September 6, 2019

‘I know them by name not by fame’

As a Colts’ chaplain, Father Douglas Hunter focuses on players’ lives and their faith

Father Douglas Hunter shares his experiences as a Catholic chaplain for the Indianapolis Colts during the 15th anniversary celebration of Catholic Radio Indy on Aug. 27. (Submitted photo by Brigid Curtis Ayer)

Father Douglas Hunter shares his experiences as a Catholic chaplain for the Indianapolis Colts during the 15th anniversary celebration of Catholic Radio Indy on Aug. 27. (Submitted photo by Brigid Curtis Ayer)

By John Shaughnessy

As the Catholic chaplain for the Indianapolis Colts, Father Douglas Hunter has access to the training facility, the team meetings and the sidelines during games. He’s even there in the locker room when head coach Frank Reich talks to the players, including the times the Colts’ leader has shared this constant message:

“Get 1 percent better every day.”

Father Hunter also stays in contact with Chris Ballard, the Colts’ general manager and a fellow Catholic—a relationship that led Father Hunter to send Ballard a text as the team was making cuts at the end of the preseason.

“I texted Chris to say, ‘Hey, I’m praying for you. I know you’re having to make some tough decisions.’

“Those decisions he makes not only affect the overall team when they trim the roster down from 90 to 53 guys, but it affects the guys themselves, their families and their children, and everyone surrounding them. So we do a lot of praying.”

At the same time, Father Hunter admitted, with a note of humor, “I made a shameful appeal to Chris, ‘Leave the Catholics alone!’ ”

Father Hunter shared those stories as the keynote speaker at the 15th anniversary celebration of Catholic Radio Indy, which broadcasts a variety of programs proclaiming the faith. About 250 people attended the dinner at the Northside Events and Social Club in Indianapolis on August 27, including Archbishop Charles C. Thompson and Bishop Timothy L. Doherty of the Lafayette Diocese. (Related story: Catholic Radio Indy celebrates 15 years of sharing the faith)

Before sharing his experiences as a Colts’ chaplain, the 40-year-old Father Hunter told the audience about the great influence that Catholic Radio Indy had in leading to his ordination as a priest in 2016.

He recalled his previous career in law enforcement, including working for the Marion County Sheriff’s Department.

“I was never all that happy,” said the pastor of St. Roch Parish in Indianapolis. “I said, ‘Lord, what do you want me to do? I can’t keep doing this.’ ”

As he struggled, he went to Mass daily and listened to Catholic Radio where he heard the announcements, “Have you ever thought of a vocation to the priesthood?”

“Then I would hear the vocation stories of the various priests we had around the archdiocese and I thought, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to do that!’ ” Father Hunter told the audience, drawing a round of laughter.

“If it wasn’t for Catholic Radio, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today,” he continued. “Because I kept hearing the voice of the Lord. It was through Catholic Radio I was able to listen to morning prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours, and to the Mass each and every day on my way to work.

“Catholic Radio had a profound impact on my life, and it still does today.”

His choice to become a priest also led to a phone call he never expected.

“About two years ago, I received a call from the now late Father Glenn O’Connor. He said, ‘the Colts are looking for a chaplain, and I think you would be great.’ I said, ‘Me?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you. They need a big guy over there, and you’re the biggest one I found.’ ”

Father Hunter was honored by Father O’Connor’s faith in him and drove to the Colts’ complex for an interview with Ballard, not knowing at the time who Ballard was.

“It was not intimidating at all,” Father Hunter recalled about that meeting. “We talked about faith more than we talked about football. I thought, ‘I like this guy. This might work out.’

“I asked him, ‘What’s the first thing you want me to do?’ He said, ‘I want you to be present. Be present to the guys. It’s going to take about a year for them to get to know who you are. It’s going to take a year for them to trust you. The more you’re present to them, the more they’ll trust you and like you. They’ll bring you in eventually.’ ”

Father Hunter then told the audience that he met with Joe Reitz, a former offensive lineman for the Colts who is also Catholic.

“I said, ‘How can I get to know who the guys are? I don’t want to know about their status in life, their wealth. I’m worried about them, what’s in their heart and their mind.’ He said, ‘Be with them, talk to them and love them.’ I said, ‘I can do that.’

“So I started going to the training facility. I started going to the training camps. I’m there on the sidelines. After talking with Joe and then talking with Chris again, I start finding out who my Catholics are. There’s a few here at Mass. There’s a few more there. And then I start finding out other staff members who are Catholic. And I start inviting each and every single one of them to the liturgy that we have at the hotel [on the evenings before home games.]”

He recalled the time one of the Colts introduced himself, which led to a conversation in which Father Hunter focused on him as a person instead of as a player.

“When others saw that I was talking and sitting with him, then others started coming by and started talking more and more and more. I found the best time to talk to these guys is at lunch time. One, I get a free meal. And two, we can talk.

“Basically, it’s exposing the faith to them but not imposing it upon them. When you do that, you’re not as threatening. We talk at various moments when I’m with them.

“I had one guy showing me how to throw a football. That gives us a chance to talk about the faith. And the more I talked to him, the more I realized this guy is Catholic. He’s also introducing his girlfriend to the faith which is wonderful because they’re talking about marriage within the Catholic Church.”

Father Hunter explained his approach to the players this way: “I know them by name, not by fame or fortune.”

“Approaching them in their humanity,” he told the audience. “I don’t care what kind of car they drive, how much money they make or where they’re from. I’m just treating them as Jesus would treat them.

“A lot of times I’ll find out they’re injured, and I will call them or text them or write them a little note and put it in their mailbox, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about you. I know you are injured. If you need anything, give me a call.’ Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. They just like the fact that you’re there for them.”

He also encourages the players to be there for others, and to share with others their commitment to their faith.

“I try to help them realize, ‘You have a platform that no one else has. You can do so many wonderful things if you want to.’

A lot of these guys are not apt to sharing their faith publicly as many of us think they would. I tell them I see you have 50,000 people plus on social media. You could spread the word, or you could evangelize or show people how you’re a disciple of Christ. They say, ‘Oh, OK.’ They try it, and they do it.”

Father Hunter issued that same challenge to the audience, referring to Reich’s constant challenge to his players, “Get 1 percent better every day.”

“How can you get 1 percent better in your faith?” he asked the audience. “I try to get 1 percent better in my faith each and every single day.”

He then shared another recent challenge he faced in his role as a chaplain to the Colts.

“A couple of weeks ago, I was struggling, and I said, ‘Lord, do you really want me here with them? Lord, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything right now.’ ‘At that moment, one of them said, ‘Father, I need to talk to you for a moment.’ ”

The player wanted to learn more about the Catholic faith and showed an interest in participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program. The player and the chaplain had a long talk as they walked together from the practice field. Their conversation ended with the player thanking Father Hunter for taking the time to talk.

Then at lunch, he talked with another player who told the priest how he just was married, calling it “the greatest thing in the world.” He also shared other personal aspects of his life.

“We never talked football,” Father Hunter said. “When I got to my car, I said, ‘OK, Lord, I see how it is you’re working through me. And I really appreciate that.’

“It’s just being there for them. It’s a ministry of presence, just showing them that Jesus loves them, that someone cares about them, that someone wants to actually know who they are on that personal level.” †

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