At 73, Danny Abramowicz still catching Hail Marys

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary

Danny Abramowicz is 73 now, and if that doesn’t make you feel old, well, have some avocado toast with alfalfa sprouts and a medium dark roast coffee with soy and a double shot of espresso and join the rest of Generation Z that has no texting clue that old No. 46 in black and gold was perhaps the most beloved player in New Orleans Saints history.

But, hey, real Saints fans – the ones with scar tissue – will never forget Danny.

“It’s amazing,” Abramowicz was saying last week. “When I go around, I’m this 73-year-old guy and people still recognize me with my bald head and gray hair. That just shows you something about Saints fans. The Saints should get down on their knees and thank the good Lord how these fans hung in there through so many tough times over the years.”

Most fans have heard of Abramowicz’s saga with the Saints. In the 1967 NFL expansion draft, the Saints were allowed two picks in every round, except for the 17th, when they got three. Abramowicz, a small, slow wide receiver out of Xavier (Ohio) University, was pick No. 17-a. Billy Bob Stewart and Jimmy Walker were 17-b and 17-c.

Ever hear of them? Didn’t think so.

When coach Tom Fears planned to cut Abramo­wicz after the third preseason game in 1967, Abramowicz said he wasn’t leaving because he didn’t get a fair shot to showcase his incredible hands. Fears started him the next game, and Abramowicz caught a bunch of passes and went on to catch a pass in 105 consecutive games, which was the NFL record when he retired in 1974.

It’s amazing to think he is 73 now and, in 1969, he caught a career-high 73 passes. Here’s another ’73. When the Saints opened the 1973 season at Tulane Stadium, the Atlanta Falcons, after a scoreless first quarter, beat the Saints 62-7. The stadium cleared out in the second half only after Abramowicz caught his lone pass, for seven measly yards, to keep his streak alive.

Danny knows scar tissue.

He also knows conversion, which is why for the last 35 years, he has become a Catholic evangelist with a special message for men, because he has been to hell and back.

The heavy drinking for the cradle Catholic from Steubenville, Ohio, accelerated in the pros, when he was setting records and ranked among the league’s best touchdown-producers. He was still going to Mass every week with his wife Claudia, his high school sweetheart, but as a football player, he knew all about “walk-throughs.”

He was going through the motions.

“My heart was black,” Abramowicz said. “I was attending Mass, many times half in the bag and hung over. Then I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Lord, please help me, heal me.’”

He went to AA, got sobriety counseling and spiritual encouragement from the late Deacon Richard “Buzzy” Gaien­nie, became involved in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and launched the Monday Night Disciples, a Catholic men’s ministry.

“I think the Lord knew that because of my background in the NFL that guys would at least listen to me,” Abramo­wicz said. “I was lost for awhile. Then I realized I needed to make Jesus Christ No. 1 in my life. My whole goal in life is the salvation of souls – mine first and then my wife’s and my kids’.”

Abramowicz views the church’s descent into the hell of sexual abuse of minors as a clear wake up call, especially for the men he is trying to rouse from their sleep.

“I’m just an old ‘has been’ NFL player and coach who truly loves his Catholic faith and would give his life for her,” Abramowicz said.

Like everyone else, he is asking how “the highest leaders in our church” could have “let us down like this and hurt so may innocent people.” He believes the truth will come out because it has to, but he believes the laity have a fundamental role to play in the coming purification.

Abramowicz has a six-point plan. He says lay people must:

  • Make Sunday Mass “our No. 1 priority.” Read the scriptures before Mass.
  • Commit to a daily prayer life. “If you don’t have a prayer life, you don’t have a chance,” he says. “Most Catholics don’t know what a prayer life is.”
  • Cleanse ourselves through confession, which should be made more broadly available.
  • Teach about sin from the pulpit.
  • Organize and promote small men’s and women’s groups in parishes. “Jesus didn’t do this one-on-one,” he said. “He picked out his apostles, trained them and sent them two by two.” 
  • Promote men’s and women’s conferences through the archdiocese. “That’s a game-changer,” he said.

Abramowicz said he is not fearful of the truth being revealed in the sexual scandals and the coverups because “the light will overcome the darkness.”

“This is not a time to despair,” he said. “It’s time for men, especially, to stand up to the devil.”

He talks about the four “Ws”: knowing and doing the “will” of God; studying the “word” of God; being a “witness” for the faith; and “winning” the crown of eternal salvation.

“When Jesus says, ‘Follow me and you will have eternal life,’ that’s not hearing from some politician or the head of Google – that’s coming from the source,” Abramowicz said. “This is what Christ is telling us to do.”

Men have to stop dropping off their wives and kids at church and set an example.

“Eighty-something percent of men don’t go to church, but we’ll go to an LSU or Saints game,” he said. “The NFL has destroyed Sunday. What about going to church first and then to the game? I told Archbishop Aymond, we (in the Archdiocese of New Orleans) can be the example. Let’s set the bar high. We’ve set the bar too low. Jesus set the bar pretty high. Can we attain that on earth? That might be tough, but on the priority list of most Catholics, faith is way down the line. God has to be first.”

When men do not lead their families in faith, they are sending a message to their children that it is something that does not matter, he said.

“I think the reason the Lord called me to men’s ministry is because men are very difficult,” Abramowicz said. “It might look like Tom or Joe is doing great, but he’s lying like hell. Pornography is off the charts, and men are afraid to look into themselves. Men are bold and strong on the exterior, but on the inside they don’t know how to share.”

Only by God’s grace, Abramowicz says, have he and Claudia been able to make it for 52 years together. When they returned to Mandeville on Jan. 1 after 13 years of post-Katrina family odysseys – including four years in Steubenville to care for their dying fathers – they found a house two blocks from Our Lady of the Lake Church.

“New Orleans is really our hometown,” Abramowicz said. “When we moved back here, I told my wife, ‘This is our last move. Our next move will be to St. Joseph Abbey Cemetery.’” 

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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