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Priest is UW football team chaplain for 40 years Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Mary C. Uhler, Catholic Herald Staff   
Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017 -- 12:00 AM
Msgr. Mike Burke with football team
Wisconsin Badger football Head Coach Paul Chryst and the team captains gather around Msgr. Michael Burke, better known as Father Mike, at a recent practice at Camp Randall Field in Madison. Father Mike has been the team chaplain for 40 years. Players from left are: tight end Troy Fumagalli, defensive end Alec James, defensive end Conor Sheehy, and safety D’Cota Dixon. The Badgers will play in the Big Ten Championship Game on December 2 in Indianapolis.
(Catholic Herald photo/Mary C. Uhler)

MADISON -- When the Wisconsin Badger football team travels to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game on December 2, they will take with them a perfect 12-0 record.

Accompanying them will be Msgr. Michael Burke -- better known as Father Mike to the coaches and players. He has been the team’s chaplain for 40 years.

Dates back to seminary training camp

He began working with the team when he was on the faculty of Madison’s Holy Name Seminary. The Badgers used the seminary fields and facilities for their summer training camp for many years.

Father Mike was a faculty member, rector, and vocation director during the years from 1977 until the closing of the seminary in 1995.

He remembers the training camps well. “The team was usually at the seminary for over three weeks,” he recalled. “They were locked in and had to stay there the entire time. They certainly got focused, since there were no distractions.”

Team chaplain role

Father Mike believes he was the first team chaplain in the Big Ten Conference. Now, all but three of the schools’ teams have chaplains.

Throughout his years as team chaplain, Father Mike has offered encouragement and support to the coaches and players of all faiths.

He has performed 104 weddings of players and coaches and countless Baptisms. “They still stay connected with me,” he said. “They send lots of pictures.”

He said of his work with the Badgers, “It’s been a wonderful experience.”

The coaches and players agree. At a recent practice at Camp Randall Stadium, coaches and players stopped to greet Father Mike as he stood on the sides. When asked about him, many said, “He’s the greatest.”

Helped many players

Father Mike said he has helped many players over the years. One he mentioned was Al Toon, a wide receiver who played for the Badgers from 1981 to 1984.

In Toon’s freshman year, recalled Father Mike, “He had the worst case of homesickness. I talked with him and told him to hang in there.”

Toon decided to stay and set new school records for receptions, receiving yards, and touchdown catches at the end of his three seasons with the Badgers. He went on to play with the New York Jets from 1985 until 1992. He was selected for the Pro Bowl three times.

Father Mike observed, “Football is very intense. The players have to balance going to school, practicing, and keeping their head straight when they’re 18 years old. Many of them have issues with their families.”

He said current Head Coach Paul Chryst and the assistant coaches let Father Mike know if players have personal problems. “It could be a father who’s in jail or someone in the family has cancer. I can be there to offer support.”

Father Mike said his work with the team is really another parish. “It’s very rewarding,” he said. “They keep me young.”

Coach appreciates priest

Father Mike retired in July as pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Madison, where he served since 1996. Since retirement, Coach Chryst told him, “We’ll keep you busy.”

When asked about Father Mike and his work with players like Al Toon over the years, Coach Chryst said, “That has happened thousands of times. Father Mike really helps our team.”

The priest has even been asked to meet with prospective players and their families. One recent example is freshman wide receiver Danny Davis, who is from Springfield, Ohio. Father Mike met with him and his family, who are active Catholics, and thinks he helped seal the deal for Davis to play for the Badgers.

Prays with players

Father Mike prays with players of all faiths before the Badger games, including in position groups.

During the games, he stands on the sidelines with the players and coaches. He wears a clerical collar, and recently at the Wisconsin-Iowa game, he got hit and knocked down by an Iowa player.

He said the Iowa player noticed his collar and said, “Sorry, Father,” and helped him get up.

Father Mike said he has been impressed by the spirituality of the Badger players and coaches. He said the players’ parents have noticed the change in their children, with many of them going to church more frequently.

The coaches and players also put their faith into action. This became evident this year when Wisconsin played Florida Atlantic when Hurricane Irma hit their state.

The Florida Atlantic coaches and players ended up staying in Madison for extra days from gameday on Saturday until the following Wednesday.

Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez and his wife Cindy, along with Coach Chryst’s wife Robin and the wives of other coaches, made the Florida Atlantic crew welcome, as did Father Mike himself, who was out every day meeting with the visitors.

“It was impressive to see how we all helped the Florida Atlantic people. Many of them were worried about their families back home. Some of them wrote me thank-you notes when they got back,” said Father Mike. “It was a win-win situation all around.”

When the Badgers played Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, this year, Father Mike was impressed by the hospitality the Badgers received. “Their hospitality and kindness were just amazing,” he said. “After they sang the national anthem, the whole stadium said a prayer while we were in the tunnel. The players looked at me and said, ‘Father Mike, did you hear that?’”

This year’s success

Asked to comment on the Badgers’ best football season ever, Father Mike said, “This year they are so focused. They are a determined group, care for each other, and work together. I’ve never seen a coaching staff and players who work so well together.”

He believes a lot of the success is due to the strong spirituality among the coaches and players, starting with Coach Chryst, who is Catholic himself and attributes much of his success as a coach to the influence of his father, the late George Chryst, who died 25 years ago.

Father Mike mentioned that ESPN did a touching tribute to the father-son coaches.

Coach Chryst’s mother, Patty Chryst, who lives in Madison, is a strong Badger fan and attends most of the games and activities of the Mendota Gridiron Club, the Badger football boosters organization.

His own vocation

About his vocation to the priesthood, Father Mike said he had thought about the priesthood as a high school student, but he was involved in athletics and had a girl friend.

When he was a student at Loras College in Dubuque, he attended a weekend retreat at New Melleray Abbey. While there, he was asked to be a pallbearer for the funeral of a Trappist monk. After that experience, he felt called to check out the priesthood.

“I felt I had to look into it or I would have big-time regrets,” he recalled.

He talked with his pastor, the late Msgr. Delbert Schmelzer at Our Lady of Hope Parish in Seymour. “He brought me up to meet with Bishop Cletus O’Donnell at Holy Name Seminary in 1967. I attended Mass with Bishop O’Donnell. That was the beginning of my association with him, as well as with Bishop George Wirz, who was the seminary rector.”

Since his ordination as a priest in 1974, he has been happy. “I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to do what God wanted me to do. I’ve been blessed with wonderful parents, brothers, sisters, and friends. I’ve made so many wonderful friends over the years.”

He served at St. Henry Parish in Watertown for three years and was pastor at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Madison for 21 years.

His 18 years at Holy Name Seminary were also special.

Retirement

Since his retirement in July of this year, he is now living at Holy Name Heights in the former seminary building. “In some ways it’s like coming home,” he said.

He’s still adjusting to retirement, but he says he’s busier than ever. He has kept in touch with many former seminarians and hopes to do more with the seminary alumni.

He’s also been involved at Edgewood High School in Madison, where he recently received an Alumni Appreciation Award.

He’s also been involved at St. Mary’s Care Center in Madison and with Agrace Hospice. “I’m still waking up at 5:30 a.m.”

But he still makes time to serve as chaplain of the Badger football team. “It’s been a wonderful experience,” he emphasized.

And it seems that the Badger coaches and players hope he stays around for many more years.

 
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