Scottsdale priest cares for NFL players’ spiritual well-being

Spiritan Father Phil Evanstock, pictured here Dec. 10 at Notre Dame Preparatory, is a big football fan. He’s on Saints’ sidelines, in Arizona Cardinals’ seats and behind the altar offering Masses for visiting NFL teams. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Spiritan Father Phil Evanstock, pictured here Dec. 10 at Notre Dame Preparatory, is a big football fan. He’s on Saints’ sidelines, in Arizona Cardinals’ seats and behind the altar offering Masses for visiting NFL teams. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

SCOTTSDALE — Spiritan Father Phil Evanstock is a man of many titles. He’s a calculus teacher, math club moderator and faithful Notre Dame Saints football fan.

His team loyalty doesn’t solely lie with the Scottsdale high school team though. It extends to professional football players who visit the Valley to play against the Arizona Cardinals.

This marks at least his fifth season offering vigil Masses for National Football League players, coaches and other team staff who are Catholic and might find it difficult to attend Mass at a dedicated church on game day. Fr. Evanstock essentially brings the church to their hotel conference room.

That means regular visits to the Ritz Carlton and one hotel in downtown Phoenix. Fr. Evanstock brings his Mass kit, which contains the chalice, communion hosts, chasuble, wine and other liturgical essentials.

The coach, player or other team staff member serves as lector. He recalled one time when Matt Ryan, quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, shared the readings. The priest described him as a very strong Catholic, but somewhat quiet. Teammate Sean Renfree, a Notre Dame alum, usually attends too.

Fr. Evanstock has developed a rapport with some of the teams. He said it’s convenient for them to have the same priest return each year. Up to 15 people attend the Mass with religious services for other denominations often going on next door. Homilies often tie in morality, football and sports.

“You have a chance to meet players, coaches and owners who have a strong faith in what they believe in,” Fr. Evanstock said.
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He found a Mass that he offered for the Seattle Seahawks one Wednesday at noon particularly inspirational. Their game was the following evening and the priest reminded them that the liturgy did not fulfill their Sunday obligation. He asked why they requested a Mass.

“We feel that recognizing our faith is just a very natural part of our life, just like football,” team members told him.

Massgoers might even hear an invocation, “Our Lady of Victories, pray for us,” toward the end of the liturgy like Fr. Evanstock says at Masses for Notre Dame’s football team before every game.

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‘Bemis Bowl’ comes home to Notre Dame Prep

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When the San Francisco 49ers come to Arizona, like they will Dec. 28, the brief pre- and post-Mass fellowship goes a bit deeper. It focuses on Scot Bemis, a former Notre Dame coach who lost his battle with cancer nearly three years ago leaving behind a family including two who were under the age of 6 at the time.

“Ever since then, they always ask, ‘How is the Bemis family doing?’” Fr. Evanstock said.

Coach Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers, particularly remembers Bemis. He once coached for Stanford University and met Notre Dame’s coach while recruiting a player for the team.