As “The League” begins its centennial season….

George Weigel

By the Gargantuan standards of the 21st-century National Football League, Gino Marchetti, who died this past April 29, was undersized at 6-foot-4 and a mere 245 pounds. But he was arguably the greatest pass rusher in pro football history. The official record, 22 and a half quarterback “sacks” over sixteen games, was recorded by Michael Strahan in 2001. But a review of a year’s game film by Baltimore Colts’ coaches, before the “sack” stat (tackling a quarterback behind the line of scrimmage before he could throw a pass) was officially kept, once disclosed 43 sacks by Gino in a twelve-game season.

Whatever the record books show, however, Gino Marchetti was a big man in several ways.

His parents were impoverished Italian immigrants who set up a bar in Antioch, California. By his own account, Gino, born in 1926, was “a little wild.” And after a “certain difficulty” with a high school teacher, he made the prudential judgment that enlisting in the Army was preferable to what awaited him at home: “I figured I could either face the Germans or I could face my father.” He made it to Europe in time to fight in the endgame of the Battle of the Bulge and stayed with the 69th Infantry Division until V-E Day.

This XL-size vet with the flowing, jet-back hair then hung around Antioch for a while, riding a Harley in a black leather jacket (“seventeen zippers,” he later recalled) and working as a bartender while playing some junior college football. A smart recruiter then asked whether he wanted to play at the University of San Francisco (then both Catholic and Jesuit), and a legend was born.

The 1951 San Francisco Dons were a great team in an era when college football easily bested the NFL in fan interest. Ten of those Dons went on to pro careers and three are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They were unbeaten and untied, but more to the point, they were “uninvited” to a big post-season bowl — not because of a lack of talent but because of an excess of character, much of it embodied by Gino Marchetti.

Three of the big bowls — Orange, Cotton, and Gator — wanted the Dons, but on condition that they leave their two star black players, Ollie Matson and Burt Toler, back in San Francisco. After their last regular-season game, Coach Joe Kuharik told the team, “We can play in a big Southern bowl game or stay home. It’s up to you.” Marchetti, according to legend, said, “[Expletive deleted] the big Southern bowl games.”

Gino later claimed that all he had said was “No,” and that every other white player on the team said the same thing. I prefer the legendary version because it nicely delineates the man’s character: morally unambiguous, brave, and loyal, a “man for others” in the parlance of a later generation of universities in the Jesuit tradition. Those same qualities made Gino one of the two centerpieces, along with the immortal John Unitas, of the great Baltimore Colts teams of the late 1950s and early 1960s. That, on December 28, 1958, in frozen Yankee Stadium, the Colts beat the New York Giants in the first sudden-death championship game in NFL history, thereby embedding the NFL in the nation’s sporting consciousness, is well-enough remembered. What’s not so well-remembered, except among Baltimore natives of a certain vintage, is that Gino Marchetti was the reason there was a sudden-death overtime.

Late in the fourth quarter, the Giants were leading when Frank Gifford ran a third-down sweep. Marchetti fought off blockers and stopped Gifford inches short of the first down that would have clinched the game for the New Yorkers. In the pile-up, though, Colts’ tackle “Big Daddy” Lipscomb landed on Gino’s leg and Marchetti’s ankle snapped. “I never hurt so bad in my life,” Gino told a reporter. But the Colts’ captain insisted on staying on the field’s periphery, lying on a stretcher under a blanket, as his team tied the game. Asked years later if he’d cried from the pain, he said, “I would have, except I was Gino Marchetti.”

Those Colts, like baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers, experienced their racial tensions. Yet like the Dodgers, they also modeled teamwork based on the content of a man’s character, not his complexion. How did that happen in a segregated city in an era of segregation? What held them together, Hall of Fame halfback Lenny Moore said years later, was “something inside Gino Marchetti.”

R.I.P., Number 89.

COMING UP: In praise of today’s seminarians

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If you’re feeling a bit down about the future of Catholicism in the United States, ask yourself these questions: Why haven’t American seminaries emptied over the past 16 months, as Crisis 2.0 continues to roil the U.S. Church and an aggressive media regularly puts Catholicism in the worst possible public light? Why haven’t the McCarrick affair, the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the Bransfield affair, and other revelations of episcopal misgovernance (and worse) caused a mass exodus of young men from priestly formation? Can you name another profession, regularly subjected to media ridicule and popular caricature, to which young men are applying in greater numbers than 20 years ago?

I’ve been in and around seminaries and seminarians for 54 years now. I knew seminaries and seminarians during the Really Bad Patch of the post-conciliar years. And I have watched with admiration as seminary formators — not unlike the relatively junior officers who reformed the U.S. military after the debacle of Vietnam — have taken a set of severe problems in hand and put a venerable institution, essential to the Catholic future, on a much more solid foundation. Is there more to be done, in refining recruitment of students for the priesthood and reforming American seminaries? Undoubtedly (and a few suggestions will follow below). But a great deal has in fact been accomplished in the last 15 years, and it’s important that the people of the Church know it.

Last month, I had the pleasure of working with two seminarians in the 28th annual meeting of the seminar on Catholic social doctrine I am privileged to lead in Cracow. Like other future priests who have been part of the program over the past quarter-century, these men were impressive: intellectually alert and engaged; deeply pious without being cloyingly sentimental; able to interact with (and offer a real witness to) fellow-students in a multinational context of Catholic men and women; much more mature than I remember seminarians being four decades ago. If there has been a winnowing of candidates for the priesthood since Crisis 1.0 in 2002, and if that sifting has continued in the wake of Crisis 2.0, then what has remained, and what is coming through the pipeline, is very good news indeed.

I am not so naïve or romantic as to believe that the seminarians with whom I’ve worked in recent years are men immune to personal challenges: not least from a toxic culture that constantly tells them that their commitment to celibate love is at best a delusion and at worst pathological. What impresses me about the seminarians I interact with today is that they fully recognize those challenges and are facing them through an intensified life of prayer, fraternal solidarity, and a deeper commitment to the truths of Catholic faith. Other Catholics may deny that Crisis 1.0 and Crisis 2.0 are, at bottom, crises of fidelity, exacerbated by doctrinal and moral dissent. These guys know that’s the case; they live what they know; and they want to spend their lives helping others live the beauty of love as described by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 and modeled by Christ in Ephesians 5:1-2.

So what needs further fixing in 21st-century seminaries? Theology must be taught so that an immersion in this intellectual discipline produces pastors capable of inviting others into friendship with the Lord Jesus — and knowing what that friendship means. Biblical studies must focus on biblical theology far more than textual dissection, so that future homilists know how to invite their congregants to “see” the world through a Scriptural lens. Lay professionals should be further incorporated into priestly formation and seminarian evaluation — especially orthodox, joyful Catholic women (including wives and mothers) who may be able to spot problems, and help young men address them, that more traditional formators may miss. Bishops must invest more personal time with their seminarians (as they should invest more time with their priests), inviting them into a fraternity of mutual support — and, if necessary, correction.

The seminarians I work with know that, in seeking the priesthood of the Catholic Church under 21st-century cultural and political circumstances, they’re taking a great risk, including the risk of martyrdom (which comes in many forms). Their happy embrace of, and their determination to prepare well for a life of risk is perhaps the most impressive thing about them. They deserve our thanks, our support, and our solidarity in prayer.