Former Super Bowl Quarterback Is Rich in Mercy

CBS analyst Rich Gannon keeps heaven in mind.

Oakland Raiders Rich Gannon looks to pass the ball off in Super Bowl XXXVII (37) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on  Jan. 26, 2003, in San Diego.
Oakland Raiders Rich Gannon looks to pass the ball off in Super Bowl XXXVII (37) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Jan. 26, 2003, in San Diego. (photo: Kevin Reece / Associated Press)

Former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon has achieved almost everything possible in his sport. The Philadelphia native is best known for his tenure with the Oakland Raiders from 1999 to 2004, in which he was named to the Pro-Bowl four times and went to the Super Bowl in 2003, playing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Despite the many accomplishments of Gannon, he knows his biggest one would be attaining eternal life. He had this ingrained into his mind in childhood, due to his father’s influence. Gannon and his five siblings were brought to Mass every week and went to confession almost as often.

The older Gannon gets, the more he appreciates this idyllic atmosphere of mercy. He spoke of the need for fathers to duplicate that atmosphere today and to reach beyond one’s own family to share the Catholic faith. 

Gannon, a University of Delaware grad who threw for over 28,000 yards in the NFL, spoke of these and other faith-related issues in anticipation of the Pro Bowl on Jan. 31 and the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, which will see the Buccaneers facing off against the Kansas City Chiefs.

 

Has it been a smooth transition from playing in the NFL to calling games in the NFL?

A QB has to know a lot, not only about how to play the game, but also how to express that verbally every week to the media. You could say that, even as a player, I was preparing for my work today as an analyst — and that the transition from retiring in 2004 to starting in television in 2005 was not much of a stretch.

With that said, the process of calling a game, like playing one, is still challenging. It’s similar to studying for a final exam all week long and then having a three-hour window to prove yourself. Each game is different, and onlookers can be very critical of what is said by analysts. 

I put a lot of pressure on myself, but there is also pressure from the outside. Even if you get 192 of the 195 plays right during the game, those three you didn’t get right will be the story. If you mispronounce someone’s name or get a stat wrong or leave something out, that might be all over social media. That’s one of the things that provides motivation to be well-prepared. I like to sum up the importance of getting set in advance with the saying that “Proper preparation prevents poor performance.”

 

In addition to calling a game every week with Greg Gumbel, I also host NFL Monday QB with Steve Beuerlein and Trent Green. Steve was in the same draft class as I was (1987), and we went to the Pro Bowl for the first time in the same year (2000). I think we were the two oldest QBs ever to be named to the Pro Bowl for the first time, which was well into our 30s.

Former Professional Football player Rich Gannon attends the SiriusXM Celebrity Fantasy Football Draft at Hard Rock Cafe - Times Square on July 17, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Imagesfor SiriusXM)
Former professional football player Rich Gannon attends the SiriusXM Celebrity Fantasy Football Draft at the Hard Rock Cafe-Times Square on July 17, 2013, in New York City.(Photo: Michael Loccisano)2013 Getty Images


 

Another Catholic Pro Bowl QB you probably knew was Elvis Grbac

Elvis and I were on the Chiefs’ roster in the late ’90s, and we would go to Mass together. He had a career similar to Steve’s, in that they were both backups on Super Bowl-winning teams and then later went to a Pro Bowl.

I haven’t seen Elvis in a long time, but heard he is back in Ohio and studying to become a deacon in the Catholic Church. How cool is that?

 

You played for the Vikings and now live in Minnesota, so do you know former Vikings’ center Matt Birk?

I do know Matt; he is a phenomenal athlete and man. He had a great career that involved many Pro Bowls, along with much charity work, and then culminated in a Super Bowl win and a “Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.” 

Matt is a real influencer in the Catholic Church in Minnesota. He is not only a leader for Catholic causes, but has even started a new and unusual school. It’s centered on the practice of virtue, which is sorely needed in these times.

