DE PERE — The first time Norbertine Fr. Andrew Ciferni witnessed the St. Norbert College football players walking hand-in-hand across campus, he was struck with emotion.
As part of a new home pregame tradition, the players make their way to Old St. Joseph Church to celebrate Mass following position meetings and breakfast.
“When they come out of Michels Commons, they come out two-by-two,” explained Fr. Ciferni, director of the Center for Norbertine Studies, who celebrates the team Mass on home game Saturdays.
“The first time we did it was on a beautiful day in September. … They disappeared behind Main Hall and then came around four-by-four. I almost started crying seeing these young men walking together as one,” he said.
The new tradition is the initiative of first-year head coach Steve Opgenorth, a Green Bay native who formerly coached at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
“St. Norbert is the only Norbertine college in the world and it’s one that people identify with that Catholic base, such as Notre Dame or Holy Cross,” said Opgenorth. “I had a discussion with Tim Bald, our athletic director, and built a relationship with Fr. Ciferni. The wheels kept in motion. I met with Fr. Andrew and Fr. Jay Fostner (vice president for mission and student affairs) to ask them for their thoughts. They gave me their backing and it became a reality.”
All team members participate. The captains lead the walk with the head coach. A number of players on the roster are not Catholic. Opgenorth explained to the team that the walk and Mass are about more than faith, it is about family.
“It’s something we can do within a traditional setting that not too many programs can do in the country,” said Opgenorth. “It’s a special piece of St. Norbert. I’ve seen it done at Notre Dame. The feedback I’ve received has been very positive. Pride builds. You get goose bumps on that walk, especially on a great fall day with the leaves falling down. You walk in Old St. Joe’s and that place is as impressive as they come.”
Fr. Ciferni describes Opgenorth, a Missouri Synod Lutheran, as having a “great sense of ritual.”
“I believe in the mission of the college,” said Opgenorth. “My mission is to build a football program, character, leadership, communio people. That’s what spawned my ambitions to get us over to Mass.
“It’s my opportunity to be one with our team,” he added, “for our full group of guys to understand what’s to come, but also to take that moment to reflect how special it is to be together to play this game.”
Fr. Ciferni met with the team in advance of the first home game. He wanted to make sure that the players didn’t have any ideas that celebrating Mass guaranteed a win or that God is on their side over their opponent.
“I explained that we do this to focus and center ourselves on the word of God,” he said. “We pray that no one will be injured, that we will play well, that we will be proud of ourselves and the school. I’m a liturgist by training. I have a game plan as well as they have a game plan.”
Time allotted for Mass is 30 minutes, so Fr. Ciferni needed to recruit at least eight ministers. He thought that he may have to knock on doors, but within 24 hours, eight players had stepped forward, all graduates of Catholic high schools.
Freshman defensive lineman Stuart Kwaterski is an altar server and extraordinary minister of holy Communion at the team Mass.
“An email was sent out asking if anyone wanted to participate,” said Kwaterski, who played linebacker at Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay. “It was second nature to me and I really wanted to get involved. Being a freshman, I was a little hesitant, but I’m glad I did it.”
Pregame Mass gives Kwaterski a sense of comfort.
“We had Mass before every game at Notre Dame, so it made it feel even more like home,” he said. “It’s like a little calm before the storm type of thing. It allows you to reflect on the day and say thank you to guys next to you. It’s a bonding thing.”
Fr. Ciferni gears his homily for that day on the theme of the week.
“I’m just taking something from the reading that applies to them,” he said. “It’s straight forward Roman rite. I prepare a handout for them. It’s wonderful seeing them show their faith in prayer.”
“I’ve felt that the readings have been spot on,” said senior captain Matt Daniels, who transitioned from quarterback to safety this season. (Fr. Ciferni) makes you reflect about how special it is to be able to play with the guys we have around us. He does a great job helping us to appreciate how we get to go out and play a game we love on Saturday.”
Twenty-three members of the 1974 team joined this year’s squad for Mass on Oct. 25, prior to the Green Knights 29-14 victory over Beloit College.
“There were guys, 60 years old, with tears in their eyes because they had a reflective moment of their experience as a student athlete and they could see what we are trying to build,” said Opgenorth.
“We had an opportunity to listen to a couple of the guys talk,” said Daniels, a graduate of St. Mary Central High School in Neenah. “They talked about how hard and tough it was and how they loved being together. It makes you realize how great we have it here.”
Family members and alumni joined the team for Mass on homecoming. The Green Knights (5-4) close the season on Nov. 15 at Cornell College. The walk and Mass will continue next season, said Opgenorth.
“What other moment and opportunity do you get 120 young men together to worship in Old St. Joe’s as an athletic team?” he said. “For that half an hour our focus is on our faith, our mission, and reflection. I’m proud to add a piece to what we do here at St. Norbert College with our football program.”