This past Saturday, eight former NFL players were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. Those eight players were Tony Boselli, Cliff Branch, LeRoy Butler, Art McNally, Sam Mills, Richard Seymour, Dick Vermeil, and Bryant Young.
Last week, just fifteen minutes from Canton, Brooke Taylor welcomed former NFL quarterback Elvis Grbac onto Trending with Timmerie to talk about perseverance in football and faith, and what steps he’s taken to make it to the halls of heaven.
Grbac played nine seasons in the NFL, the first four of which were as a backup for Steve Young on the 49ers. He won a Super Bowl with them in 1994. From 1997-2000, Grbac played starting quarterback for the Chiefs, leading them to the playoffs two times, claiming one division title, and earning Pro Bowl status in 2000. He played his final season for the Baltimore Ravens in 2001, before retiring to become the head football coach at his old high school.
Grbac was born into a Roman Catholic household, the son of Croatian immigrants. Growing up, they were not financially wealthy, and though life was not easy, his parents knew a lot about exemplifying virtue and faith rather than explaining it. His father worked several jobs to support the family, including being a construction worker and carpenter, waking up at 5 or 6 in the morning, and not returning until 9 at night. That work ethic rubbed off on Elvis and it propelled him into athletics, namely basketball and football.
Getting to attend Michigan for football was not in the plan for Elvis. In fact, he hadn’t even considered it as a possibility because he didn’t start playing until high school. But funnily enough, the Michigan coach Bo Schembechler had come to recruit his now Hall of Fame, Heisman Trophy-winning teammate Desmond Howard. When he saw the tape of Grbac, he had to have him too.
Howard and Grbac were a force on the field at Michigan, though Grbac will insist that Howard did most of the work as the tailback. They went on to take the Wolverines to four Rose Bowls and one Gator Bowl. After each season, Grbac said he would take a couple of weeks off but then it was right back to training and prepping for the next season. That work ethic came directly from his father, he said. Head Coach Bo used to say, “You’re either getting better or worse every single day.” Complacency is planning for failure and hard work is training for success.
Though Grbac never stopped training for football, his career began to overshadow his interior life. Coach Bo’s motto about getting better or worse doesn’t only apply to sports. It applies to our relationship with God. Every day that we spend away from Our Lord is a day that our relationship gets worse. Friendships are ever-changing and if they’re not growing, they’re decaying.
But even though Grbac didn’t recognize it at the time, God was with him every step of the way throughout his career. He was there during the Rose Bowls, the Super Bowl in ’94, the Playoffs on the Chiefs, the Division title, and the Pro Bowl. When Grbac finally had the presence of mind to recognize that God was necessary to guide him through the dark and difficult phases of his life, he took a very non-traditional turn after his career in professional sports.
While a talented ballplayer, Grbac also went to Michigan for academics, studying communications and business. So, after he retired from football, Grbac combined his pursuit of knowledge and his desire for God’s life by seeking out a spiritual director, introducing spiritual norms into his life, and now attending the Saint Mary Seminary where he is working toward a Master’s in Theology. In addition to coaching football at Villa Angela-St. Joseph, his alma mater, he is the director of the Marianist Urban Students Program and a mentor to the young men he coaches.
Grbac sees in these players a bit of himself: young athletes, exposed to the faith but naïve, ignorant of the way the world will treat them. He sees it as his job to reinforce the lessons and messages that they receive at home and in school so that they can grow up to be the strong husbands and fathers that this world so desperately needs.
At many of his speaking engagements, Grbac recalls a statistic shared with him by Scott Hahn years ago:
“Take a family of five: mom and dad, couple of kids. If one of the kids is very active in their faith, about 10-15% of the rest of the family will follow. If the mother’s really active in the faith, then it jumps up to about 25% of the rest of the family. If the husband, the father, is active in his faith, it is close to 90% of the rest of the family is active in their faith.”
As a man in today’s complex and confusing society, the formula has become quite clear: Focus on your faith, your family, and your work, in that order.
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