Fr. Eric Rodrigues, a priest in the Toronto archdiocese, will be saying Mass for the Buffalo Bills for the second year running as the Bills take over the Rogers Centre Dec. 16. Photo by Evan Boudreau

When the Bills come to play, priest helps them pray

  • December 16, 2012

TORONTO - The Buffalo Bills have been coming to play at Toronto’s Rogers Centre for the past five years, and each year the archdiocese of Toronto has done its part to make the players feel at home.

The archdiocese annually provides a priest for the team’s pre-game Mass ritual. Fr. Eric Rodrigues is celebrating the Mass this year, the second year running he’s been called upon.

The Bills’ partnership with the archdiocese of Toronto began in 2008 when the team played its first regular season game in Toronto as part of the Bills in Toronto series that has seen the National Football League team take over the Rogers Centre for five regular season home games and a pair of pre-season games. Fr. Joe Gorman, former quarterback for the York Lions, celebrated the Bills’ first pre-game Mass and has been the team’s Toronto contact ever since.

“They contacted the archdiocese and the archdiocese sent them my way and now every year they just call me,” said Gorman, who selected Rodrigues as his alternate. “Eric has a great sense of faith and why not share his faith and bring it to the Buffalo Bills. Eric is as level headed as they’re going to come. He’s not going to get too high or too low on any person that is in front of him.”
To Rodrigues, the Bills he will celebrate Sunday Mass with Dec. 16 are Catholics first, celebrities second.

“I’ll do my best, because they are professional athletes, just to let them know that I see them first as Catholics going to Mass,” said Rodrigues.

“I don’t see them as these superstars, I see them as these people with souls just like everyone else. I don’t want to put them on a pedestal.”

At 10 a.m., just hours before the Bills are to play the Seattle Seahawks, Catholic players, staff and coaches are to gather and pray, likely in a conference room at their hotel. That’s where it’s happened in the past and that’s how the players like it, simple, said Rodrigues.

“I don’t want to keep them too long because I know, not first hand, that NFL football is very intense. Game day is very intense,” said Rodrigues. “They’re not going to want a 30-minute homily. They’re going to want a simple Mass because they are playing the game later that day.”

Having said Mass for the Bills last year before their first Toronto series victory against the Washington Redskins, Rodrigues can attest to what kind of Mass they need.

“I tried to tailor my homily a little bit to what I thought might be appropriate,” Rodrigues said. “I didn’t want to be too explicit about a sports, football homily but at the same time I just wanted to make sure that it was relevant to what they need.”

While Rodrigues did pray for the safety and ability to play well for both teams before the Mass was over, he abstained from using the words win, victory or success.

“I didn’t want to appear like a cheerleader priest,” he said. “It wouldn’t have been authentic and I’m sure they would have sensed it.”

Buffalo Bills’ long snapper Garrison Sanborn is thankful for this.

“We don’t really pray for victory,” said Sanborn. “Mainly we pray for injuries, that both teams stay healthy. We pray for our families that have travelled and that are at home while we are on the road.”

For Sanborn, Sunday afternoon football wouldn’t be the same without a morning Mass. It’s been that way for all his games since high school.

“It’s always been done. Part of it is tradition, everything around NFL, college and high school, it goes on tradition,” he said. “(But) the main thing is, I don’t go to Mass strictly because of football. I go to Mass and for me it helps me know that there is more to life than just the game.”

Sanborn said it’s a religious connection many of his teammates have but most fans never see.

“Most people, I would think, think that we aren’t religious and we don’t take our faith that serious, but it’s great that it’s not overlooked when you get to this level,” he said. “People in the NFL and people in our line of work find faith way more frequently and search for it more than the general population. Part of me doesn’t know why that is and the other part of me knows that our line of work is very stressful and you’re constantly really trying to be everything that you can be and you take every avenue.”

Since joining the Bills in 2009, Sanborn said the team has always had about 15 to 20 Catholics attending pre-game Mass, with more taking in the interfaith prayer services arranged for every Sunday game.

While all Toronto sporting eyes will be on the Bills, Rodrigues says it’s just another day on the job for him.

“We get a lot of experience and practice celebrating Mass for different groups, different situations, different feasts. Not to downplay this one but in a sense this is just one more,” he said. “I try to see them first and foremost as Catholics going to Mass on Sunday.”

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