Pair of former U-M football stars find new ministry speaking to Catholic men about holiness

Former University of Michigan quarterback Elvis Grbac, left, throws a pass for the Wolverines in this early 1990s file photo, while former Wolverines offensive guard Chris Godfrey, right, chases down a quarterback for the University of Wisconsin during a game in 1979. Today, both Grbac and Godfrey are Catholic husbands, fathers and motivational speakers. (Photos courtesy of University of Michigan Athletic Department via Legatus)

Michigan alumni Chris Godfrey and Elvis Grbac share Rose Bowl and Super Bowl past, and are now Catholic inspirational speakers

ANN ARBOR — Despite playing in different decades, Chris Godfrey and Elvis Grbac share a lot in common. Godfrey, an offensive guard, went to three Rose Bowls in the late 1970s with the University of Michigan Wolverines, while Grbac, a quarterback, went to three Rose Bowls with Michigan in the early '90s. Godfrey later won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants in 1986, and Grbac won a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers in 1994.

These similarities are striking enough, but there are more important ones. Both Godfrey and Grbac are practicing Catholic husbands and fathers who engage in public speaking for their faith. Godfrey specializes in presentations on virtuous, pro-life living for young people, while Grbac specializes in men’s ministry.

Automatic connection

Because of the role that athletics plays in the lives of men in general and young people in particular, Godfrey and Grbac have been well-received by audiences.  

“Sports provide an automatic connection for men — to the point that no other introduction is needed,” Godfrey explained. “If someone knows you won a Super Bowl, they’re likely to listen to what you have to say about things that have no relation to football at all.”

Grbac has found the same to be true in his life.

“Every man would love to be able to play a sport professionally,” Grbac said. “Those paid to play are admired and thought to have valuable things to say. It’s up to us to actually have a message that is worth listening to.” 

After his playing days ended in 1988, Godfrey earned a law degree from the University of Notre Dame. An unexpected proponent for this course of action was none other than Mother Teresa. The “Saint of the Gutters” encouraged Godfrey to pursue holiness through law. This pursuit was made easier for him by professors such as the late Charles Rice, known for his defense of the natural law in books such as 50 Questions on the Natural Law: What Is It and Why Do We Need It?

Godfrey: ‘God is key to happiness’

“I loved the work Professor Rice did,” Godfrey explained. “The fact that we can know, from reason alone, that certain things are right, while others are wrong, is a fascinating and liberating thing. I loved studying the works of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Augustine, and others on morality. Anyone willing to learn about what makes for a good life and genuine happiness can certainly do so.”

Godfrey, a father of six, still lives in South Bend and is the founder of Life Athletes, a pro-life organization whose mission is to inspire young people to live virtuously. He teaches that the key to happiness is good relationships — beginning with God. Once that all-important one is properly established, every other relationship can fall into its proper place.

Despite his numerous projects with Life Athletes, Godfrey relies on his work as an estate planner to pay to the bills. 

“At Godfrey Law Offices,” he explained, “we offer a unique planning process that ensures that our clients’ plans work as they expect them to work, which means smoothly and with their instructions being followed by the family.”

Godfrey advises a local “successful aging group” and recently became the vice president of the South Bend chapter of the Thomas More Society. His influence reaches both the young and old, and even people in between. 

“The 'sandwich generation' to which I belong has both young and old for which to care — along with the ongoing task of managing our own affairs. This is a tall order, but it is also an opportunity to grow in holiness. Our office helps by providing appropriate professional assistance nationwide,” Godfrey said.

Faith journey led to diaconate

Grbac has reached many people as well, and only expects that influence to expand as he nears his diaconal ordination for the Diocese of Cleveland. The former quarterback experienced a lot of success while playing for Michigan and continued that success in the NFL. After winning the Super Bowl in his second season with the 49ers, he went to the Pro Bowl while playing for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Despite never completely abandoning his Catholic faith during his playing career, Grbac did see the need to make a deeper commitment to his baptismal promises. 

“I was like many young people who, when they first venture out in the world, start to think maybe some of the Commandments are just suggestions,” Grbac said. “Temptations abound, especially for athletes, and I did fall prey to some of them.”

Part of Grbac’s message to men is that sin is about self and the short term, while virtue is about God and the long term. While sin often wears an appearance of happiness despite containing misery, virtue often has the opposite configuration. A big part of becoming virtuous is getting past appearances and seeing things for what they really are in light of death, judgment, hell and heaven.

So enamored of heaven is Grbac that he has become keenly aware, in his preparatory studies for the diaconate, of the soul’s process of becoming one with God. There are many terms for this, such as “deification,” “theosis,” or “divinization” (quite distinct from the sin of divination). This process is summarized in 2 Peter 1:3-4, when the first pope wrote of God desiring man to “become partakers of the divine nature.”

Grbac: ‘We borrow every bit of goodness from God’

“I love to talk about, not just conversion from sin, but the process of becoming one with God through the sacraments, prayer, and virtuous actions,” Grbac said. “We are made sons and daughters of God through baptism, and the divine transformation is supposed to continue throughout our lives. 

“There’s no such thing as goodness apart from God; we have to ‘borrow’ every bit from Him, and, in the ultimate analysis, He will only be pleased with what comes from Him. Our physical appearance, career achievements or social status will do us no good at judgment. The only thing that will matter is how well we have lived out God’s plan for us.”

The youngest of Grbac’s three children — his only daughter — is set to start at Northwestern University in the fall, so he will have more time to travel the country to speak at men’s conferences, Knights of Columbus councils, Legatus chapters and more. He wants audiences to know that “despite any failure or success in this world, we are made to spend eternity with God forever. Super Bowl victory or not, every Catholic can be victorious where it really matters.”

Trent Beattie is a Legatus magazine contributing writer. Reprinted from the August 2018 issue of Legatus Magazine, by permission.