On a recent weekday afternoon at the Hill-Murray football practice field in Maplewood, it was a little tough distinguishing the head coach from the players.
On one play, junior quarterback Zach LaValle sat out while another quarterback took his place. Lavelle’s replacement took the snap, retreated into the pocket and lofted a perfect spiral downfield 40 yards, just a few feet past the sprinting wide receiver.
It’s understandable that this QB might not be adjusted to the speed of high school receivers. After all, for eight seasons, he was throwing the ball to pro football wideouts.
His name is Brooks Bollinger, who played in the NFL for six seasons (two with the Vikings) and, at age 33, has the youthful appearance of those he is coaching. He joined the Pioneers last spring after he retired from the game. However, at least one player believes Bollinger still has the desire to ply his trade in an NFL uniform.
“You can see him suffering withdrawal,” said senior offensive tackle Dave Simmet. “You can tell he wants to be on the field just as much as every other kid [on the team]. He always says practice is his favorite time of day.”
More than football
It certainly was on this day. Right after throwing the long pass, he lined up as a wide receiver on the left side. At the snap, he circled behind LaValle, took a handoff and ran a reverse around the right side. Of course, he sprinted to the end zone untouched. Who would want to tackle their own coach?
Make no mistake. The players see their coach’s energy on the practice field and it’s getting contagious to the tune of a 5-1 record and hopes of getting to the state tournament this year. But, there’s more
to Bollinger than football passion and Xs and Os.
He has hopes for his players beyond just wins. He wants their souls.
To that end, Bollinger started the practice this year of having weekly Mass on the day before a game.
The celebrant is Father James Lannan, himself a former high school football player at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights who also attends games and walks the sidelines with the head coach. Father Lannan has been assigned to the school as chaplain, with Archbishop John Nienstedt pushing ahead with his plan to have priests serving as chaplains at Catholic high schools in the archdiocese.
Though attendance is voluntary, most of the players go to the Masses, including LaValle and Simmet, both of whom will have a lot to do with the team’s success this season.
“He’s a great guy,” LaValle said of Bollinger. “From a religious standpoint, I think it’s really cool that we have team Masses. He brings us all together with the Mass. It’s team bonding. I’ve never had that on a team before.”
Father Lannan has offered the concept to other varsity coaches, with a couple of takers, but perhaps none more enthusiastic than Bollinger. Yet, in his mind, Bollinger merely is engaging in the life of a Catholic school, which is what drew him to Hill-Murray in the first place.
“An important component of becoming a high school coach was coaching at a Catholic school,” Bollinger said. “A big part of my job is helping these guys not only become better football players, but helping their development as young men.”
One way he has done this — with Father Lannan’s help — is to teach his players to show respect on the field, both to opposing players and, more important, to officials. He has taught them to address referees as “Sir.” After an initial adjustment, the players now are following the example of both their coach and their chaplain.
“It’s kind of interesting having a priest on the sidelines,” Simmet said. “Football is a passionate game. It’s mean. Just having the presence of [Father Lannan] on the sidelines makes us think before our actions and be more respectful.
“We had a lot of personal fouls in the first game. We’ve been working hard to cut back on those. That’s something Father Lannan addressed and we worked on.”
A gentle reminder of the right way to act comes right before every game, when the team huddles around Bollinger to pray the Hail Mary. After that, they implore her for victory.
Under Bollinger’s guidance, LaValle is able to do far more than just throw the Hail Mary pass. He has the benefit of learning the position from someone who played it professionally for eight seasons. (In addition to the NFL, Bollinger also played two years in the UFL.)
“With Coach Bollinger being a quarterback, it’s very helpful for me,” LaValle said. “He has just made me such a better quarterback. I’m very grateful. And, not just a better quarterback, but a better person.”
This is exactly what both the coach and the chaplain are hoping for. Fostering the spiritual life of the players is one of the aims of the weekly Masses. And, the growing numbers inside the school chapel are proof that it’s working.
“I think it’s building momentum,” Father Lannan said of the weekly team liturgies. “More parents are coming to the Masses because they want to be there with the kids. . . . We even had middle-schoolers show up at the last Mass, and there were a ton of parents there. It’s not a full chapel yet, but I’m hoping.”
Also admiring the change in the team’s routine is school president Susan Paul, who offered the coaching position to Bollinger after he impressed her during his interview.
“I asked him to pretend I’m the mom of a 10th-grader who is never going to be a superstar,” she said. “And, I just asked him what kind of experience my son would get. The answers were exactly what I think the mom of a 10th-grader would want to hear — that he would be respected, challenged, pushed. He’d know what it meant to be part of a team, something greater.”