Catholic Quarterback Philip Rivers Passes On the Faith

San Diego Chargers' star talks faith, family and football: 'Once I've received the Eucharist, then I'm prepared to go out and play.'

(photo: Wikipedia)

Coming off a disappointing 2011 NFL campaign, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is wasting no time to prepare for next season.

The Chargers won four of their first five games last season, but finished with an 8-8 record. The team missed the playoffs, and Tim Tebow’s Denver Broncos went instead.

Less dedicated players would take time off, but not Rivers. Dedication is something his father Steve, a high-school coach, passed along to him, and it has been a driving force in his football career.

At North Carolina State University, Rivers broke every school passing record, finishing his collegiate career with 13,484 passing yards, the second-highest total ever for a Division 1-A quarterback up to that point.

His production in the NFL has also been impressive. His 95.2 passer-rating currently ranks fifth all-time among quarterbacks with at least 1,500 yards passing.

Perhaps even more impressive than Rivers’ football accomplishments, however, is his dedication to passing on his Catholic faith. The 30-year-old Decatur, Ala., native cherishes opportunities to hand on to his own children the faith that his parents gave to him.

Rivers discussed this and many other things in early January.

What do you think of this past season, and what are you doing now during the playoffs?

This past season was certainly a disappointment. We didn’t make the playoffs, and I didn’t have my best season, personally. However, I’m thankful for the adversity we experienced because if we take it in the right way, it can help us next season.

We had a fairly strong close to the season, so I remember the saying that “You never lose; you just run out of time.” We ran out of time this season, but there’s next season, which I’m preparing for already. I watch the teams in the playoffs to see what we can do better the next time we play them.

I really am thankful for this season’s adversity, not just from a football perspective, but from an overall life perspective as well. It’s made me not just a better player, but a better husband and father.

How do you find time for your commitment to the faith when most of your games are played on the Lord’s Day?

It’s funny, because it’s always been a dream of mine to play in the NFL, but I was concerned about the games being played on Sundays. I love to play football but wanted to be able to attend Mass as well. Now, I do that by going to a vigil Mass or an early Sunday morning one. Once I’ve received the Eucharist, then I’m prepared to go out and play.

Something that might seem odd on the surface is this: If I put football above my faith and family, I think I’d be worse off as a player, not better. It’s a matter of putting things in the right order, which helps you to do each of those things as they ought to be done. Avoiding idolatry helps you to have the right perspective on life, which in turn helps you to live more effectively. Faith comes first, then family, then football.

What do you think of Tim Tebow’s statements about faith?

I know Tim a little bit because we have the same agent. I’ve enjoyed speaking with him from time to time and know that he has strong beliefs. I’ve been public about my beliefs, as well, but not in as vocal or persistent a manner. Everyone has a different way of expressing themselves, and Tim has his own way, too.

As a quarterback I very much appreciate what a great competitor he is and how he wills his team to win. I always look forward to competing against competitors like him.

What does football mean to you, not just as a way to make a living, but as a game you’ve been playing your whole life and one in which your father has influenced you?

Football is one of the most popular sports in the country, and there are many reasons for this. You can take so much from football and apply it to life in general. Just some of those things are goal-setting, preparation, teamwork, perseverance and discipline.

Discipline is one of the biggest things that stands out for me in relation to my father. He would always tell me that if you’re going to do something, do it all the way. Nothing should be done halfheartedly. That was true not only with football, but with something as simple as cleaning your room or cutting the grass. I would wonder why making a bed was important at all when you were going to use it again later that day. The discipline to do those simple things can help you so much with greater things. Luke 16:10 comes to mind, in that regard.

My father was my coach in high school, and I still talk with him very frequently about football today. I’ll call him after practice, and we’ll talk about how things went. In fact, Dad still has other players of his who call him up and talk with him as well. That’s something very special to me — how he has helped to guide me and others in being a man.

What has your father passed along to you regarding the Catholic faith specifically?

My father converted from being Southern Baptist when I was very young. He was determined that we get to Mass every Sunday, which served as the foundation for everything else. You simply do not miss Mass. Period. When the father of the family says we go, then we go.

When I went away to school at North Carolina State, I was on my own for the first time and really out of my element, but when I went to Mass that first Sunday, everything fell back into place. Even though I was physically a good distance from my family, I knew I was home in the truest sense.

That’s one of the gifts of the Church I appreciate most: the oneness or universality of it all. It’s the same essential Mass regardless of which city or state or country you’re in at the time. I’ve been to some beautiful churches in Denver, St. Louis and Chicago, but what’s even more beautiful than the churches is Jesus (being) always present in the Eucharist.

This is true in any Catholic church you go to.

Because you grew up in the South, you must have encountered opposition to Catholicism.

There were only about 15 of us in my confirmation class, not just for our parish, but for the entire county in Alabama that I lived in. That tells you how small the Catholic population was. However, I wouldn’t call it opposition that I encountered, but more of a questioning as to why we did certain things. That can be a good thing, in the sense that you learn so much about the faith because of the questions. That’s something my mother helped me with in even more detail than my father. She was especially instrumental in revealing the truth of the Church to my wife, Tiffany, during her conversion.

Most of my buddies from school I didn’t see at Mass on Sunday because they weren’t Catholic. We got along fine outside of church, but the religious camaraderie wasn’t there.

I’ve known my wife since we were in junior high school, but she wasn’t Catholic at that time. However, like my father, she converted, and that has strengthened both of us.

