Buffalo Bills chaplain seeks to draw players, coaches to God - Catholic Courier

Buffalo Bills chaplain seeks to draw players, coaches to God

Each summer, the Buffalo Bills travel east down the New York State Thruway for the team’s annual training camp at St. John Fisher University. For two weeks, local media is saturated with reviews of players’ performances on the field, their interactions with fans in the stands and their favorite turkey-burger meals in the dining hall.

Not all of the team’s activities attract media attention, however. Each Sunday of training camp, Basilian Father Kevin Mannara and Deacon Jonathan Schott offer an early morning Mass for Catholic players and coaches before practice.

“This is a real joy for us to be able to help players, coaches and staff practice the faith and attend holy Mass,” remarked Deacon Schott, assistant director of campus ministry.

The team also uses the Pittsford university’s ministry center for team Bible studies with the Bills’ team chaplain, Len Vanden Bos.

“Our relationship with their chaplain is year-round,” noted Father Mannara, director of campus ministry.

Buffalo Bills have a full-time chaplain, a rarity in the NFL

Now in his seventh season as the Buffalo Bills’ team chaplain, Vanden Bos is a rare breed in the NFL.

“There are only a couple of teams that have a full-time chaplain like myself that works for the organization. There are only two or three out of the 32 teams,” Vanden Bos told the Catholic Courier.

While an Orchard Park-based Catholic priest frequently leads Saturday-evening Masses for the Catholics on the team, Vanden Bos — a nondenominational Christian — is entrusted with the task of providing pastoral care for the team on a daily basis. This is no small task, as there are 53 players on the roster, 16 more on the practice squad and more than 20 people on the coaching staff, he said.

Each of those 100 or so people is at a different place in his or her faith journey, Vanden Bos added. Some have a close relationship with God, others have no previous experience with faith but are interested, and many fall somewhere in between, he noted.

“You have to meet them where they’re at,” he said.

Vanden Bos said his ministry is challenging, yet at the same, time it’s his dream job. He coached college football teams for several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and he continued to coach part time even after he turned his professional attention to ministry. He served as a part-time chaplain for the Chicago Bears from 2013-14 and for the Baltimore Ravens in 2016.

In 2017, Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott hired him to take on the newly created position of full-time team chaplain. This role allows Vanden Bos to utilize skills he honed in his previous careers, he said, noting that he doesn’t coach the players but can relate to them.

“I stay in my lane, but I understand the world they’re in. Being able to marry those two worlds has given me an advantage to meeting them where they are,” he said.

Team chaplain helps football players, coaches enrich their spiritual lives

Vanden Bos strives to meet people where they are by offering different ways for them to enrich their spiritual lives. During a chapel service the night before each game, he will present a 25-minute talk about a particular theme or Scripture passage. All are welcome, and usually 35 or 40 people attend, Vanden Bos said.

Several weekly Bible-study groups are offered for those who would like to delve deeper into the theme explored during the chapel service, he said. Vanden Bos leads separate groups for players and coaches while his wife, Charlene, leads a group for players’ and coaches’ significant others. Bills wide receiver Trent Sherfield and his wife, Marcella, host a weekly couples’ Bible study in their home.

Vanden Bos also frequently meets with individual players to discuss anything that may be troubling them, whether it be related to their performance on the field or concerns in their private lives. Sherfield, for example, meets weekly with Vanden Bos and has shared some of the struggles he’s faced as a player, a husband and a father.

“He’s always there to read Scripture to me, to give me a different point of view than what I might be looking at it with,” said Sherfield, noting that faith has been an important part of his life since childhood.

Investing in players’ spirituality pays dividends on and off the field, leaders believe

Sherfield came to the Buffalo Bills from the Miami Dolphins in March 2023 and said he’s happy to have landed on a team that prioritizes its players spiritual well-being.

“Me being here has been nothing short of God sending me here,” said Sherfield.

Bills players often tell Vanden Bos they have felt “cared for” since joining the team, and this type of environment has been cultivated intentionally by McDermott and the team’s owners, Terry and Kim Pegula, the chaplain said.

“We believe that if a player is loved and cared for and feels like they’re known, … they’re in a better mind space. We think that translates to being freed up,” Vanden Bos explained. “We all carry burdens. When other people can help you carry your burden, you’re being freed up so you can get out and do the job you’re paid to do.”

Although the team’s leaders believe that investing in the spiritual health of its players pays dividends on the field, that’s not the only reason they’ve committed to having a full-time chaplain on staff, Vanden Bos said.

“(McDermott and the Pegulas) believe that this is more important than just making money and winning games. We want to make this as transformational as possible and help people become the best versions of themselves,” he said.

Tags: Faith in Action, Sports
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