Retired NFL quarterback Elvis Grbac coaches high school boys while helping men embrace their faith

General Published on : 1/19/2020

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Coach Elvis Grbac didn’t bother trying to contain his anger.

His high school football team had just won a game against a conference rival last fall, and the Villa Angela-St. Joseph (VASJ) players were loud and exuberant. Grbac put an immediate end to the post-game euphoria. Celebrating was the last thing on his mind.

“I’m so pissed right now,” said Grbac, staring daggers at his young charges who fell suddenly silent and confused.

“I’m pissed because one of your teammates is not here to enjoy this victory. Do you know where he is?” he asked his players, not bothering to wait for an answer.

“He’s at home and not enjoying this win because some of you decided that it was ok to bully a teammate for no reason other than the fact that you could. That’s not acceptable. I don’t care how much we win if we don’t win like winners,” Grbac recounted last week about his seething post-game speech.

The distraught player Grbac spoke of had been taken home by his mother shortly before kickoff. The young man’s emotions had overcome him. That’s when Grbac said he learned that the player was being routinely bullied by some of his teammates. That’s when he decided that the issue would be addressed as soon as the game ended.

The lesson instantly rooted. The coach’s message of sportsmanship, empathy, and teamwork had taken precedent over the thrill of a win. That evening, players began calling their teammate to apologize. Others made it a point to express their remorse in person.

This is a good example of the value-based coaching that Grbac, 49, brings to VASJ, from where he graduated in 1998. A budding theologian armed with an NFL quarterback pedigree from a nine-year NFL career, Grbac said the opportunity to coach and to mentor at his Cleveland alma mater is an opportunity to give back to his Catholic faith, as well as enhance his spiritual journey and that of others.

When Grbac was hired in the spring of 2019 to be the school’s athletic director and varsity football coach, he suspected that his life purpose rested somewhere in the intersection of sports and spiritual faith. But, he was more interested in being a religion teacher than a coach.

Bill Cervenik, VASJ’s president and former of mayor Euclid, told me he was surprised when he heard from Gerbac last spring: “When Elvis reached out to me, he told me that he was interested in joining our theology department. I told him I appreciated his interest, but I was really more interested in him coaching my football team,” said Cervenik.

“We were able to find a compromise. We gave him three hats. In addition to directing our athletic department and coaching football, he is also the director of our Marianist Urban Students Program (MUSP), which allows him to be directly involved in the lives of students who have high potential but come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds,” said Cervenik.

The VASJ homecoming appears to be working out well for both Grbac and his alma mater. Nearly two dozen students involved in the MUSP program meet with Grbac on most school days, when Grbac opens his office for the students to eat their lunch or to talk about anything on their minds. Common themes are schoolwork, home life and relationships. Grbac doesn’t make it a point to push spiritual or religious themes but he’s happy to engage the topics if a student raises them.

“I just try and meet them in the place where they’re coming from. I notice that many of them are hungry for meaningful conversations. However, I have to listen very closely in order to understand where they are coming from mentally, physically, and spiritually,” Grbac said.

“The opportunity to work here is a blessing. It gives me the opportunity to see directly how hungry young students are for stability and role models,” he added.

Grbac, who hopes to soon complete his seminarian studies at Saint Mary Seminary and Center for Pastoral Leadership in Wickliffe, is emerging as a nationally sought-after speaker for men’s religious retreats and gatherings focused on faith and spiritual healing. The message for the adults is tailored differently than for the adolescents.

“Most of the men I meet with around the country think they have a pretty good idea of who I am. They know about the (University of Michigan) Rose Bowls, my nine years in the NFL, and the Super Bowl ring. What they don’t know is that I didn’t really learn how to emphasize my faith until after I had retired.”

“I share with them that I realized belatedly that I wish that I would have had Christ and my faith as the center of everything during my professional playing career. It may not have necessarily changed outcomes, but it would have changed my outlook and perspective on what is truly important and meaningful. I tell men that they should never deemphasize their faith even as they tend to and grow their families and careers,” said Grbac.

VASJ’s football team finished the season 6-4 last year and narrowly missed the playoffs. With a ton of upper-classmen returning next year, Grbac said he is optimistic about what the future holds for the squad, which hasn’t enjoyed a winning tradition in quite some time.

More importantly, Grbac said he is excited to help teach and model values to young people in the same school that helped shape his remarkable and evolving life journey.