by Nancy Vande Hey
Green Bay t-shirts declare, “God is a Packer fan.” If that’s true, it may be because Vince Lombardi has been praying for them for so long.
Regardless of what heavenly aid may have helped get them there, it’s up to the Packers to win their first Super Bowl after a 29-year absence. With the team on their way to New Orleans to face the New England Patriots, enthusiasm for the team is at a fever pitch.
Catholics in the area are no less caught up in the excitement than anyone else. From wearing green and gold to Mass on Packer football Sundays to decking the parochial school halls with football field yard markers, Catholics from every age group love “The Pack.”
That fact should come as no surprise because the Catholic community has a variety of ties to the Packers, dating back at least 60 years.
The Norbertines at St. Norbert College in neighboring De Pere spread support for the team by announcing their games in the 1930s on their radio station, WHBY.
Also, St. Norbert College has hosted the Packer training camp since 1958. During Coach Lombardi’s tenure he attended Mass with Father Dennis Burke every morning while at training camp.
Today, the college still welcomes the team by providing extra long beds in their residence halls for the players, preparing special meals for the team and lunches for the coaches and by providing classroom space for the players’ study time.
The president of St. Norbert College, Thomas Manion, sits on the Packers Board of Directors. And Bob Harlan, president of the Packers, serves on the St. Norbert College Board of Trustees. This arrangement demonstrates how deeply the ties between the team and the Catholic school run.
Each year the Packers also host a fundraiser for the Green Bay Diocese. One preseason game is always declared the Bishop’s Charity game.
Not only does the Packer organization have ties to the Catholic church through its association with St. Norbert College and the diocese, but many of its players and coaches are Catholic themselves. Brett Favre, Santana Dotson, Craig Hentrich, Frank Winters, Mike Prior, Jeff Thomason, Bob Kuberski, Marco Rivera and Mark Chmura are just some of the Catholic players.
In an interview with the Compass last July, Chmura said his faith is a central part of his life on and off the field.
“Everything that happens to me is because of God,” he said. “He has a plan for me. I wouldn’t be here today without him.” Chmura was raised in a “very religious family,” he said. He and his three brothers were altar boys together and he still attends Mass regularly.
Off the field, he puts his faith into action by donating time and money to charities. “A man only needs so much money. I try to help those who are less fortunate,” he said.
In addition to the Catholic players on the Packer team, several members of the coaching staff are also Catholic. Head coach Mike Holmgren, defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur, defensive backs coach Bob Valesente, offensive line coach Tom Lovat and wide receivers coach Gil Haskell are all practicing Catholics.
Haskell said in an interview with the Compass in September that his faith has pulled him through the hard times.
One recent difficulty was the serious head injury Haskell sustained last January during the NFC Championship game in Dallas. Wide receiver Robert Brooks was pushed out of bounds and into Haskell whose head slammed into the artificial turf, fracturing his skull and bruising the front of his brain.
While Haskell cannot remember the accident, he has never forgotten the importance of faith during life’s trials. “Many times, things don’t go the way you hope, and your faith can pull you through,” he said.
Catholics are also found among the Packers’ Board of Directors. Tom Olejniczak, a Green Bay attorney, has been on the board for 11 years.
He’s proud to be associated with a team whose players have been excellent examples to the community. “As role models, they have an extra element because they are so public with their faith,” Olejniczak said.
He says his family is “as Catholic as they come.” Bishop Adam Maida named him a Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, the oldest knighthood in the church. He and his wife, Dawn, belong to Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, De Pere, and his two sons attend Catholic universities.
Olejniczak could also say he’s as much a “Packer Backer” as anyone. His father, Dominic, was president of the organization for 25 years. The younger Olejniczak is the team’s attorney, but has served on the Green Bay Packer Foundation and has been on the board’s employment committee.
Of course, he has been a lifelong fan too. “I guess I grew up with it,” he said.
An additional tie the Packers have with the Catholic church is more personal. Fr. John Blaha, associate pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Green Bay, has been a volunteer member of the Packer equipment staff for 21 years.
“To be a priest, you have to learn how to serve,” Fr. Blaha said. He said he considers the image of Christ washing the Apostles’ feet at the Last Supper as his model of service.
“A few of the guys, including Reggie White, said seeing me cleaning their shoes, chasing footballs and picking up dirty towels has changed their image of priests,” Blaha said. “They understand priests can be servants.”
In addition to helping along the sidelines during the games and in the lockeroom, Blaha celebrates a private Mass for players, coaches and staff about four and half hours before the game. About a dozen players and five or six coaches attend regularly and when they’re on the road some other staff members join them.
The team used to have their hotel arrange to have a priest when they were traveling, but Holmgren changed that routine. “You never knew who you were going to get, or if they would even show up,” Blaha said. When he can’t go with the Packers, Monsignor Mark Schommer, Kaukauna, usually goes along.
If Catholics are scattered among the Packers organization, they also are an enthusiastic segment of the Packers’ fans. At Ss. Peter & Paul Parish, Green Bay, Monsignor Klister encourages his parishoners to don green and gold on Packer Sundays.
A couple of members of the parish also organized a Packer brunch in October to celebrate their early successes and cheer the team onto further victory.
And Catholic school children have caught the Packer spirit and are using that enthusiasm to gather donations for families in need.
Students at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton school, Oshkosh, are collecting non-perishable food, first aid items, household paper products, school supplies, stationery, mittens and scarves, kitchen linens, personal products and even candy to be distributed through local charities.
The school will give all the items to the Christine Ann Center, a home of refuge for abused families and others in need, The Boys and Girls Club, and Father Carr’s, a soup kitchen and homeless shelter.
Kathie McKenzie, a first grade teacher at the school (and coincidentally a sister to the Packer’s team doctor), organized the project. She said the kids’ response was fabulous.
“We’ve had to put extra boxes out to collect the goods. It has been beautiful. They’ve really wrapped their arms around the project,” she said.
The drive began January 13 and will end on the 24th. Each day had a theme, for example “Favre’s Food”, and the requested donations correspond to the theme. On “White’s Woolies” day students brought socks, mittens, scarves and other winter items. Other theme days were “Coach’s Cans,” “Butler’s Bandaids,” “Howard’s Hygienics” and “Chmura’s Chocolate.”
The Pepsi company donated yard markings, a goal post, inflatable footballs and posters to decorate the first floor hallway.
McKenzie said students learned to reach outside themselves. “It’s a wonderful thing the Packers have done,” she said. “They have brought our community together - the fans and kids - to reach out to help others,” she said.
God may or may not be a Packer fan, but that won’t stop Catholics in the area from offering a few prayers for their favorite team on Sunday. And maybe Vince could put a few words in for America’s team.
St. Vince Lombardi, pray for us.