ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso took a phone call one day last winter from the rector at the university's affiliated seminary, learning of an incoming student who was interested in both the priesthood and playing football.
Caruso agreed to a meeting despite some natural skepticism about the St. John Vianney prospect.
''Those guys are our best fans, by far. They're fantastic,'' the coach said, referring to the seminarian-led cheering section at O'Shaughnessy Stadium known as Caruso's Crew. ''But we've had a third-string cornerback before who was in the seminary. We've had a fourth-string punter. You don't expect them to be an All-American-caliber tailback who scores 30 touchdowns.''
Enter Jordan Roberts, who transferred from FCS-level South Dakota to the NCAA Division III Tommies for his junior season because of a higher calling.
''I was in a good situation at South Dakota, and I didn't have to leave,'' Roberts said. ''It's not like I wanted to transfer no matter what, so if I didn't get into St. Thomas and the seminary, I would've just stayed at South Dakota and been fine, but clearly God had different plans for me.''
Caruso was already familiar with Roberts before his conversation with Father Michael Becker. The all-time leading rusher in Wyoming history for Sheridan High School, Roberts was on Caruso's recruiting radar years earlier. With 1,001 total yards and three touchdowns over 21 career games for South Dakota, Roberts brought plenty of pedigree.
He has 1,701 yards rushing, 220 yards receiving and 31 touchdowns for St. Thomas (13-0), with a national semifinal matchup against Linfield (12-0) set for Saturday. Given the ardent interest by the men at St. John Vianney seminary in St. Thomas football, it's easy to imagine how Roberts' star status has bloomed.
''It's a lot of fun. Those guys love our team, and they love it even more now that they have one of their brothers on the team,'' Roberts said, ''so it's a pretty cool experience and very unique, that's for sure.''
The Tommies are averaging 53.6 points per game, the second-highest among the 660 teams over all four NCAA levels. The only one better is Mount Union, the winner of 11 of the last 22 national titles including in 2012 over St. Thomas.
That appearance by the Tommies was the only one in the last 10 championship games by a team other than Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater. The oligarchs of Division III football will meet Saturday in the other semifinal, and the two winners will advance to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl in Salem, Virginia.
Roberts was raised in a Christian home, but he didn't become serious about pursuing the priesthood until his sophomore season at South Dakota through his experience with a Catholic student group. St. John Vianney is a junior seminary, where students are advised to discern whether the priesthood is for them or not. Perhaps a related career in the ministry will come out of this experience for Roberts. For now, he's just trying to balance his schoolwork and his sport with this spiritual discipline he has begun to develop.
''I firmly believe that football has helped me in my faith life. It's developed me into a better person, and all the things that I do in the day kind of tie together,'' Roberts said. ''I'm the same person I am everywhere I go, whether that's the classroom, the chapel or on the football field.''
This holistic focus is what drew Caruso to St. Thomas, a university folded into a leafy neighborhood of Minnesota's capitol city and just a few blocks from the Mississippi River. Now in his eighth season, Caruso has built a once-dormant program into a national power. He's 89-13, and this is the third appearance in the national semifinals by the Tommies in the last five years.
''The reason why I fell in love with football was not simply to play and to win but to be a part of a community that allowed me to be greater than I ever could be on my own,'' Caruso said. ''It might seem a little sweet in the tooth to a lot of people, but really that's what it is. I'm not saying there are not a lot of other great programs in the country, but we have one of those unique cultures here and I'm so proud of it.''