MIAMI | It is not his “dream job” — that would be the priesthood, says Father Manny Alvarez. But “this other gig does come in a close second,” added the Twitter and Facebook-posting sports fanatic.
Earlier this year, Father Alvarez, ordained in 2001, was asked to be the team chaplain for the Miami Dolphins. He had started last season celebrating Mass at the team hotel the night before home games. This year, at the request of new Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin, Father Alvarez is on the sidelines for every game, home and away.
The native Miamian, who also roots for the Hurricanes, Marlins and Heat, was parochial vicar at St. Gregory the Great in Plantation until Nov. 5, when he was named administrator of Our Lady of Divine Providence in Sweetwater.
Coach Philbin came from the Green Bay Packers, who have had a Catholic chaplain on the sidelines since the days of the great Vince Lombardi. Father Alvarez now is on hand at every game, not only to celebrate Mass but to pray with coaches, players and staff, encouraging their spiritual life and safety. After the game, both teams meet at the 50-yard line, where Father Alvarez leads a prayer of thanksgiving.
Before he accepted the role, he consulted with St. Gregory’s pastor, Father Michael “Happy” Hoyer. “I told him of course he needed to be there for them,” said Father Hoyer said. “They want him there and he would be bringing the Catholic perspective and presence to the Dolphins. As far as the schedule, we’ll work around that.”
Then, Father Alvarez wanted the blessing of Archbishop Thomas Wenski, which also was forthcoming. “With Father Manny standing on the sidelines, the team knows that someone is praying for them,” the archbishop said, “and the fans are reminded that they can still make the late Sunday evening Mass.”
When Father Alvarez began traveling with the team on road games, he began to wonder how he could minister to a professional football team.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE MIAMI DOLPHINS
Father Manny Alvarez stands on the sidelines before the start of the Dolphins game against the New York Jets Oct. 28, holding an aqua and orange rosary made by a St. Gregory parishioner.
“On my first road trip, I felt a bit out of place and I asked a lot of questions of where I needed to be and what I needed to do beyond the celebration of the team Mass,” he said. “I still didn’t know where I was going to watch the game until I was told: ‘Coach wants you on the bench.’ I respect Coach Philbin a great deal because as a man of deep faith he knows from experience the impact a priest can have on those around him. I slowly started to recognize why he wanted me around.”
Father Alvarez spends quiet time with the players in the locker room; he prays with them and participates in the prayer led by Coach Philbin before each game.
“As the preseason went on, more players and staff reached out to me, more people were attending Mass, and during our second home preseason game, even one of the fans was touched by my presence on the sidelines,” Father Alvarez recalled.
He said he was walking out of the tunnel after halftime when he stopped to reach up and say hello to two parishioners from his first parish, St. Agnes in Key Biscayne. While talking to them, a very thin man came to the railing. He struggled to be heard over the noise of the stadium, and he asked Father Alvarez if he could say a prayer of healing over him and bless him, as he was terminal.
“I smiled and nodded and extended my right hand toward him and began to pray for his healing,” Father Alvarez said. “When I was done, I blessed him and all of a sudden this man that at first looked to be in so much pain looked like he was filled with an overwhelming peace as he smiled down at me. All I was doing was standing there wearing my black collar and representing my Lord and carrying his presence in my heart. All of us are called to do the same. We must take Christ with us wherever we go. We may not have won the football game that night, but as a team, we definitely won a soul for God.”
Coach Philbin said he believes it is important to have a priest and a minister on the sidelines and traveling with the team. “There is a personal and professional level in every business,” he explained. “We provide the opportunity for spirituality to the players, staff and coaches; they are not forced. There is a place and time for it. Besides, I talk to my 82-year old mother every week, and she always asks me if I am still going to church. With Father Alvarez on our team, of course I can say yes!”
As a result of Father Manny Alvarez’s “moonlighting” as Dolphins chaplain, an actual “prayer army” has developed for the team, with a great deal of that attributable to Joe Zarranz, a parishioner at St. Gregory since 1988. Zarranz learned the art of making rosary beads from a nun from South Bend, Ind., while he was on pilgrimage at Medjugorje, Yugoslavia.
“I have been making rosary beads for over 20 years,” said Zarranz. “I serve as an altar server and lector at the home team Masses. I got to see the great character of Coach Philbin. He is so personable.”
Zarranz became inspired to make special rosaries in the team colors, orange and aqua.
“I feel God has smiled on the Dolphins with our new coach who is turning the team around, mentally, spiritually and through his great example of the man he is,” Zarranz said. “Wherever the prayer warriors are, the morning of the Dolphins’ game, we all say a personal rosary for the players that God keeps them safe and sound.”
Over 100 rosaries have been distributed to coaches, players and parishioners at St. Gregory. “I started using the Dolphins’ rosary beads at the Oakland game on September 16,” Father Alvarez said. “The Dolphins started winning games.”
Father Alvarez has missed the last two Sunday games due to parish obligations - saying goodbye to the community of St. Gregory and introducing himself to the community of Divine Providence - and the Dolphins have lost both games. As Archbishop Wenski put it: "Coincidental or providential?"
Anyone interested in becoming a prayer warrior and receiving a Dolphins rosary, should email JoeNarranz@att.net.