By Dave Hrbacek
ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) — A seminarian with a powerful conversion story is leading the University of St. Thomas football team to the Division III national championship game Dec. 18.
Three years ago, Jordan Roberts was enjoying life as a star running back for the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.
But in October 2012, his girlfriend of seven years broke up with him. Less than 24 hours later, his best friend committed suicide.
His fragile faith seemed woefully insufficient for this double whammy, like a quarterback trying to escape an all-out blitz.
“Those two things combined was probably the greatest pain that I’ve ever experienced as a human being. I was just screaming, I broke a bunch of stuff. It was bad, it was really bad,” Roberts, 22, told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “I really had nowhere to turn. I hit rock bottom, and I looked for answers.”
Before long, he decided to turn to God. The decision eventually led him 300 miles east to the University of St. Thomas and St. John Vianney College Seminary, where he enrolled last spring.
He has become a standout running back for the Tommies, who are 14-0 this season and headed to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl Dec. 18 in Salem, Virginia. The Tommies will face perennial power Mount Union, which defeated St. Thomas in the title game in 2012 and is making its 11th straight trip to the national championship game.
“The national championship is our goal, but we are completely focused on the process — the daily process — and doing all the little things right,” said Roberts, a junior studying philosophy and health promotion.
For Roberts, the “little things” include an active, daily prayer life, plus an intentional practice of the Catholic faith. He grew up in Wyoming attending a variety of nondenominational churches, then was introduced to Catholicism by his high school football coach.
He said he did not become interested in learning more until after the events in 2012.
“That’s where my faith conversion really exploded,” he said. “I got involved at a local Newman Center that was right by the dorm that I was living in. And, I got plugged into a FOCUS Bible study — Fellowship of Catholic University Students. And I met some great men there that were really key in my walk with God. They taught me a lot and they got me out of the hole that I was in.”
In January 2013, he went to Florida for a FOCUS conference that he said was the spark for his Catholic faith. He enrolled in classes for Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and joined the church in October 2013.
Eventually, he started thinking about the priesthood and how to discern the call. He learned that men from Sioux Falls would go to St. John Vianney, so he planned a visit there last fall. He said he “absolutely fell in love with the place” and “prayed the entire way back to South Dakota.”
He made quick work of the lengthy application — taking just three days to fill it out — and was quickly accepted. It did not take long for him to make a positive impression on Father Michael Becker, seminary rector.
“What you find with Jordan is a deep gratitude to God for the opportunity to be in seminary,” Father Becker said. He noted that having Roberts at St. John Vianney has created a bond between the football team and the seminarians, some of whom wear costumes to the games, calling themselves Caruso’s Crew, after head coach Glenn Caruso. They chant special cheers throughout the game, especially when Roberts bursts for a big gain or scores a touchdown.
Caruso called seeing Roberts carry the ball “an absolute joy.”
“Holy buckets, I love watching him run,” he said.
Roberts has rushed for 1,957 yards this season and scored 32 touchdowns, averaging 139.8 yards per game. But when Caruso describes Roberts and what he means to the football team, he spends more time talking about his faith and character than about his numbers.
“He’s the type of kid that if someday your daughter came to the doorstep with a guy like Jordan Roberts, you’d be the happiest parents in the world,” Caruso said. “He balances all of those things that are most important in life, and he doesn’t spend much time worrying about those things that are not very important. And, in a day and an age all the more devoted to style over substance, I find that entirely refreshing.”
That’s why Caruso agreed to give Roberts Sundays off to spend time with fellow seminarians, even though it’s a busy day of football preparation that involves watching film of the previous game and preparing for the next opponent.
Roberts prays before and during every game and is bold about sharing his faith with teammates. He said they all have shown nothing but respect for him.
At the moment, Roberts is pondering and trying to discern two distinct possibilities — life as a priest and life as a player in the National Football League. The latter dream stretches back to the fifth grade, while the other is a recent development.
“There’s very few people that I respect more than priests, and I love the vocation of the priesthood,” he said. “Right now, I’m discerning if that’s for me. It’s a process. I don’t really have an answer right now, but hopefully I will at some point.”