There are some pretty high-profile figures on the bench for the St. John’s University, Jamaica, men’s basketball team.
Head coach Chris Mullin is of course a well-known Brooklynite and a Naismith Hall of Famer. Fellow Hall of Famer and six-time NBA All-Star Mitch Richmond also has a spot on that bench as an assistant coach.
When they’re not starring on the court, the likes of top players Shamorie Ponds, Justin Simon, L.J. Figueroa, Marvin Clark Jr. and Mustapha Heron take a seat next to their Hall of Fame coaches.
Way down the end of the bench, however, sits a guiding influence, watching and praying enthusiastically for the student-athletes to do their best.
Father Richard Rock, C.M., is the campus minister for athletics at St. John’s. As a Vincentian, he weaves the college’s mission of serving the poor into his daily interactions with the Red Storm student-athletes.
Father Rock grew up in Astoria at Immaculate Conception School and parish. He was an outfielder on the parish’s Catholic Youth Organization baseball teams and a guard in basketball.
He then attended St. John’s Prep, Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he gained a familiarity with the Vincentian order. In fact, during his senior year of high school, he had already matriculated into the seminary.
Father Rock spent three years at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Princeton, N.J. For the next two years, he entered the Vincentian novitiate in Connecticut. It was then on to Mary Immaculate Seminary, Northampton, Pa., for four years of theology. In 1973, he was ordained a priest and assigned to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
For over 35 years, Father Rock worked with the poor in inner city Philadelphia while also enjoying a few other stops around the country. He served as campus minister at Auburn University in Alabama during the 1982-1983 school year. At that time, top Auburn student-athletes included two-sport superstar Bo Jackson and basketball legend Charles Barkley.
From 1989 to 1993, Father Rock briefly returned home to the Big Apple to work at Covenant House New York, the city’s largest provider serving youth experiencing homelessness.
In 2012, Father Rock arrived on the campus at St. John’s. After taking the first year to get oriented, he began serving in his current role as campus minister for athletics in 2013.
His day-to-day responsibilities are centered on establishing relationships with the student-athletes to show them what St. John’s University is all about as a Catholic, Vincentian, faith-based university.
He tries to spend as much time as possible with all the Red Storm teams. During basketball season, he travels with the men’s team. Not only does he get to sit on the bench, but he also addresses the team in prayer during either their pregame meal for home games or on the team bus for away games.
“Sitting at the end of the bench really speaks to the mission of what St. John’s is all about,” Father Rock said. “St. John’s was established as a university in trying to give education to immigrants, and it’s continued always trying to remind people about service learning…to take what you learn in your experience getting an education and carry it on and never forget about the needs of the poor in our society. That’s one of the things St. John’s has valued from 1870 to today.”
In his pregame talks, his message to the players is usually a simple one: Always be thankful for your coaches, teammates, supporters of the university and the opportunity to play high-level Division I college basketball on the national stage.
“I remind them that talent is a God-given gift,” Father Rock said. “I say that to all the athletes and coaches. I also say that we are at our best when we’re thankful for what God gave us.”
Just like he did in Philadelphia, Father Rock has made it his mission to work with the poor. He involves the student-athletes in community service projects, such as visiting the soup kitchen at St. John’s Bread & Life, Bedford-Stuyvesant.
“It’s not about charity; it’s about doing justice,” he said. “I tell them that every person – even the poorest person they meet – has a name, has a face and has a history. I always remind them to never forget about the homeless people in New York.”
The St. John’s men’s team got off to an excellent start this season, winning its first 13 contests. Since then, there have been a few ups and downs in Big East conference play, but this talented group of players has what it takes to rise to the challenge.
“There’s always going to be bumps in the road,” Father Rock said. “We can either slip, or we can fall. When you slip, you’re able to pick yourself up, and I always remind them that you need to have resiliency, you need to have gut and you need to play together as a team.”
Father Rock’s words of wisdom show how faith and sports can intersect. He always encourages the student-athletes to pray – not necessarily praying to win games but instead praying to give their very best effort no matter the score.
“Faith can give them the confidence to build upon their talents that are God-given,” he said. “In life, we have our highlights and we have our lowlights. We have our good days and we have our bad days.
“But in both the highlights and lowlights, there’s still lights. I believe sometimes we learn more from our lowlights than from our highlights, especially in sports.”
Father Rock has seen plenty of highlights down at the end of the bench watching the Johnnies men’s hoops team this season.
Now it’s up to the players and coaches to learn from the lowlights with the Big East Tournament – and possibly the NCAA Tournament – looming.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.