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In his sermon during a recent Mass, Father Luke Spannagel spoke of loyalty — of being faithful without question to God and Jesus Christ.

The Catholic priest also told his audience that many things in our culture today compete for their loyalty.

And because this wasn't the usual homily, he mentioned loyalty to the Orange and Blue.

Which is literally what the 17 or so worshipers were wearing that Saturday morning in the conference room of an Urbana hotel.

Father Luke was celebrating the private Mass for University of Illinois football players and staff members, among them interim head coach Bill Cubit.

As with everything he does as the football team chaplain, attendance or participation is optional on the part of players and coaches.

Father Luke offers the private Mass for the Illini team before every home and away game.

"It's part of that long tradition back to the '30s," he said.

Also head chaplain and director at St. John's Catholic Newman Center at the UI, Spannagel recently started saying Mass after Illini home games as well, at St. John's Chapel.

Other university chaplains are doing that, he said, to engage alumni and people who come from out of town for the games.

The voluntary and unpaid position of chaplain to the UI football team is one of the oldest university team ministries in the country.

Father John O'Brien founded it in 1918. The late Monsignor Edward Duncan, who retired in 1998, was in the position the longest.

Last year, Spannagel became the sixth to take over the role, after having served at the UI Newman Center earlier as an assistant chaplain.

Already, he has earned the respect and admiration of the team and others for his steadfastness and the calming effect he has on people.

"He's a great human being, a guy you can really rely on," Cubit said before the Sept. 26 Middle Tennessee State game, a close call that had most of Memorial Stadium praying the home team would pull it out. They did, 27-25, on a missed kick with eight seconds to go.

"Since I've been here," Cubit said, "I lost my mom and dad, and he and Father (Gregory) Ketcham (Spannagel's predecessor) have always been here for me."

Linebacker Mason Monheim, a senior from Ohio, said Father Luke is always available and loyal to the team.

"He's an awesome guy," Monheim added. "He's a great supporter of what we do. He shows up at the practices and talks to us. He's not only an amazing spiritual leader but also an amazing man."

Long days

At Newman Center, Father Luke puts in long days — 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, a little less on weekends — in his office, tucked away in a corner near the southeast entrance.

A couple times a week, he leaves to walk over to football practice, where he checks in on team members, particularly those with injuries. Or to run up and down the Memorial Stadium bleacher stairs, his favorite form of exercise.

He also strolls from the Newman Center to the stadium before every home game to walk onto the field with the players.

From time to time, Father Luke meets with members of other UI teams. But he's mainly assigned to football in what he calls an informal position but a historical one.

UI animal sciences Professor Matt Wheeler, the team's faculty representative, said people tend to forget football is a violent sport, and the Illini roster is made up of young college students.

"You need to bring them back to reality, and that's what Father Luke does," Wheeler said. "In the excitement of the moment, he's very steady. He keeps the kids grounded. The kids love him."

In turn, Father Luke enjoys his ministry to the players as well as to others, on and off campus.

As the Newman Center's head chaplain — he cares for three assistant priests and four religious sisters — he watches over the 587 students who live in Newman Hall.

At 38, Father Luke feels an affinity to college-age people. He appreciates their capacity to learn and the freedom they have to pursue their interests.

He also likes how fast their hearts can change.

"Someone can grow from being sporadic in church attendance to being a real leader in a few months," he said. "That can be really rewarding."

As a UI undergrad, Spannagel himself lived at Newman Hall for three years — two as a resident adviser. The experience, he said, played a "real part" in his growth as a man.

Something new

At Newman Center, Spannagel meets individually two or three hours a day in his office with students and football players. It's small but comfortable, with a large leather couch for what seems like a steady flow of visitors.

The first thing you notice after entering his domain is the many color photographs under the glass covering the top of his desk. They're mostly of young faces — his relatives and students and former students he has worked with over the years.

Also speaking to Father Luke's friendliness is the "Flooded Floors Invitational" bracket posted on his office wall. He came up with the idea for the miniature-putting tournament a few years ago when he was an assistant chaplain at Newman Center.

He thought the tournament — in which the winner receives the Golden Putter trophy — would be a low-key way to engage students, particularly nonreligious ones.

Father Luke likes sports in general. Most of the other sports memorabilia in his office is of the Illini, the Chicago Bears and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Spannagel has long been a Cards fan because, he said, he grew up downstate — in Pesotum, 14 miles south of Champaign. There, his father farmed, and his mom taught school.

The calling

Spannagel grew up Catholic. Becoming a priest was "sort of" in the back of his mind when he was an undergraduate, but he didn't consider the vocation seriously until his senior year.

"I was dating a girl three years before that, so I didn't think of it at all," he said. "But I couldn't sleep at night. I always lied awake, wondering what I would do with my life. I thought of marrying, but that relationship ended."

A few weeks later, Spannagel began dating another young woman. He soon realized God was calling him to do something different, though.

Then, a buddy tricked him into accompanying him to a retreat without telling him it was meant for young men thinking about entering the seminary.

After Spannagel returned to campus, he received what he thought was a sign from God: He and his girlfriend were praying in St. John's Chapel when she turned to him and asked, "You're going to be a priest, aren't you?"

He nodded.

An inspiration

He was ordained in 2003 and since then has had several assignments in Illinois. One of them in recent years allowed him to spend as much time as he could in Teutopolis, where his younger sister, Rebekah Volk, a high school English teacher, lived. She had been diagnosed with cancer.

"She was really one of the great ladies I've ever known, even at a young age," he said.

She was just 32 when she died in early 2011. She had continued teaching even when having chemotherapy.

Having found her life inspirational, Father Luke spent his three-month sabbatical in 2013 working on a book about her, basing it on letters she had written him over a couple of decades.

"I'm still working on the last year of her life," said the priest, who also authors the "Chalices and Callouses" column for Peoria Diocese's Catholic Post newspaper.

He hopes to publish the book about his sister and wouldn't mind updating "A Campus Ministry," a 2001 book in which Patrick J. Daly Jr., a former UI visiting professor of English, looks at the UI Newman ministry and specifically Monsignor Duncan.

Or, Father Luke said, he could write his own book about the Newman ministry at the UI.

"It's an incredibly joyful life," he said, "far more fulfilling than I ever imagined."

Bio bits

More on Father Luke Spannagel, 38, head chaplain and director of St. John's Catholic Newman Center and chaplain to the Illini football team:

Age: 38

Parents: Dad John Spannagel is a farmer and master carpenter, mom Donna Spannagel is a retired K-12 teacher.

Education: A Villa Grove High grad (Class of '94), he earned a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture in 1998 from the UI and advanced degrees from Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Maryland.

Priesthood: Ordained in 2003 at Peoria's St. Mary's Cathedral. He became head chaplain and director at St. John's Catholic Newman Center in 2014, after having served as parish priest in several small Illinois parishes, chaplain at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Newman Center at Western Illinois University and assistant chaplain at the Newman Center.

While on the field during Illini games: "For the most part, I try to stay out of the way. If there's an injury, I let the trainers and doctors do their thing. I stand by for moral support. On a couple of occasions, I've gone to the hospital to give blessings before surgeries. I've teased a couple of guys who got blessings from me because their recovery was shorter than expected."