value human life even more now that you’re married and have a child?

I do. It is awesome to see our 9-month-old crawl around and pick things up. She’s fascinated by seeing and touching things for the first time. She’ll look at what she has picked up and then look at us, as if she’s discovered something incredible.

Being a new dad is awesome. I’m reminded of my own childhood days, and it makes me want to be a stabilizing and loving influence on my daughter. Of course my wife and I pray for her, but it’s too early for all three of us to pray together. In the meantime, I like to pray the Rosary every day and actually have rosary beads hanging in my locker.

 

Do you have a favorite Bible verse?

With all the fan attention that comes with pro football, I really get the importance of Proverbs 27:2, which basically says not to praise yourself and to let others do that. Some fans spend so much time and effort in the game — it seems like as much as the players do — and they’ll tell you about how you’re their hero. That’s flattering to hear, but my heroes wear police, firefighting and military uniforms.

When you consider people who put their lives on the line for others, a job playing football seems very dull in comparison. If some fans want to say otherwise, let them, but it’s not something we as players should be doing ourselves. Being humble might seem weak on the surface, but it takes a strong man to live humbly. That requires self-control, gratitude and a selfless interest in others.

I try to do things for others in a low-key way. During our bye week this season, I visited my former youth football team in Delaware for a day. It was not pre-announced, and there was no big deal made of it. I just hung out with the team and helped them practice. Things like that help kids see that NFL players are normal men, just like you find among grocery-store clerks, teachers, accountants or any other profession.

 

Do you find comfort in having other Catholics like Sean Renfree on the team?

Yes, Sean is a first-class guy whose Catholic faith influences how he sees and treats others. He does his job well, but he also knows we should be helping people outside of work, too. Dan Quinn and Eric Sutulovich are similar — they do their jobs well, but they’re not just good workers; they’re good men.

Having Sean, Dan and Eric around reminds me of how we should have our priorities ordered and how we can influence others for the better. The way they conduct themselves makes it that much easier to maintain my Catholic identity that, thanks be to God, has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.

Many of his sports stories for the Register can be found in Fit for Heaven.