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As always, the violence was followed by prayer.
Last Saturday afternoon Ben Kessler played the final game of his standout career as a defensive tackle at Division III University of St. Thomas. That evening he attended mass at a parish in St. Paul, not far from campus. In the past the 6'2", 250-pound Kessler always prayed for the opponents he had just mauled on the field. This time, though, his thoughts turned inward. "My Number 1 feeling was thankfulness for having had the chance to serve God's purpose these last four years," said Kessler, hours after making four tackles in the Tommies' 48-14 loss to archrival St. John's College. "There was also a sense of relief that now I can fully concentrate on the next step."
That would be the priesthood, not the NFL. Upon graduating next spring, Kessler will head to Vatican City to study at the Pontifical North American College, an honor reserved for only the most accomplished seminarians. Kessler is believed to be only the second man in the last 20 years to have played college football while studying in the seminary. His two worlds collided every morning at 6 a.m., when he would perform an hour of silent prayer at the St. John Vianney college seminary. "I reflected on many things during that time, and certainly football was one of them," he says. "That might sound strange to some people, but what happens on the field has a profound effect on me."
In turn he used football to become an instrument of something larger than himself. "With every tackle Ben changed perceptions of the seminary, and brought men closer to it," says Father Bill Baer, the rector-president of St. John Vianney. "The stereotype of the seminarian has always been someone who is small, weak, withdrawn, socially awkward. Ben has become a charismatic symbol of a new breed of man who is coming back to the church. He's a big guy, with a big presence. Frankly, with all the church has been through in recent years, he's the kind of man we need representing us."
Kessler is not a locker-room preacher, but his life is so exemplary that his teammates can't help but be inspired. On the field, he was second-team all-conference the last two years. Off it, he was an academic All-America in 2004, and he carries a 4.0 GPA in his double major of philosophy and business. Oh, and he does regular volunteer work at two nursing homes and a soup kitchen and is president of the college chapter of the Knights of Columbus.
"Just by who he is and what he stands for, Ben has had a profound effect on the team," says Tommies senior tight end Billy Schreiber. "He's made it O.K. for us to have discussions of faith. At our preseason camp we would have 30 guys talking late into the night, and it wasn't about girls. It wasn't necessarily about organized religion either. It might have been about politics, or hypothetical questions of morality, or some of the big issues of the day. It's Ben who has made those conversations possible."
Kessler welcomes debate because he does not profess to have all the answers. He says he had his fun in high school in Janesville, Wis., where he was a football star and senior class president who had no trouble attracting girls. Though he chose to stop dating at the end of his senior year of high school when metaphysical stirrings led him to St. Thomas, he says, "I still question every day if the priesthood is the right path for me." He often thinks about what it would be like to have a wife and kids, and what business opportunities might be awaiting him, but he will dutifully go to Rome next year. "I have an obligation to so many people to follow this to the end," he says.
But as he makes his journey to the priesthood, Kessler will remain a defensive tackle at heart. "I've been told that at the Vatican there's a regular soccer game between the seminary students and the Swiss Guard," he says. "Those are the guys who protect the Pope. They're big boys, and from what I hear, they like to play rough. I have to say, I'm really looking forward to that."
D-III Playoff Picks
With the 32-team Division III football playoffs set to begin this Saturday, here's a rundown, courtesy of Pat Coleman, the editor of D3football.com, of each region's best hope to reach the national semifinals on Dec. 10. The championship will be decided on Dec. 17 in Salem, Va., at the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.