 

Matt has a chapter in Tyler Rowley’s book, Because of Our Fathers, on the importance of Catholic men in the lives of their children

That’s a huge topic. As a kid, we certainly went to Mass every week, and it seemed like we went to confession almost every week, too. That was because our father led the way. He knew we needed structure and a continual connection to God, so he made sure those were present. Participating in the sacramental life of the Church was not seen as optional, but vital. 

If only more of us knew that today. Unless a parent is seriously prevented from doing so, there’s no good reason to prevent children from going to Mass. Football certainly isn’t a good reason. I can say that, even as a former player and as an analyst. 

 

Do you have a favorite devotion, such as the Divine Mercy Chaplet?

In years past I would pray the Rosary from time to time, but in the beginning of 2020, I started praying it every morning. It’s a very accessible devotion that can be prayed anywhere by anyone. I find that praying it on a walk helps me to think through the day better. 

 

That sounds like part of the message MLB All-Star Mike Sweeney has been promoting through the Venerable Patrick Peyton movie and that NFL Pro-Bowler John Carney is promoting in the Fatima movie.

All the graces God the Father wants to give us come through his Son, and his Son comes to us through his Mother. If we want to be on the right path (Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life), the quickest way to get there is by his Blessed Mother. She prepares us, like only a mother can, for what we need to do as followers of Jesus.

 

Venerable Fulton Sheen was an ardent advocate of Marian devotion and possibly the best-known speaker of the 20th century. Have you learned anything from him you can use in your work?

I remember listening to Venerable Fulton Sheen as a little kid, but not being totally onboard with what he said. It wasn’t that I disagreed; I just wasn’t “with it” enough to understand the importance of his teachings.

Now I listen to Sheen recordings and am impressed, not only by his vast knowledge, but his ability to express it in ways so familiar to listeners. Also, just from a raw gift standpoint that no one can really imitate, I’m impressed by the clarity and sharpness of his voice. Sheen is a treasure of the Church who is still present to us in his recordings and books.

There are some writings of, and about, St. John Neumann, but it would have been really nice to have recordings of him, too. Like Sheen, he was an active American bishop, and he has also had an influence on me.

In 1977 I was in sixth or seventh grade when we got news that the first American man would be canonized. St. John Neumann came from Bohemia in the 1830s and became an American citizen, priest, Redemptorist, bishop [consecrated at what is now the National Shrine of St. Alphonsus Liguori in Baltimore], and trailblazer. 

 

What are some of the things you liked about his tenure?

As bishop of Philadelphia, St. John Neumann had dozens of churches built, organized the country’s first diocesan school system, welcomed religious orders, and established the Forty Hours Devotion, which began at St. Philip Neri Church, where I grew up.

The official canonization Mass was in Rome, but we had a Mass in Philadelphia in his honor. I was able to attend, with a bunch of other schoolkids, that grand event at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul.

I also remember writing a report on St. John and my father typing it up for me. I still have that somewhere, but wherever it is, St. John’s influence has stayed with me for decades. 

Another famous Philadelphia saint is Katharine Drexel, the heir who became a philanthropist, builder and religious sister. She actually lived well into the 20th century, so some people alive today have met her in person.

 

The National Catholic Bioethics Center is located on Drexel Road in Philadelphia, so has that been a group you’ve consulted as part of the research for your daughter’s Celiac disease?

First, Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which gluten is not tolerated by the small intestine. That means certain foods that most of us eat every day — such as those with made with wheat and other grains — are off-limits to someone with Celiac.

My wife, Shelley, and I have been spokespeople for the Celiac Disease Foundation, which has lots of information about diet, the central treatment for someone with celiac. There might be other treatments in the future, but those should only come through ethical research that respects the dignity of every human person involved. 

I have not heard of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, but it sounds like the type of group my daughter, Danielle, would benefit from. This is the case, not only for ethical celiac research, but other topics, too, because she is now a third-year medical student. 

Being smart and dedicated enough to go to medical school makes me proud, but also scared. Doctors can do a lot of good, but, if not properly formed, they can do a lot of harm.