Our bond in the faith is the foundation of our marriage. San Diego has a very solid Catholic community, which has been great for my wife and kids to make friends and be supported in the faith.

This is very encouraging, especially when it comes to living out teachings of the Church that are not as popular as others. The most noticeable of these is being open to life, or what is commonly known as natural family planning (NFP). When you see others making the same commitment to the faith as you are, it can only strengthen you.

Because of the commitment that’s required, a lot of people are particularly afraid of the baby stages of raising children. It’s easy to talk yourself into thinking you just can’t handle all the work that it takes. What I tell people, though, is that the children do grow up; they aren’t going to be in need of constant supervision and assistance forever.

Plus, when the time comes to look back on your child-raising years, you may actually want more children. There can be a fear of having too many going in, but a regret of not enough when looking back. There are people who would desperately want to have more but can’t.

My mom comes from a family of nine children, and she would have loved more than anything to have had a large family of her own. However, that was not God’s plan, and I ended up being the only child for the first 11 years of my life. Then we were fortunate to welcome my brother Stephen into the world, and later my sister Anna.

With the birth of our second son in October, we have six kids now. It’s funny because sometimes when I’m out with just three of them, people ask if they’re all mine, as if three is an enormous family.

What do you enjoy most about fatherhood?

Every day there’s something new to witness. It’s fun to watch them grow. Tiffany and I comment to each other on which one is more like mom or more like dad when they do certain things. Each one is different, but I really enjoy watching them play together and love each other. That’s very special to see as a dad.

When you have a family of your own, you realize just how much you owe to your own parents, and you find that you do things just like they did. You may not have appreciated those things at the time, but it’s funny to see them come back. One little example of this is when I was younger; we would finish a meal, and 15 minutes later I’d ask my dad for a snack. He’d tell me, “We just ate. You’re not hungry; you’re just bored. Now go play.” Today, my own kids do the same thing to me, and I give them the same response my dad gave me.

I love my kids so much and not only enjoy them now, but sometimes I think of what it will be like when they’re grown up. When they have families of their own and come back home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, it will be so much fun to see them and all the grandkids.

Strengthening families is a major reason you started your foundation, Rivers of Hope, correct?

Yes, it is. On our way home from a trip to Disneyland a few years ago, Tiffany and I were talking about doing something pro-life, and a great way to do that is by helping foster kids find “forever families.” We’re so blessed ourselves to have a strong family, but we knew that so many people don’t have that same blessing.

In coming up with a name, we all decided on Rivers of Hope, because “hope” is my mom’s favorite word, and it really expresses the purpose of the foundation. Our primary purpose is to help find permanent homes for foster children, which is a hope unfulfilled for too many.

I’ve talked with many foster children, and it is very common for them to bounce from home to home. Two little sisters in particular stand out in my mind. They explained that whenever a social worker would come to the home they were in at the time, one sister would yell to the other, “Pack your bags!” To these kids, seeing a social worker meant moving again. We wanted to help them see the day when that cycle would stop and they’d find a permanent home.

There are hundreds of kids here in San Diego County ready to be adopted, so we want to raise awareness of that. We’re not reinventing the wheel, just trying to help the process go more smoothly with the organizations that already exist.

We do other things as well. If someone doesn’t have the money to buy a pair of cleats or a musical instrument, or whatever it might be, then we pay for those things. We also do referrals to crisis-pregnancy centers for mothers who need that support. Protecting the most vulnerable is essential to being pro-life.

Another part of being pro-life that you’ve spoken about is purity. Why is this an important topic to you?

One of the people we’ve gotten to know here in San Diego is Jason Evert of Catholic Answers. He presents the truth about sexuality, a topic which is so misrepresented in the media. Young people don’t realize what a gift it is within the context of marriage, so it’s great to be able to use the platform I have to spread the truth. People are able to put a face to a cause.

Speaking of purity, what do you say about some of the commercials played during football games?

It’s a shame, because it used to be fun to watch commercials during the Super Bowl, for instance. Now, it’s kind of hit or miss, and you have to be thankful for the pause button on the DVR. You know what you’re going to see in advance, so you prevent your kids especially from seeing those things. You want to protect their innocence, and that’s a preventative way of doing it. But in today’s world, praying for our kids is essential for their protection and continued growth in the faith.

I can’t put into words how much I enjoy praying with my kids. Most of them are a bit too young to have the attention span for a Rosary, so our favorite devotion is the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, which is shorter. We pray that every day of Lent, and we actually sing it most of the time. If the end of the day is coming, and we haven’t prayed the chaplet, one of the kids will enthusiastically insist that we do so.

Do you have a patron saint?

St. Sebastian is the patron of athletes, so I wear a medal of him, along with a miraculous medal and a crucifix. There are many stories I could tell about his patronage, but here’s just one. In a 2008 playoff game I tore my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament]. The week following that game was a very spiritual one for me. My mom asked me on the phone, “Do you know that St. Sebastian’s feast day [Jan. 20] is the day of the next playoff game?” Amazingly, maybe even miraculously, I was able to play that game.

I also admire St. Francis Xavier, a missionary priest who had quite an adventurous life. Reading stories like his helps to get the right perspective on things. What I have to suffer doesn’t really compare with what he and other saints went through for the Lord. Even more to the point, when you think of what Jesus suffered in his passion for us all, it can only help you love him all the more.

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.