Super Bowl Champion Becomes Champion of God
Former NFL quarterback Elvis Grbac shares football memories and recommitment to Catholicism.
With the Pro Bowl coming this weekend and the Super Bowl the following weekend, Elvis Grbac can look back and remember two of his top football achievements. The six-foot-five quarterback was selected to the Pro Bowl while with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2001 and won a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers in 1994.
Despite reaching the pinnacle of the football world, Grbac knows there are more important things. Although a lifelong Catholic, he has in recent years become more closely involved with Jesus and his Church. The Cleveland, Ohio, native is currently studying for a master’s degree in theology at St. Mary Seminary in nearby Wickliffe, Ohio, and plans on becoming a deacon.
While Grbac can name some of the best football players ever as former teammates (Jerry Rice, Deion Sanders and Desmond Howard are examples), he travels the country to speak to youth and men’s groups in the hopes that audiences will be able to rattle off the names and “stats” of Catholic “teammates” just as readily. St. Peter, St. Athanasius and St. Augustine are prime examples of Christian holiness that Grbac finds helpful today.
As the NFL prepares to go bowling in the next two weeks, Elvis Grbac gives Register readers a view of what the NFL is like on the inside and how the sacramental life in Catholicism surpasses anything a football player could hope for.
You were on teams with some of the greatest football players ever. What does it take to get to a Pro Bowl or win a Super Bowl?
Winning a Super Bowl is a team effort. You can have the best player at a given position, or even at a few positions, but in order to be successful, everyone on the team has to work together. The right plays with just the right timing and coordination only happen when the team really plays as a team.
On the individual level, which kind of pertains more to the Pro Bowl, the great players are the ones who are never satisfied with what they’ve accomplished. This has stuck with me since my first day of practice at the University of Michigan in 1989. I remember Bo Schembechler saying that there’s no such thing as remaining the same; you’re either getting better or worse, every day.
Jerry Rice was the greatest player I was ever on a team with, and one major reason why was that he didn’t settle for just being good. He always wanted to do more, so he was the first player to arrive at practice and the last to go home after practice. This was despite the fact that, a lot of days, the other guys were there 12 hours too already.
Another thing about great players is that they know what they’re going to do in advance. They don’t just hope or wish; they have a plan, and they’re decisive in implementing it. It goes without saying that no matter how good you are, you will have to adjust your plans from time to time, but the main point is that you need a clear vision of what you’re supposed to be doing.
Joe Montana told me about this before he left the 49ers for the Kansas City Chiefs. At that point, I was waiting for the snap and seeing what developed in the play. Joe, on the other hand, dictated — as far as possible — what happened. He went into the snap with a play ready in his mind that took into account who would move where. He knew that football is the most team-oriented sport around, so it’s essential to coordinate plays with receivers and everyone else long before games. That way, you control the game, rather than letting the game control you.
Talent alone can take you a good distance, but if you really want to succeed at the highest level, learning about the mental part of sports is indispensable. Succeeding there is more of a mindset than a skillset. The clear vision Joe Montana showed is one part of the mindset, and, since being tested is automatic whenever there’s a worthwhile goal being pursued, determination and perseverance are essential, too.
Of all the sports you played in your youth, why was football the one that you ended up playing professionally?
That’s a good question. I didn’t start playing football until high school, and even then, the sport I favored for most of high school was basketball. I received scholarship offers from Division I basketball programs, and football had a backburner type of status.
That changed when Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler was recruiting my high-school teammate Desmond Howard. Bo was watching a tape of our games and noticed me, too. He offered me a scholarship, and then Michigan State, Notre Dame, Miami and other schools followed with their own offers. Desmond and I both ended up going to Michigan, and we won a lot of games and went to four bowls — including three Rose Bowls — in four years.
Of course, football is the first thing people notice, but the top reason I went to Michigan was for academics. I majored in communications and minored in business. It wasn’t certain of a future in the NFL, so I wanted to build on the knowledge I had gained at. St. Joseph High School [in Cleveland, Ohio] and have something to take with me into the job market.
Did your Catholic upbringing provide a solid foundation for college and professional life?
It did. Our football coach in high school, Bill Gutbrod, was all about athletics and Catholicism, and a number of St. Joseph alumni went on to be play at the collegiate or professional level. Before high school, though, my parents had already started imparting Catholicism to me and my siblings.
I wouldn’t say I was an expert in all things Catholic, but I did have knowledge of the basics. Despite this, there were times in my 20s that I would have dealt with much differently if I had the opportunity again. I sometimes thought of me in the short term, rather than God in the long term. That’s a general characteristic of sin: isolating specific goods and giving them too much importance by pursuing them at the expense of our overall well-being.
