I had a sense of dread -- two of them, come to think of it, if that's possible -- as I started reading this USA Today story about Division III football star Jordan Roberts and his journey into the Catholic priesthood.
On one level I was afraid that the story would simply be too cute. You know: Future priest runs to glory and all that, like a bad version of "Rudy."
The flip side of that would have been to label on the snark, either about the church itself or the quality of football being played at this level. No, honest. A writer could have pulled that off. This school is so minor league that even a man in a collar can run the ball off tackle.
Instead, this turned into one of the most moving God-and-gridiron pieces I have read in quite a long time. I especially like the fact that the story started in church, rather than on the playing field.
ST. PAUL -- Sundays are sacred at the St. John Vianney Seminary, a plain five-story red-brick building across a grassy quad from the main chapel at the University of St. Thomas. It is the only day Jordan Roberts and 133 brother seminarians studying to be Roman Catholic priests may wear priestly garb for Mass -- black cassocks with the white Roman collar.
Rising at 6 a.m., they begin their day with Holy Hour prayer and morning Mass. They end it with a rosary and lights out at 9:30 p.m. Last Sunday, seminary officials permitted Roberts a brief leave in late afternoon to join another fraternal group -- his St. Thomas football teammates -- to watch the NCAA Division III playoff selection show. Roberts is the Tommies' top rusher and scorer.
There are all kinds of interesting details, starting with the fact that Roberts converted to Catholicism as a young man. The 6-0, 222-pound running back walked away from a promising role, and his scholarship, at a larger school. His per-game statistics are amazing.
You know there has to be a story in there, somewhere. If anything, this feature makes readers wait a bit too long to tune into the drama -- although the wait is worth it.
The youngest of three children, Roberts grew up in a family that believed in God but never joined an organized church. Three personal heartaches his freshman year at South Dakota left him reeling.
The day after Roberts and his girlfriend of six years broke up, his best friend and high school teammate Nick Bazemore committed suicide in his dorm room at Black Hills (S.D.) State University. Roberts said he and Bazemore loved each other like brothers, and he plays with "NB20," Bazemore's initials and number, imprinted on the heels of his cleats.
"Those two things, combined, were the greatest amount of pain I ever felt," Roberts said. "When Nick died, that changed everything for me. And shortly after that, my parents got divorced. All these things kind of made me search for answers."
Teammates introduced Roberts to a Fellowship of Catholic University Students Bible study class. "Slowly, I started to love the faith and love the Bible study I was in," he said. "It gave me so much hope. It really helped me through the situation I was in, to put it bluntly."
Then there is a college renewal conference. Then a chaplain introduces him to the seminary community. Then the transfer to, get this, a Catholic seminary full of sports fans, where:
... seminarians make up Caruso's Crew, a fan group that flies the Vatican City flag and dresses like construction workers -- white hard hats, muscle shirts with suspenders, and oversized tools. "When they announce Jordan Roberts, we all erupt," said Crew boss Kyle Loecker, a third-year seminarian. "That bond is what we're all grateful for."
What a surprise. Read it all, folks.
THUMBNAIL IMAGE: From TommieSports.com