 

Maybe she would also want to look into Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy or the Eucharistic Apostles of Divine Mercy, led by Dr. Bryan Thatcher.

Whatever can help health-care workers do their jobs well — not just from a technical standpoint, but from an ethical one — I’m for. It’s even better when the groups aren’t only about bare minimums to prevent harm, but are dedicated to wholehearted Catholic service that sees the eternal value of each life, regardless of how little or ill it might be.

 

You have an appreciation for sacred architecture and art. Do you think your extensive travels for work have helped that appreciation grow?

Over the years I’ve been able to attend Mass at dozens and dozens of churches across the country and in Europe. I’ve also been to museums here and across the Atlantic. These experiences taught me that what our churches look like really does matter. 

If we’re going to spend a billion dollars on a football stadium, we can surely set aside enough money to make sure a church is properly constructed and adorned for the worship of Almighty God. It’s about giving our best to God through the arrangement of the church building and art in it — and by how that affects our mindset in its presence. 

What our churches look like has a profound influence on our view of God. A plain, casual church gives off the vibe that you can pretty much do what you want, since God is a blank slate. A grand, ornate church, on the other hand, indicates that there is something truly awesome about God and that we should deeply revere him and his commandments.

Art speaks to us, so we should really do our best to make sure the right things are being said in stone, glass, plaster and paint. The majesty of God should shine forth, as far as that’s possible in this life.

 

Do you have a favorite church or specific piece of artwork in a church?

I really like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption in Baltimore.

One of the pieces of artwork I’ve read about recently is The Prodigal Son, painted by Rembrandt. Lots of people appreciate the image in general, since it is an expression of a father’s merciful love for his repentant son. 

Not only is the father rich in mercy, but the details of painting are rich in meaning. The father’s hands, the placement of the knife, and other things display overwhelming paternal love, despite the great filial disobedience that occurred prior to repentance.

 

The 2020 shutdowns affected so many aspects of life, including football. What have you learned from the past year?

I learned, in a deeper way, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That proverb hit home like never before, over the past year.

Lots of us didn’t like the extreme measures taken in the name of public health. They caused countless inconveniences and even a good deal of serious hardships. Some of the measures were unnecessary or unevenly applied and have been reversed. 

Despite all the trouble, 2020 gave us the opportunity to determine if we were really in good standing with God. If we worshipped music, the concert halls were closed; if we worshipped sports, the stadiums were closed; if we worshipped drinking, the bars were closed. Everything we might have held dear was taken from us.

Even God was being taken from us, in a sense. Lots of people weren’t allowed to go to church, but even in our official worship of God himself, we can get it wrong. Just showing up at Mass is not enough; we have to do it right, and this doesn’t usually dawn on us when Mass is an uninterrupted routine.

The break in routine allowed us to ask ourselves questions, such as whether we’re even in a state of grace; when was the last time we went to confession; do God’s commands matter enough to us to read the Catechism or to find out, through other books or through Catholic radio or TV, how we should order our lives? Maybe we’re not as perfect as we thought and need to make changes for the better.

One thing I so know: Catholics in general need to do much better when it comes to sharing the faith. Protestants and non-Christians are usually much more eager to share what they believe. We, who have been blessed with the fullness of the faith, should not fear to do the same. 

We’re not required to explicitly include religion in everything we say, but if, at the end of a given week, we’ve said nothing about it to anyone, that’s not a good sign. 

There’s no reason to clam up, and the best of all reasons to state our reliance on Jesus and his Church: We are promised heaven as a reward. We’re not required to do it perfectly, just simply and sincerely. If we really care about heaven for ourselves and for others, let’s tell people about how to get there. It’s possible by the mercy of God, which is available for all those who, as St. John the Baptist started encouraging 2,000 years ago, repent of their sins and believe Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God.


Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.

His book Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015)
contains numerous Catholic sports interviews,
most of which have appeared in the Register.

His latest book is Apostolic Athletes.

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