In 1999, then-St. John Vianney seminary rector the Rev. Bill Baer proposed a simple game of touch football to help build camaraderie and foster brotherhood among his undergraduate seminarians and the graduate-level seminarians of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity across campus. What started out as a modest bout on the UST baseball field has evolved into a longstanding tradition that rivals such gridiron match-ups as the Tommies versus the Johnnies.
Every fall since, the SPSSOD Sons of Thunder go head to head with the SJV JAXX for the Rectors' Bowl, with only one team returning to its seminary with the coveted Rector’s Trophy.
Former SJV and current SPSSOD seminarian Deacon Marcus Milless, a six-time Rectors' Bowl participant, said the game sets the tone for the year at both seminaries. "We give it our all. Not only for the glory of winning, but for the glory of God," he said.
Having experienced three years with the JAXX, some might believe Milless has had a bit of an advantage as a player for the Sons of Thunder, particularly when it comes to preparation. Practices by both teams leading up to the game are closely guarded – no peeking by either team is allowed. Pre-bowl practices are tough and not without injury. Prior to the 2013 match-up, one SJV player required stitches after sustaining an injury at practice.
Michael Brandell recalls playing for SJV in the '05 Rectors' Bowl. "We unfortunately lost to the Sons of Thunder that day but sometimes the Lord gives us what we need and not what we want," he said, punctuating his comment with a "Go JAXX!" The Sons of Thunder have dominated the rivalry, winning 10 of the first 13 games.
Former SJV seminarian Aldean Hendrickson was at the first game in 1999, before the official title had been coined. Although he didn't recall who came out on top, the winner wasn't the most important memory for him. "I know it was a hard-fought game," he said. "I mostly remember how exciting it was to be watching my friends and neighbors battle it out under the lights."
Rectors Monsignor Aloysius Callaghan and the Rev. Michael Becker will serve as head coaches for the 2013 game, with several seminarians from each side filling the roles of assistant coaches and offensive and defensive coordinators. Rosters are printed up ahead of time, but just like the practices, are not allowed to fall into the hands of the opponent until game time.
Over the years, the rivalry has attracted a number of VIP guests. On some occasions, Archbishop John C. Nienstedt has been on hand to offer a blessing prior to the game. In 2007, Moses himself was spotted on the SPSSOD sidelines. A large cardboard cutout of Jesus typically makes an appearance among the SJV fans. Priests from both seminaries line the sidelines in support of their respective teams.
The University of St. Thomas football team has become a perennial presence at the bowl now that it is played under the bright lights of O'Shaughnessy Stadium. Tommie players serve as referees and offer up cheers of "Pride" and "Passion" to the seminarians. SJV Seminary Administrator Susan Barnett said the seminaries are grateful for the generosity of the university. "We get to use the stadium, the lights, the scoreboard and the sound system," she said. "It's become such a spectacle that we even attracted people who were just walking by on Cretin Avenue."
Many of the seminarians' friends and family members attend the game, which has taken place during UST's Family Weekend since 2011. Cheryl Jagla Brown is the mother of a current seminarian who will be playing safety for the JAXX. "We're so excited to see him this weekend and to see all the festivities," she said.
Rectors' Bowl attendees have come to expect some of the amenities typically found at football games, including pep bands from either side and concessions. "I love the big plays and the raucous pep band, but most of all the hot apple cider," said SPSSOD seminarian Deacon Grant Gerlach.
It seems that Baer's original intent of fostering camaraderie continues to be fulfilled after 14 years but perhaps it also has done much more. "The Rectors' Bowl shows that even though these men are priests in training, they are also regular college guys as well," Barnett said. "It's a great brotherhood."