Was there a particularly tough time your faith got you through?
In early 1996, my wife, Lori, gave birth to our first son, Jack. He had spina bifida occulta, which meant that his spine had not closed completely. This caused him severe pain, so he would scream when he fell as he was learning to walk. We went to the doctor and found out that surgery could improve the condition. The No. 1 pediatric neurosurgeon in the world happened to be in the San Francisco area — where we were living at the time — and he also happened to be a practicing Catholic, so we put our son in his hands.
Needless to say, my thoughts were with Jack at that time, rather than with football. I told our coach, George Seifert, as much before our game against the Dallas Cowboys Nov. 10. During the game, however, our starting QB, Steve Young, got injured, so I was put in to replace him. Near the end of the game, I threw an interception, and we lost in overtime, giving us a 7-3 record at that point in the season.
Despite the winning record, the mayor of San Francisco criticized me way beyond normal sports commentary. Even if our son wasn’t undergoing surgery, the comments would have been over-the-top, but considering the situation, the comments were appalling. If there was ever a time when I wanted to let someone have it in a press conference, it was then. However, I humbled myself and asked the Holy Spirit to do the talking, so I didn’t stoop to the level I had been tempted to stoop to.
Aside from that situation, the surgery itself turned out great, and Jack has done well. He is now in his senior year of college, and you can’t really tell he had any problems, so I’m very thankful for that and for the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
Do you have a favorite Catholic book?
My office is filled with Catholic books, especially since I’ve started working on my master’s degree in theology. I’m going to St. Mary Seminary for the Diocese of Cleveland and plan on becoming a deacon.
Called to Be Children of God, by Father David Meconi and Carl Olson, is a good one that I’m getting into now. It covers the important but often overlooked topic of deification, theosis or divinization (not at all the same as divination). St. Athanasius said that God became man so that man might become God or that we might become “gods” — depending on the translation — and other saints have said similar things. We don’t become additional Persons in the Trinity, but we become so closely connected to God that we are actually sharing in his divine nature. St. Peter said as much in 2 Peter 3-4.
This process of deification begins in baptism and continues in the sacramental life of the Church. The time it is most fully in play is when we receive Holy Communion, which is the very Body, Blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. Our Lord would not have given us such an incredible privilege for the sake of mere appearance or for pushing us further away, but for the sake of actually accomplishing something supernatural, which is that we would become one with him.
This is such an immense honor that we should really make the effort before, during and after receiving Holy Communion to humbly meditate on it and make sure that everything we do or refrain from doing around that time reflects an interior adoration of the Lord. Receiving Holy Communion is a most sacred encounter with the living God, so it should never be done mindlessly or disrespectfully.
Do you also participate in Eucharistic adoration?
I love Eucharistic adoration. There are so many different prayers and so many different ways to pray, but my favorite venue for prayer is right in front Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Our worship offered here is an extension of the worship given in the Mass. It is, apart from receiving Holy Communion, the time when we participate most fully in the divine nature of God because we are in his direct presence.
Love prompts us to humbly place ourselves at the service of others, but is there anything that comes close to God’s humble self-giving in the Blessed Sacrament? He wants to be with us so much that he would appear as a simple piece of bread. That’s the most incredible thing on earth, so I spend two to three hours of at least one day a week in front of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
Do you have a patron saint?
That would have to be St. Peter. We have the same basic life story of ups and downs. He was called by Jesus and followed him, but then denied him for worldly motives. Then he repented, not because Jesus scolded him, but simply because Jesus looked at him. That look was enough to touch St. Peter’s soul, so he mended his relationship with Jesus and did a better job of leading the Church.
I won’t be named pope like St. Peter, but I do plan on becoming a deacon, so there’s the possibility of atoning for the times when I focused on worldly thing by serving Our Lord’s followers in a leadership role.
You already do public speaking, right?
I speak around the country, usually to youth or men. They’re the most impressed with sports, so I start there and move to the more important realm of being a faithful Catholic. One easy transition is to realize that, with Catholicism, just like with football, we have the choice of getting better or worse every day.
St. Augustine said where you have been pleased with yourself, there you have remained. This complacency is not conducive to growth in the love of God, so we should always want to become better for God. This should be desired and pursued, not out of fear, but out of love, since God has loved us first. People who want me to talk about this or other aspects of being Catholic can visit my website, ElvisGrbac.com.
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.