Sometimes you can’t even notice him.
Your eyes are naturally glued to the ball – trained to follow it, as it moves up and down the football field or the basketball court. Cameras rarely catch him; too busy focusing in on the players that dominate the fans’ attention during the game.
Donned in black and standing in at just under six feet tall, he often gets lost in the shadow of a resounding dunk or an electrifying touchdown. Whether he sits at the end of the bench or stands on the sideline, he has been there to witness Villanova’s highs and lows in the past decade.
For Fr. Rob Hagan, his eyes are also fixated on the marvels that occur before him on the football field and the basketball court. Home or away, he is always present to support the university’s teams. As a chaplain for both the men’s basketball and football teams, he has served as a beacon of guidance for both programs and has observed them closely over the last eleven years.
His ties to Villanova extend beyond his years dedicated to the chaplaincy. Fr. Hagan grew up in the local area. He went to nearby Cardinal O’Hara High School and attended Villanova University upon graduation.
“I did not come to Villanova to be a priest,” Fr. Hagan said. “I came to Villanova because it was a good school. I had some good friends here and got a good education.”
Fr. Hagan graduated in 1987 as an English major. After Villanova, he went on to study law at Widener Law School, finishing in 1990 before going on to practice law for seven years at Gillin & Associates. Through victories and defeats in the courtroom, he came to realize that something did not feel right.
“For ten years, I contemplated the idea of being an Augustinian, but kept pushing it away because that’s not what I wanted to do,” Fr. Hagan said. “I wanted to make money, get married, have children, and have my own firm.”
Like how Moses saw the burning bush and St. Paul got knocked off his horse, Fr. Hagan was given a sign. However, his was less obvious. After winning a big case, he came home to enjoy a nice dinner.
“Jeopardy comes on, the category was “Quotable Quotes,” Fr. Hagan said.
The answer displayed on the screen read, “Give me chastity, but not yet.”
The response: Who was St. Augustine?
“I thought to myself, I can’t get away from this guy,” he said. “He keeps speaking to me through normal, everyday experiences.”
Fr. Hagan first met St. Augustine back in high school. After his father’s death, he was cleaning out his car and found St. Augustine’s Confessions lying around in it. He read the book, becoming acquainted with the words of the sinner turned saint.
“I think I had a restless heart,” Fr. Hagan said. “It was really calmed by my decision to follow God’s call to be a priest, an Augustinian priest.”
He left the law firm in 1997 and embarked on his new path to become a priest. His journey came full circle when he was ordained a priest in Villanova’s campus church five years later. Aside from the chaplaincy, Fr. Hagan was first tasked with working in compliance for the athletics department.
“When he was assigned here, it made sense,” said Vince Nicastro, Director of Athletics at Villanova University. “He has a very strong legal mind and legal background.”
Since then his role has expanded over time, becoming an Associate Athletic Director. His duties include the management of the Sports Medicine and Strength and Conditioning programs at Villanova. Not because he is a doctor or a muscle builder, but rather because there is a lot of risk management involved when it comes to ensuring the safety of Villanova’s student-athletes. His legal background makes him the perfect fit for the job.
“Beyond that, the work he does with our students directly,” Nicastro added. “He really does serve an incredibly important ministry function for our student-athletes.”
He easily blends in with the other coaches on the sideline. As the game grows more intense, he moves to the edge of his seat. His hands are clasped together as he leans in anticipation for the next big play. He claps for every made basket and looks away in disappointment for every foul in question. Similar to a coach, he must keep a level head as he witnesses a team’s triumphs and shortcomings. With each and every win or loss, he continues to challenge all student-athletes to always strive for their very best. A coach has to have the foresight that his team may not have in the given moment, reminding them that every little thing matters.
“Often you are called to encourage the discouraged, to pass on wisdom you have learned to others,” says Fr. Hagan.
However, he is different from a coach, serving as a different type of leader.
“Fr. Rob is the spiritual inspiration that’s behind the program,” says Andy Talley, head coach of the football team at Villanova University.
Pre-game masses are a part of the game day ritual for the basketball and football teams. It is tradition to hold mass hours before the games begin and to pray before and after each contest. Whether Fr. Hagan leads the ceremonies in Corr Chapel, the locker room, or in the hotel for away games, one thing remains the same.
“It’s quiet, it’s always very focused,” says Nick DiPaola, a manager for the men’s basketball team. “His homilies are great, they definitely mean a lot to the players.”
His homilies often draw from words of the Scripture and include similar underlying themes. A couple of prominent stories include the “Parable of the Fig Tree” – a reminder to be patient and persevere, that things may not work immediately but possibly in the future; and also the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” – a message to forgive teammates when mistakes are made.
“It’s always a positive message, one is better than the other,” Coach Talley said. “Everytime I go, ‘Man, I don’t know how he’s going to top that one’ and he usually does.”
One homily resonated with the football team so much that it became their motto in the locker room. The “Parable of the Stonecutter” takes place in ancient times and tells the story of a stonecutter who had to break a large rock. Equipped with only a primitive hammer, he kept hitting the rock day in and day out.
It could be the hundredth blow, the thousandth blow, or even the millionth that finally breaks the rock, but it wasn’t the last hit that shattered the rock, rather all the tries in between.
“Tap the Rock” has been the football team’s creed. A large stone sits in their locker room and they tap it each day, before taking the field for a practice or a game.
