As the football team explodes into the action of a scrimmage play, the joyful voice of Rev. Alvaro Ribeiro, S.J., can be heard across the field.
“It’s just like an organized chaos,” Ribeiro, unofficial chaplain to the football team, says in his authoritative but friendly chuckle.
Ribeiro has served as the team’s unofficial chaplain throughout his entire career at Georgetown. He has seen just about everything – a change of head coaches, a rise from Division III to the Patriot League in Division I-AA, and more Georgetown football than almost anyone else on campus outside of the actual team.
Though there are those who might regard football with the fervor of religious faith, Ribeiro’s perspective was more one of detached respect when in 1992 he first came to Georgetown. At the time, he did not have his eyes set on being involved with the team. He barely even knew what a first down was, having been born and raised in Hong Kong.
Ribeiro had his first encounter with Georgetown football in one of his first freshman English classes. Marcus Tewksbury (MSB ’96), one of his students and a football player, begged the class to come support Georgetown football at its first home game, complaining of the neglect that the team had suffered in the shadow of Georgetown’s men’s basketball. Not one to leave a prayer unanswered, Ribeiro was only too happy to stop by the team’s practice on the Friday before the game. It was there that he was pounced upon by then-Head Coach Scotty Glacken, who had been searching for 22 years for a Jesuit to act as chaplain to the team. “Without success!” Ribeiro remembers, laughing.
When Glacken discovered that Ribeiro was the newest Jesuit on campus, he invited Ribeiro to meet the team the next day. If there was a rapport, he told Ribeiro, he had the job. This was not a job offer, as Ribeiro remembers it – it was an order.
Perhaps Glacken was exploiting the eager rookie, but as Ribeiro says, “I was the freshman Jesuit faculty member.” Exploitation by senior members of the faculty was hardly avoidable.
That was 14 years ago. Now Ribeiro is one of Georgetown football’s biggest supporters. He chats casually with the players as he moves among them on the sidelines during practice, discussing the previous game, sympathizing with the injured and admiring on-target passes.
“It’s been wonderful for me personally,” says the “Football Padre,” as Ribeiro calls himself half-jokingly. “It counterbalances too much intellectualism as a Padre-professor.”
The duties of team chaplain may be entirely unofficial, but Ribeiro fulfills them with enthusiasm and gusto, and the team has often responded with heartfelt loyalty. During a year as a visiting professor at St. Joseph’s University, an arrangement was made for a different chaplain to act as a substitute – “Padre 2,”as Ribeiro calls him. But the team made it clear that when Ribeiro came back to Georgetown, he was back in the position of chaplain. Once again, he really did not have a choice in the matter.
It isn’t surprising that a close relationship has developed between the Padre and the team. Ribeiro says he has taken great pride in the players throughout his tenure, and he is only too happy at games to, as he puts it, “do my little magic of hexing the opposition.”
Sometimes, this hexing has a spectacular degree of success linked to what the Padre playfully calls a “particular brand of sportsman’s theology.”
There was the time, for example, that Ribeiro was approached by one of the players – a “giant,” Ribeiro called him – with the dire complaint that, for the last two games, the Father had ended his team prayer with the “Our Father,” and the team had lost both games. The player suggested the “Hail Mary” for the next game, and Ribeiro took the advice.
The team won.
But success is not a permanent feature of the Padre’s work. At one game against Fordham, Ribeiro took a halftime walk with Fordham’s football chaplain in order to pass the time. The two discovered through casual conversation that they were using an identical prayer for the team before each game. They were amazed at this coincidence. Fordham, though, won the game.
But win or lose, the Padre says he is having a lot of fun.
“Every year is more exciting than the past,” Ribeiro says.
He is particularly pleased with the team’s membership in the Patriot League, which allows the Hoyas to play against peers including Jesuit schools like Fordham and Holy Cross as well as the occasional Ivy League school.
The team has come a long way since its days in Division III, but has not once forsaken the idea of the “scholar-athlete.” According to Ribeiro, the football players are rarely so obsessed with the game that they ignore their studies. One of Ribeiro’s favorite sights is a football helmet resting solemnly on a bench next to a thick volume of Plato. For this and for much else, Ribeiro credits Head Coach Bob Benson, who is starting his 13th year with the team.
And Benson sees Ribeiro as a great instrument of support for the team.
“He has always been the Jesuit on campus associated with Georgetown football,” Benson recalls. “That’s the way it was when I met him.”
It seems that that is the way it will be for some time. This is Ribeiro’s 14th year as chaplain to the football team, and he says that he will be sticking with it for the foreseeable future – as long as they’ll have him, Ribeiro jokingly adds.
In his christening of the new Multi-Sports Facility on Saturday before the game, Ribeiro declared before God and a packed stadium his feelings for the game and for sports.
“God has given us our physical powers in order that we may serve him joyously,” he said in prayer, offering that, through football and other competitive sports, we “may find the enrichment of companionship.”
Ribeiro has found this enrichment in the football program and, through his role as a symbol of faith, his unwavering support, and his love of the players and the game, he has provided a similar enrichment to the many students he has touched – both on and off the field.