Meet Father Richard Rocha, Super Bowl LVIII ‘Team Priest’ for the Kansas City Chiefs
The Catholic chaplain offers this advice to his players: ‘Keep grounded in your faith and focused on your purpose in life. You are here to know, love and serve God in this life and one day be happy with him in the next.’
When Super Bowl LVIII kicks off at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas Sunday, Feb. 11, one enthusiastic, longtime Kansas City Chiefs fan cheering in the stands will be a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri: Father Richard Rocha.
For the past eight years, Father Rocha has been the Chiefs’ Catholic chaplain, celebrating Mass, being available for confession and even officiating at weddings and administering the sacrament of baptism for the families of players and staff. He was delighted to see his team win last year and hopes for the same on Super Bowl Sunday.
Father Rocha, 60, was born in Atchison, Kansas, and grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri. He was the third of five children in a devout Catholic family and attended Catholic schools. His father worked two jobs in order to keep his children in Catholic school, Father Rocha told the Register, but, tragically, the family lost him to a heart attack at only 52.
“I was in my second year of college, and it was a total shock to my mother and our family,” Father Rocha recalled. “It was hard to lose him.”
Young Richard had a love for football since the fifth grade and played fullback and nose guard on his team at Bishop LeBlond High School in St. Joseph and then earned a scholarship to play nose guard at Benedictine College in Atchison.
Among his positive influences at the time was his high-school coach, Don Tabor, a daily communicant (Don’s son, Chris Tabor, was interim head coach for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers).
In fact, after Richard’s father died, the future priest was uncertain if he wanted to continue on at Benedictine College, so Coach Tabor gave him the opportunity to coach with him while he finished his degree at Missouri Western State University. He was only 20 years old.
Coach Rocha went on to coach football for 14 years at both the high school and college levels. He had dreams and aspirations to get married, “have a big house with a picket fence and 11 children.”
However, through the influence of his devout Catholic mother and Coach Tabor, he picked up the habit of attending daily Mass, and, over time, it transformed him.
In his 14th year of coaching, he was hired as head football coach at Mt. Vernon High School in Springfield. Throughout the season, however, he suffered from insomnia. One day after daily Mass, he met with his parish priest, Msgr. John Westhues. He told the priest that something “just didn’t feel right” in his life, adding that he was wondering whether he should be at Mt. Vernon or even coaching football at all.
When the topic of his spiritual life came up, he recalled to the Register that he told the monsignor, “I don’t know what I’d do without daily Mass and receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion.”
Monsignor asked him: “Coach, are you sure God is not calling you to the priesthood?”
An emotional Coach Rocha responded, “Maybe so, Monsignor, but I don’t want to be a priest. I want to get married, have a family and coach football.”
His dream was to coach at the high school and college levels, then one day coach in the NFL, ultimately winning the Super Bowl.
Monsignor advised him to pray daily, Father Rocha recalled, asking God what his will was for him. Monsignor added, “Don’t rule out the priesthood if you see yourself as a husband and father. God needs good, strong men to be husbands to his Church and fathers to his people.”
The future priest visited a few seminaries and then went home for Christmas break to share the news with his mother.
To his surprise, he learned that — for 14 years — his mother had been praying novenas to Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Jude, that God would call him to the priesthood. When he told her his plan, “it seemed like 14 years of tears came pouring out of her,” he recounted to the Register. “She said that she never missed a day praying those novenas.”
Father Rocha was ordained in 2002, at age 39, and among those in attendance was Coach Tabor, whose confession Father Rocha heard and then to whom he gave his stole (typically reserved for the new ordinand’s father).
Father Rocha has served in a variety of roles in the diocese, including as master of ceremonies.
Mike Sweeney, former star of the Kansas City Royals and a practicing Catholic, contacted Father Rocha about having the bishop celebrate Mass for the Royals baseball team. The bishop responded, “I will do the first one of the season, and Father Rocha will do the rest,” according to Father Rocha, who has been the Royals’ Catholic chaplain for the past 18 years.
Eight years ago, the Kansas City Chiefs’ then-general manager, John Dorsey, invited Father Rocha to their training camp. He requested a single priest to serve as the team’s Catholic chaplain, Father Rocha. The current bishop, James Johnston, agreed, and Father Rocha has been saying the Mass for home games, and an occasional away game, ever since.
Among these games have been two Chiefs Super Bowls, from which he brought home two Super Bowl rings.
Committed Catholic players on the team include kicker Harrison Butker, a Georgia Tech graduate who has enjoyed a solid season, as well as some of the coaching staff and medical staff.
Father Rocha (“team priest”) offers Mass at 6:30 p.m. the night before the game, while a Protestant minister (“team chaplain”) leads an alternative service.
During Super Bowl LVIII, Father Rocha will also enjoy pregame and post-game activities with the Chiefs, as well as attend the game.
In his remarks to the team, Father Rocha told the Register he likes to remind them that they are “in the spotlight,” and many young men look up to them. They need God in their lives just as much as “everyday” people. He continues, encouraging the players, “So keep grounded in your faith and focused on your purpose in life. You are here to know, love and serve God in this life and one day be happy with him in the next.”
Ray McKenna of Catholic Athletes for Christ, which evangelizes professional athletes and provides “services,” including Mass, to teams, noted that Father Rocha has had a “profound and important” influence on the athletes with whom he has interacted, telling the Register, “Father is devoted to the Eucharist and adoration, is a good and holy priest and has helped many players. He is joyful and always willing to proclaim the Gospel.”
John Malicoat is a parishioner of St. Robert Bellarmine parish in Blue Springs, Missouri, where Father Rocha is pastor. For the past three years, Malicoat has been an altar server and lector at the Chiefs’ Masses and will be joining him at Super Bowl LVIII.
Malicoat told the Register, “Father Rocha is a good, holy priest. Both the Chiefs and the Royals think the world of him. He’s solid in his faith, gives great homilies and is firm but gentle. He typically concludes his remarks by saying, ‘Let’s get after them, men!’”
Malicoat said the pair have gotten to know the players well and added, “They’re a swell bunch of men.” He, too, is looking forward to the big game and said of his time with the team, “It’s been a joyful experience, one I’ll always cherish.”
Father Rocha concluded by marveling how “God writes straight with crooked lines.” When he left coaching for the seminary, he thought he was forever giving up on his dreams of one day coaching in the Super Bowl.
But as he’s heading to his third big game, he mused, “Now, I’m involved in such a way that I could never have imagined. It just goes to prove the old adage: God cannot be outdone in generosity.”