Record-setting Greg Zuerlein places heaven above the Super Bowl.
Last year in the playoffs, placekicker Greg Zuerlein was unable to help the Los Angeles Rams advance out of their wild card game due to injury. This year he has helped his team mightily, making three field goals against the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round and four against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game. The last two of those four field goals were a 48-yarder to send the game to overtime and a game-winning 57-yarder in overtime, the longest in NFL playoff history.
Now the Rams are set to battle the New England Patriots Sunday in Super Bowl LIII, also their opponent the last time the team (then based in St. Louis) made the Super Bowl in 2002. While Zuerlein is very happy to be part of the success of this year’s team, he has an ever-growing sense of how much more important being a faithful follower of Christ is. Football will one day be a memory, but his spiritual identity will remain, and with it, the only goal that really matters: getting to heaven.
Zuerlein, 31, spoke of the sole goal of a Christian in this interview, as the Super Bowl in Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium approached.
You made two huge kicks against the Saints in the NFC Championship Game. Were you nervous beforehand?
Last year we made the playoffs, but I was injured, so didn’t get to play against the Falcons. Because of the lack pf playoff experience, I was nervous going into our game against the Cowboys this year in the divisional round. Yet once I started kicking in warmups, I wasn’t really nervous at all, and the same thing happened against the Saints.
The Saints’ game was very competitive, and things came together just when we needed them to. We don’t practice generically, but specifically, so all kinds of scenarios are run through long before the game, especially ones that involve time running out, quick transitions and so forth. Thankfully, our preparation paid off.
Everyone I’ve talked to who has played in the Super Bowl says the game itself is just another day of football and that the real challenge is all the noise around the game. Do you think the team is ready for that challenge?
I think so. Last week we were all very relaxed and just treating the Patriots’ game as another among many. This week we will be subjected to all kinds of extra things that other games don’t have surrounding them, but the bottom line is, the next game is just like all the other games we’ve played. The field and goal posts still have the same dimensions, the rules and regulations are still the same, and we’ve been preparing accordingly.
Do you think one reason you’re not as nervous as you expected is being a father of four young children?
Without a doubt. Little children prepare you, even better than specific practice situations, for anything that might happen. There’s always something going on with the children, so my mind is occupied with their concerns rather than work worries. Plus, my children don’t care at all what I do at work. They are completely oblivious to that and are just happy to see me when I come home.
Kellen Clemens recently mentioned getting a Christmas card from you and how you now have the same number of children.
Yes, we both had the most recent additions to our family come last year, so we’re both at four children. That’s considered a huge family by some people, but the whole point of getting married is to raise good children — first giving them natural life and then giving them supernatural life in the Church. Children are supposed to be valued highly, but not in the sense of being a scarce luxury. The default setting for a family is to have children, so it shouldn’t be considered odd when children come about.
In our last interview you mentioned Jason Evert’s book about John Paul II. Have you read any good Catholic books recently?
Usually I dabble in many books at a time, reading a little from one and a little from another, but I finished Four Witnesses by Rod Bennett in two or three days. It’s about what Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons learned from the apostles. It indicates how Catholic the early Church was, since things like the importance of bishops and the unity of believers are written of.
The writings of the first leaders of the Church after the apostles are good things to point out to Protestant friends who tend to see history as having a 1,500-year gap between the apostles and the origin of Protestantism. The Church was Catholic from the beginning; we’ve always been a family in faith, led by bishops and priests who can trace their holy orders back to the apostles, who themselves were ordained by Christ. Apostolic succession means the continuation of the life of Christ in the world.
Sola scriptura, or the belief that the only rule of faith a Christian needs is the Bible, was not found in the second generation of Christians, or even in the first. It would have been impossible to follow back then anyhow, since it took many, many decades for the New Testament to be written and then collected into a set canon by the Church. Even once that was done, sola scriptura would have required universal literacy and printed Bibles for everyone.
It sounds like you enjoy the subject of apologetics.
It’s a subject that has gotten more popular in recent years, not only so we can explain things to non-Catholic friends, but also to Catholic ones.
I know someone who said he doesn’t go to Mass because of Pope Francis. There seems to be a lack of understanding that infallibility is a limited gift. We can disagree with what a pope says in a press conference; what we are called to believe in is what the Church has passed down to us through the generations. Even if today’s leaders don’t teach this clearly, it remains what it is, and we are still supposed to believe it and live it — especially at Sunday Mass.
It is unfortunate when Catholicism is not taught clearly, because then people can get really confused about the most basic things, even things that aren’t specifically Catholic. Abortion is sometimes presented as one issue among many or even overlooked, but you don’t even have to belong to the Church to know that killing babies is wrong and that it is more important than other issues.
That’s what is good about apologetics: You can talk with people of all faiths, not referring to things that only Catholics would care about, like encyclicals, but to facts of history, biology and other topics. Those are accessible to human reason, regardless of whether someone is currently Catholic or not.
Do you think a major reason some people are not practicing Catholics is that they see Catholicism as merely a religion of rules rather than a religion of love that also has rules?
Some people see it as an either-or situation, as if you could love and then not be bound by any obligations. The opposite is true: The more you love, the more you willingly submit to obligations. They aren’t even seen as obligations by someone who loves, since the concern is showing love for the other person.
Maybe if people knew how much they were loved, they would love more in return. Thinking of the extensive sufferings Christ went through specifically for the good of our souls is really helpful. He suffered so intensely in the Garden of Gethsemane that he sweated blood. Then he was betrayed by someone close to him, publicly lied about, abandoned by almost all his followers, mocked, tortured and murdered.
That was all freely done so that we would be able to rise up from sin and become heirs to heaven. It helps us to see that being required to go to Mass on Sunday is not an arbitrary notion, but designed to draw us closer to the Source of holiness. It’s a matter of transforming us from sinners into saints.
Do you think your upbringing was foundational for you being a practicing Catholic now?
I am so fortunate to have parents who take the Catholic faith seriously. In our family, it was made clear that certain things are required of us in order to get to heaven. The Church is there in so many ways for us to achieve that goal, so it is a matter of whether we want to cooperate with the grace available through the sacramental and devotional life of the Church. It’s all centered on Christ and radiates out through Mary, Joseph, the apostles, angels and so forth. I learned that growing up, but it’s becoming even clearer now.
I enjoy playing football but also know that it will come to an end one day. The older I get, the more I see that it is not who I am, but what I do for a job.
The most important goal of a single Catholic man is to get his soul to heaven, but the most important goal of a married Catholic man expands to getting not only his own soul to heaven, but also those of his wife and children. It’s almost as if, as a result of the love that you share, you have one soul as a family.