New Denver Broncos’ Coach Talks of Super Bowls Past, Present and Future
Ben Steele encourages men to be champions of the Rosary on and off the field.
There is a feeling among some people that the Rosary is just for women — or even for older women alone. This mistaken notion has been weakened over the years, as the spiritual competence of men has been strengthened. More and more men, including professional athletes, have become familiar with the Rosary — including former NFL player and current coach Ben Steele.
The 6-foot-5-inch Denver native is, like a set of rosary beads, “coming full circle” in his return to the Mile High City. After a playing career from 2001 to 2007 that included stints with six different NFL teams as a tight end, Steele was a coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons and, just last season, the Minnesota Vikings.
Now, the husband and father of four is returning to Denver as an assistant offensive line coach and is enthusiastic about getting the Broncos back to the Super Bowl. Steele has not only the experience of a teenage fan watching the Broncos win two Super Bowls in the 1990s, but even went to a Super Bowl as a player in 2003 with the Oakland Raiders.
Steele spoke of these experiences and Super Bowl LVI this Sunday between the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams in Inglewood, California — all from a Catholic perspective.
Every Super Bowl participant I’ve asked says the same thing: The game itself is no different than any other football game, but all the noise and flash around the game are what make it challenging.
That’s exactly right. Anyone who makes it to the Super Bowl has played football for years and has certainly prepared for the opponent on the other side of the field that day, but the real “opponent” is all the media coverage, official entertainment, other partying, predictions, logistics, and so forth.
When I went to the Super Bowl almost 20 years ago with the Raiders, it was really weird. All these singers and actors were making it a big show, with interviews and performance before the game, then the players took to the field to warm up and play, then the entertainers came back for halftime, then the players came back and finished the game. Then there was more hoopla after the game.
How many people who go to the office have to deal with so many distractions? The football itself is part of the entertainment, but from a player’s perspective, you’re not working with the other entertainers; you do the best you can to ignore the show and remember that you came there to win a football game.
It doesn’t appear that the Raiders did a good job in that regard, if you look at the final score of the game. The Buccaneers beat the us 48-21.
Rich Gannon was the Raiders’ starting QB in that game. Were you close to Rich then?
I knew Rich from being on the team, of course, but I also was able to attend Mass at the same parish he did. We lived fairly close to each other, so it worked out that way. Rich was a great player, but it was especially rewarding to see a big part of what made him a great man outside of football.
When you’re in a church environment, it puts football and everything else in perspective. That’s why I’m not a fan of virtual Masses; they just aren’t the same as being there in person. The most obvious part of this is not being able to receive Communion, but there’s also the loss of camaraderie — even if unspoken — with your fellow worshippers who are seated next to, in front of, and behind you. Bottom line: In-person Masses are the norm, for many reasons, and I’m very happy that we have them back.
What do you think of this year’s Super Bowl?
This past season itself has been amazing. I think the Vikings set a record for the most games in a season decided by one possession. Then the playoffs, starting with the divisional round, have been very close, too, going back and forth until, finally, the team that has the ball last wins.
I think the Super Bowl will probably continue that competitive theme. The challenge is really the Bengals’, since they have not been to a Super Bowl in over three decades, whereas the Rams were there just a few years ago. The Rams have so many offensive options, but [the Bengals’ QB] Joe Burrow has been on fire.
Not to mention, the Bengal’s defense is great. I saw that firsthand this past season when the Vikings were ahead against the Bengals late in the game and had the ball, but ended up fumbling and losing in overtime.
You know the Bengals’ senior defensive assistant coach Mark Duffner from when you both coached in Tampa Bay, right?
I even know Mark when I was playing for Green Bay and he was a coach, but, yes, Mark taught me so much in Tampa — not just about the technical aspects of the game, but how to treat players. He is the epitome of caring about more than football success; he wants his players to learn and grow as men.
In demonstrating that there are more important things than football, the respect for players tends to pay off in football terms, too. When players realize you care about them, they are far more willing to put in the work needed to be great. It goes beyond a superficial effort, since you know your coaches are truly on your side.
One of the players in Tampa at the time was Garrison Sanborn. He, Mark and I were regulars at the team Masses. It is nice to see when players attend Mass like that; if I know a player is Catholic but not attending, I make it a point to invite him to Mass. Even though NFL players and coaches work on Sundays, we can’t just shelve our faith; we have to keep living it.
Did your upbringing help you to do that?
It did. I was cut many times in my playing career, and the first place I’d go afterward was my grandmother’s house. She has always been dedicated to the Rosary and the Catholic faith in general, which had an influence on me growing up. She later provided a faith-filled landing when I fell from the NFL nest.
My grandmother would always say that when a door is closed, a window is opened. I would ask, “Granny, are you telling me to jump through the window?” I knew what she meant, but it’s surely more comfortable to go through a door.
Anyhow, she helped me to realize that we should all be praying the Rosary every day. It’s so easy to do. It sums up Christianity in a simple way, and it can be prayed anywhere.
I’ve prayed the Rosary in my office many times — including when things have gotten particularly stressful — and there’s always a clam that prevails afterward. It’s easy to just dive into your work during stressful times, but I’ve found that stopping for prayer helps in terms of prioritization, which in turn helps for the execution of the right things in the right order.
