After winning two BCS National Championships in three years at the University of Alabama, defensive back Vinnie Sunseri decided to aim even higher. He declared himself eligible for the NFL Draft as a junior earlier this year and was taken in the fifth round by the New Orleans Saints.

While Sunseri has had an abundance of blessings in life, it wasn’t until he enrolled at Alabama that he started to appreciate his good fortune. At a time in life that many fall away from the practice of their faith, Sunseri was just beginning to take it more seriously.

Now, as the Saints prepare to open their regular season against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta on Sunday, Sunseri sees things in their proper order: Faith comes first, then family and then football. The Pittsburgh native spoke about his changed perspective with Register correspondent Trent Beattie.

 

You’re joining a team with an appropriate name for a Catholic player. What were your expectations going into training camp/preseason with the Saints?

On the field, I went in with the mindset of doing whatever the coaches asked me to do. I was ready to contribute whatever I could on defense or special teams. Of course, you want to make the 53-man roster and play the whole season, but you have to take things one day at a time.

When I first went up in practice against Drew Brees, it was quite a thrill. I couldn’t believe I was on the same field with players like him. After a while, though, you get settled into a routine. You become more comfortable with the guys and the system, and you can see yourself as a regular part of things and able to make an impact.

Now that the regular season is about to start, the goal hasn’t changed, really. I’m happy to be here and just want to contribute to the team in whatever way I can.

 

Your father was a linebacker coach at Alabama and is currently the defensive-ends coach at Florida State. You must have learned a lot from him about football.

Yes, my father Sal played at the University of Pittsburgh and then with the Pittsburgh Steelers, so it was only natural that he would teach me so much about football. Not everyone can say their father played in the NFL, so I really was blessed from the beginning, as far as knowing how to play the game, having high standards and putting the work in to meet those standards.

In my freshman year at Alabama, I got to play on the national championship team that my dad was an assistant coach for. That was the most amazing football experience of my life, because of the family connection. Anytime you win a national championship, it’s a great accomplishment, but when your own dad is on the coaching staff, it takes it to another level. I had been able to watch him coach other guys for years, including the Crimson Tide’s 2009 national championship team, but actually being on the same team that beat the LSU Tigers [in January of 2012] for the 2011 national championship was awesome.

 

You had quite a career at Alabama, especially considering the fact that you only spent three years there.

To be sure, two BCS National Championships in three years is an unbelievable thing. In those three years, our record was 36-4. My dad, though, has been with three BCS National Championship teams, the  most recent one being this past year with Florida State, so he gives me grief about how I have “only two” championships to my credit.

The highlight of my sophomore year was the SEC Championship game against Georgia, led by QB Aaron Murray, a friend of mine. We went back and forth, and finally won, 32-28. The highlight of my junior year, which was shortened by a knee injury, was picking off a Johnny Manziel pass when we played Texas A&M.

Alabama has a very top-notch program, and I was excited to be a part of it. There is so much work that goes into all those wins, so you develop deep bonds with teammates and coaches. This is true on the field, but it carries over off the field and even into church with some guys.

Nick Saban, Alabama’s head coach, went to Mass at St. Francis of Assisi University Parish, along with me and some other players and coaches. Having other guys around you like that when you’re worshipping God is a tremendous blessing. It helps you to remember what’s most important in life. Sports are so much fun, but you have to put things in the right order, and that always means God comes first.

 

Have you always taken the faith seriously or was there a distinct time you started to do so?

There was a time when my dad coached in the NFL, and I would tag along with him. This was when he was with the Carolina Panthers, from 2002-2008, so I would have been 11 to 17 at the time. I was awed by the big guys and high level of play, so I didn’t think about going to Sunday Mass.

However, once I got to Alabama, it became so obvious that I should be going to Sunday Mass. I mean, here I am on this unbelievable football team, I have a great family to support me, I’m healthy, and so on, but I’m not even going to church for one hour a week? It just didn’t make sense. I knew I had been given so much, and I wanted to give back to God and then to other human beings.

When it became clearer to me that I had countless things to be grateful for, I saw that going to Sunday Mass was the least I could do to give back to God for all he has given me. I became more involved at St. Francis and made Mass a regular part of my life. In addition to Sunday Mass, I happily went to Masses said before games, usually on Saturdays.

Even though I’ve been Catholic my whole life, I have a greater appreciation for it now. I love everything about the Church, with the Mass at the top of the list. Everything from seeing your friends to singing to hearing God’s word and the sermon to receiving Communion and quietly praying afterward — it’s all what life should be about.

 

Was there a tough time your faith got you through?

Last October, I tore my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament], and that was very tough. Even though it was really a low point, I trusted in God, family and friends. I had already established a deeper relationship with God, so the foundation was set for me to lean on him. I also leaned on my dad a lot, because he had gone through a similar injury when he was playing for the Steelers. My mom was supportive as always, and my friends rounded things out. With all that support around me, I was able to recover quickly.

 

Do you have a favorite devotion?

I pray the Rosary every night. Depending on how long it takes me to get to sleep, I pray anywhere from a couple of the mysteries to the entire collection of the Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious and Luminous Mysteries. There’s no better way to end the day than to ask the Blessed Mother to intercede for you, because then you see Jesus in a very real, flesh-and-blood way. You’re reminded that God really did become a man with eyes, ears and hands, just like we have.

The Incarnation was made possible by Mary agreeing to be Jesus’ mother, and the Incarnation in turn made our salvation possible, because then Jesus had a body through which to suffer. While Jesus was suffering and dying on the cross, he left us Mary as our spiritual mother, so while she only had one child by blood, she actually has millions of other “children” through the shed blood of her Son.

Mary puts her spiritual children to sleep, so to speak, when they pray the Rosary at night. Our “older brother” Jesus is already enjoying eternal rest, but we see a prefiguring of that when we go to sleep with a good conscience.

 

If you weren’t playing football, what would you be doing?

If I weren’t playing football, I might be coaching football, although I would also like to own an Italian restaurant one day. I enjoy cooking (especially Italian food), and I enjoy being around people, so a restaurant seems like a great fit. I also majored in business management at Alabama, so I’ve learned some things about how to run a small business.

Whatever I end up doing, though, I now have my priorities straight. They are faith, family and football (or restaurants or whatever else) — in that order. God comes before all else.

Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.