Zuerlein’s Faith in the NFL

Greg ZuerleinGreg Zuerlein Doesn’t Let Record-Setting Rookie Season Go to His Head

In 2012, his first professional season, kicker Greg Zuerlein quickly became known for his ability to nail long-distance field goals. Against the Chicago Bears in the third week of the season, the former soccer player made a 56-yard field goal, the longest ever at Soldier Field. The next week against the Seattle Seahawks, he hit a 58-yarder and a 60-yarder, franchise records for the Rams.

Far from letting this success go to his head, the Lincoln, Nebraska native actually sees playing in the NFL as a humbling situation. Because professional football is a competitive business, Zuerlein has no illusions of a permanent place on the roster being held for him. While he knows that football won’t last, he also knows his Catholic faith will.

Zuerlein grew up in a thoroughly Catholic atmosphere, attending daily Mass and going to Confession on a regular basis. The stability this brought to his family is something he wants to continue when he has children of his own.

Did you always want to play for the Rams, one of the closest NFL teams to Lincoln, Nebraska?

As odd as it might sound now, I never thought of playing in the NFL while growing up. When I was very young, soccer was actually my favorite sport to play. I have many fond memories of soccer, such as learning from my dad and my brother (who is ten years older than I am). They helped to lay the solid foundation for what I would do later as a kicker in football.

As I got older and started to play football in Lincoln, my focus was on playing for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers. That was the dream of every boy in the area. The Cornhuskers have had an amazing record of success, particularly under Tom Osborne, who was head coach from 1973 to 1997. The impressive win-loss records of his teams really get your attention, but beyond them, I really value how dignified, composed, and intelligent Coach Osborne was.

Why didn’t you end up playing for the Cornhuskers?

When I was in high school, the Cornhuskers wanted me to be a walk-on. However, I was offered a scholarship for the Mavericks at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a smaller school.

My parents made it clear at the time that it was up to me to find the funds for college. While I really wanted to play for the Cornhuskers, I thought of all the student loans I would have to pay back after graduation. It was a tough decision, but I ended up playing for the Mavericks in Omaha.

The decision was based heavily on economics, but it ended up being the best thing overall. One reason why is because of the individual kicking instruction I received from specialized coaches. A lot of times this doesn’t happen at larger schools because they tend to expect you to pretty much have all the skills down on your own. They just want you to fill a role by going out and playing.

You set a Maverick record for consecutive PATs (points-after-touchdown) at 61, but then had trouble with injuries. Was that a time your faith got you through?

That was the toughest time of my life. I was very dedicated to football, and really enjoyed playing in college. However, I seriously injured my right quadriceps and hip, which took me out of what would have been my senior season (2010). Instead of capping off a memorable career, I was on the sideline with a medical redshirt season.

I prayed more than usual during this time, and one of the key things that happened for me was a desire to live in accord with the will of God. While I certainly wouldn’t have chosen to be injured, I realized that God can have different plans than mine, and that He always knows best.

If God wanted me to be injured for a long time and maybe even not play football again, then I was going to do my best to accept that. If He wanted me to recover quickly, then I would certainly work with that, too. His will is our sanctification, so I put my life in His hands in a more profound way than I’d ever done before.

As it turned out, I was able to recover very well and get back into kicking. However, the Mavericks’ football program was eliminated in March of 2011, so I transferred to Missouri Western State University to play for their team in the fall of 2011. I ended up with many more opportunities to kick than I had previously, which was very beneficial for getting a chance to play in the NFL.

Is it difficult to maintain a Christ-centered mindset in the NFL?

Not really. Sometimes people think the high-level of play can go to your head, but I think it can actually be a humbling situation. The phrase that keeps me from getting carried away is: I will only be tolerated as long as it takes for the team to find my replacement. This helps me not to take myself seriously and keep things directed toward Heaven rather than earth.

Do you have a patron saint?

My special patrons are St. Sebastian, St. Christopher, and my guardian angel. St. Sebastian is known for his patronage of athletes, so it’s easy to see why I’d ask for his help. St. Christopher is known for his patronage of travelers, so I ask for his assistance on the road. I rely on my guardian angel throughout the day, but in a special way on the field.

It’s awesome to have friends-in-faith who are in the direct presence of God. Having holy friends here below is helpful, of course, but there’s something special about an angel or saint who can’t do anything against God’s will. Even if your prayer intention is off, they know how to set it right and help to bring about things which are conducive to your salvation.

Did you grow up in a devout family?

I did. At St. Joseph Catholic [Elementary] School I would go to Mass every day during the week, often with my mother and three sisters, and then we would go to Mass on Sundays and other holy days of obligation as a family. We’d also go to Confession regularly, so we were taking in a ton of grace on a regular basis. Our lives were centered on Jesus in the Mass and other Sacraments, so there was a great stability present in the family.

Growing up, I thought everyone lived the same way we did. I even had that mindset at Lincoln [Saint] Pius X High School. I was so surrounded by a Catholic atmosphere that I wasn’t aware of anything different. However, that changed when I went to college. Then I saw that not everyone had the benefit of living a sacramental life, which made me appreciate what I’d been given all the more. You just can’t replace a loving, structure way of life for a child.

In addition to the sacramental life, what do you appreciate most about the Church?

The consistency of the Catholic faith is one of the things I appreciate most. To have the same teachings over 2,000 years is an incredible thing. A strictly human institution wouldn’t have been able to last that long as a cohesive entity. On a human level, divisions are inevitable, so it was necessary that the Church be protected by the Holy Spirit from officially teaching error.

The certainty of faith we have as Catholics is a beautiful thing.  We’re not left guessing or feeling the need to make things up on our own. We have a reliable Church to count on, so that brings about a real peace of mind. That’s what I happily grew up with in Lincoln.

In my opinion, the diocese of Lincoln is the best in the country. We’ve had great some bishops who have strengthened their flock through faithfulness to the teachings of the Church. They don’t make things up as they go along, but order things according to the mind of the Church.

While many dioceses have had a shortage of priests, the diocese of Lincoln has had no such trouble. We pray regularly for vocations, which is what we’re instructed to do at the end of Matthew, chapter 9. We also rely on the intercession of Mary, which is described in the context of the Wedding Feast at Cana in John, chapter 2.

Speaking of weddings, you were just married, right?

Yes, I was just married to my longtime girlfriend Megan on April 27. We’re very happy and looking forward to starting a family. We want to give our kids the same Catholic atmosphere we were blessed to be given, so the most logical place to do that is right in Lincoln.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Catholic Digest and is reprinted here with kind permission. 


In addition to assembling Finding True Happiness, Trent Beattie is the author of Scruples and Sainthood and the editor for Saint Alphonsus Liguori for Every Day. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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