My high-school athletic director, Jim Selke, probably found the same thing to be true. He had the habit of making rosaries with his own hands. Every time I was with a new NFL team, he would send a set of beads based on the colors of that team: green and yellow for the Packers, silver and black for the Raiders, etc.
Finally, a couple years ago, I decided to start making rosaries myself. There are so many feminine-looking or generic-looking rosaries, so I wanted to make ones that have a masculine look. That led me into, not just darker beads — often of steel — and larger crucifixes, but stronger cords. The Rosary has been likened to a chain connecting heaven and earth, so I thought such a chain should be strong enough to hold onto and be pulled upward with.
There’s even the story of Blessed Bartolo Longo, who had gotten himself into a world of trouble. He had been a Satanic priest and thought, because of his enormous sins, that he would not be saved and would have to suffer eternally in hell.
He almost despaired of salvation, yet he was saved through praying the Rosary. That image of being pulled out of hell by the Rosary makes me think that the physical rosary itself should be strong, since the spirituality behind it is tremendously so.
You could start a family company called “Rosaries of Steele.” Do you give the rosaries you make to players and coaches?
I do. It’s really neat to give away something, not just that you bought, but that you made with your own hands. It’s a part of yourself that you’re passing along, so it’s very satisfying to see players or coaches praying the Rosary before games on the beads that I had assembled for them.
Padre Pio called the Rosary his weapon, so we should see it as such, not just to win a game, but in our battle for salvation. It really is a war to get to heaven, so we need all the help we can get.
On that same theme, I love the St. Michael Prayer that used to be prayed after every Mass. It really resonated with me when the chaplain for the Atlanta Falcons prayed it a couple years ago. I must have head it before at some point, but for whatever reason, it sounded completely new to me in Atlanta.
Also new to me was the use of Latin — not just at what most people call the Latin Mass, but at English Masses, too. We prayed the Our Father in Latin, and, outside of Mass, my kids even taught me how to pray the Hail Mary in Latin, after they had learned it from my wife, Rachel.
My time with the Falcons was short but filled with grace. I joined the team as an offensive assistant in 2019, two years after their Super Bowl run that looked like a victory but that changed into a defeat.
Now [former Falcons’ head coach] Dan Quinn is with the Cowboys, and I’m off to the Broncos after a year with the Vikings. That’s just a snapshot of the coaching life: seemingly always on the move. That’s tough, especially on families, so I hope to be in the minority of coaches who settle down in one city and are successful over many years.
What do you think it would take to have that happen?
Divine Providence is the No. 1 thing, but it’s also talented players and effective coaching that knows the value of hard work, but doesn’t go too far and overanalyze everything.
Coaches need to encourage players to put the necessary work in, for sure. They have to get their plays down pat, make sure they’re physically and mentally ready, but, at the same time, not giving too much attention to lesser things. Stay dedicated to the few things that matter.
Sometimes coaches can give too much credit to other teams, thinking that they’ll know this or that about our team, so we have to do a secret play or whatever. My way of thinking is, if you want to be good, be good. Don’t worry so much about what the other guy might do. Keep your mind on your own business and do that well.
Once a player did exactly the opposite of what I told him to do on a certain play, but he ended up scoring a touchdown. Despite the analytics and preparation, sometimes things happen contrary to what you expect — and that’s not always a bad thing. You have to be in the moment and do the right thing with what’s in front of you.
Another example, this time from Major League Baseball, is [Los Angeles Angels’ manager] Joe Maddon. He thinks batting practice before games is overrated, and I’ve even heard he has specific games during the season in which he does not allow players to practice beforehand. For sure, you have to work hard to get to the majors, but it is also possible to overdo it as well. This relaxed realization has apparently helped Maddon, as he has won two World Series titles [one as bench coach of the Angels in 2002 and the other as a manager of the Cubs in 2016].
Maybe that will be the theme for the Broncos on their pursuit to a Super Bowl victory next season.
The Broncos finished last in the AFC West in 2021, and the division includes the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers, all of whom had winning records. The Chiefs and Raiders made the playoffs, and the Chargers narrowly missed out, so we have an uphill battle.
At the same time, the Broncos have already started assembling a great mix of coaches and players. I’m so excited to be a part of that and am looking forward to what’s next in our journey back to the top, focusing on what does matter.
There might be a parallel to Catholicism.
You can say the same thing with Catholicism: Certainly follow the Ten Commandments, but don’t add 10 more. Don’t get so concerned about things that are less important or even unimportant.
Make sure to do the big things well: Pray every day. Go to Mass at least once a week. Go to confession at least once a month. Take what was handed down to you in the faith of the apostles and work with that today, so that you’re handing the same thing down to your children.
That sentiment comes through in Vin Scully’s voice when he leads the Rosary album from Catholic Athletes for Christ. There’s also a tradition-respecting book by Father Donald Calloway called Champions of the Rosary. That pro-sports connection made me think: Wouldn’t that be neat to have a Broncos team with Rosary-praying coaches and players who win the Super Bowl? That team would fall under the title “Champions of the Rosary.”
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.