At its purest form, football is much more violent than basketball. Regardless, Fr. Hagan comes week after week to support the team.
“It’s a rough game, but exciting,” Fr. Hagan said. “We’re seeing a renewed emphasis on the safety and well-being of our student-athletes.”
Two years ago, Villanova hired a full-time team physician for athletics. Fr. Hagan works with the athletic department to ensure that the safety of the student-athletes is given first priority. The athletic department strives to guarantee that the pressure to win does not override the need for safety and caution.
While injuries are a common occurrence on the football field and a natural part of all sports, the most gruesome injury in recent Villanova history occurred on the basketball court.
On March 10, 2006, the Big East Tournament was well under way, featuring a semifinal showdown between the Villanova Wildcats and the Pittsburgh Panthers. Early in the second half, Allan Ray and Pittsburgh’s Carl Krauser dove for a loose ball. Krauser’s finger got underneath Ray’s eye and dislodged his eyeball out of the socket. Madison Square Garden quieted down, as Ray’s pleas for assistance filled the emptiness. Trainers rushed to tend to Ray, as he was unable to see. He was immediately taken to the hospital.
“Myself, Allan, the trainer, and his mother were all in the ambulance praying the rosary all the way to the hospital,” Fr. Hagan said. “It was just one of those moments where you get to be with a player and his family at a time when there’s nothing else you can do but to ask God for help until we could get a handle on the situation.”
Fortunately for Ray, he was able to get his eye seated back into the socket. Upon recovery, he returned to the team and went onto play professionally in the NBA and in Europe.
“You see the players at their best and at their worst,” says Fr. Hagan.
In adverse times on and off the field, he’s there to lend a helping hand to players.
“He’s definitely always available,” says Denny Grace, a walk-on for the Villanova men’s basketball team. “You can talk to him about anything.”
Whether it’s leadership advice, a confidence boost, or personal deep-seeded issues, Fr. Hagan’s door is always open to all. Student-athletes can share their troubles with practices, games, school, and family in confidence that their conversations stay in secrecy with Fr. Hagan.
“These student-athletes have a lot of people telling them what to do,” Fr. Hagan said. “Sometimes it’s refreshing for them just to have an opportunity to have someone to listen to them. I remind them that they don’t have to do it all themselves.”
Times weren’t always troublesome for Villanova athletics. In fact, he was there to witness what might just be one of the finest years of athletic achievement that the university has ever seen.
2009. The football team won the FCS National Championship, the women’s cross-country team also took home a national title, and the men’s basketball team went to the Final Four.
A mature senior class led the national championship football team.
“There was incredible leadership,” Fr. Hagan said. “They had been through some ups and downs as underclassmen and really came together.”
According to Fr. Hagan, Chris Whitney and Matt Szczur were often at the forefront of the newspapers, but sported a quiet disposition. They let their play speak for themselves. They had a tough demeanor that other players respected. The team’s resilience was tested in the national championship game, as they trailed going into halftime.
“There was no panic, Coach Talley gave a wonderful speech at halftime,” says Fr. Hagan. “He reminded them that we’ve been there before, to keep tapping the rock, and doing the things we do.”
The Wildcats came out of the locker room in the snowy January night and came back to win the championship game. The same resilience and toughness of the football team was also found in the basketball team, and was also instrumental to their success.
“You had a team in the early part of the year that suffered some tough losses,” Fr. Hagan said. “They never gave up, they stuck together. The reason why that team was so good was not because they were the most talented or the strongest, but that they really loved each other.“
Scottie Reynolds, Dante Cunningham, Dwayne Anderson, Reggie Redding – it’s easy to name the stars of the 2009 team that went to the Final Four. What’s even harder is to name a single walk-on. One such player to keep note of was Russell Wooten.
As a walk-on, he barely received any playing time. On the day of the Sweet 16 game against Duke, Wooten got sick hours before the game. He was quarantined and missed the Duke game and the subsequent Elite Eight game with Pittsburgh, where Scottie Reynolds made his famous buzzer beater. Not only did he miss the games, but he also was absent for the post-game celebrations in the locker room. As each player climbed up the ladder to cut the net, they echoed the same sentence over and over.
Cut a piece for Russell.
When the team arrived back at the hotel, there stood a healthier Russell Wooten waiting for them. The team draped the net around his neck and brought the celebration back to him.
“It was a reminder,” Fr. Hagan said. “He won’t think about what he missed; he’ll think about how much his teammates loved him. We all have a piece of the whole, it takes everybody and everyone plays a part.”
It’s Sunday. Fr. Hagan goes down to South Philadelphia to teach and say mass at a church. As soon as he is done, he returns to Villanova’s campus to the basketball team’s practice to preach and bless the team. The day is not over just yet, as he has to prepare for Sunday night mass at the campus church.
“He’s constantly working and thinking of other people which I think is really awesome,” says Ryan Arcidiacono, point guard for the men’s basketball team.
“Every single week he opens up mass win or lose, he looks at us and opens his arms wide,” says Don Cherry, a linebacker for the football team. “Then he says, ‘Nothing changes right?’ ”
It never does. Through each victory, each defeat, he is there every step of the way. Fr. Hagan is there to support the team, guide them, and watch history unfold right before his own eyes.
“He’s not just a priest,” Cherry added. “He’s also a great friend.”