Navy runs new option with rabbi

Rabbi Seth "Buzz" Phillips, right, the first Jewish chaplain in the history of the Navy football team, talks with Midshipmen coach Ken Niumatalolo.

Seth "Buzz" Phillips was about to turn 40, living with his first wife and their two sons in Naples, Fla., when a recruiting postcard from the Navy chaplain corps arrived. Recalling the results of an aptitude test he had taken as a student at Penn State more than two decades earlier, Phillips and his wife signed up.

Even rabbis — both he and his wife had their own congregations — want a little adventure.

"We had lived in Melbourne for eight years and the Navy looked a little like Australia — it was a small, underserved Jewish community — and we had the chance to see the world," Phillips said.

Nearly 20 years later, Phillips is in his last year of military service, his third year at the Naval Academy and his first season as chaplain for the football team. He is the first rabbi to serve in that capacity in the program's history.

Phillips sensed there was some hesitancy from academy officials given his religion and the fact that only one of the football players is Jewish.

"I lobbied very hard for it," said Phillips, one of 10 Jewish chaplains among the nearly 900 in the Navy. "Change is very difficult, and I had to convince people that this wasn't a diversity stunt, that I had what it took to be the chaplain for a wide variety of religious backgrounds on the football team."

In a difficult season that has included the team's longest losing streak in nine years — the Midshipmen have lost five straight going into Saturday's game at Notre Dame — Phillips has become a constant presence at practice (even adorning his pockets with gold-and-blue pompoms), games and the team's training room on Sunday mornings, where players receive treatment for injuries.

"Most of those [chaplains] who have been part of the team in the past have come [only] to games and traveled with the team, but he's very visible coming to practice. He's always around there extending his encouragement," athletic director Chet Gladchuk said. "There's just a sense of confidence when you're around him. He's very kind and very ingratiating to people."

Asked how many Jewish chaplains he has worked with in more than 30 years in college athletics, Gladchuk smiled broadly and extended the index finger on his left hand.

There seems to be a particularly special bond between Phillips and fourth-year head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who is Mormon.

"All the chaplains have been great, but Rabbi Phillips is different," Niumatalolo said. "He's everywhere. He's cheering our guys on, he's teary-eyed after we lose. I've been very grateful that he's our rabbi, our chaplain. We are both men of faith — we have different beliefs, but his heart is pure. … He's a very good human being."

Phillips said he is made to feel as if he is part of the team.

"I'm delighted that people are as comfortable with me as they are, which is a credit to their open-mindedness," he said.

Perhaps the most comfortable is Eric Mahler, a sophomore guard from Old Bridge, N.J., who said he is the only Jewish player on the team and one of about 40 Jewish Midshipmen currently at the academy.

"I was here with Father Callahan last year and I thought he was great," Mahler said after a recent practice. "To hear that we were going to have a rabbi as our team chaplain was really cool news, it's really exciting. He's done a great job. The other players are definitely open to it, but ultimately he's here to help us pray and get ready for the game. Hopefully, his first goal is winning."

What has impressed Phillips the most is the team's reaction to the game he and Mahler missed — against Southern Mississippi on Yom Kippur, the most signficant and solemn Jewish holiday. But Phillips was there in voice — taping a pre-game message — and in spirit.

"I can tell you that this one of the most difficult Yom Kippurs that I have ever had," recalled Phillips, who has held High Holy Day services in Iraq and leads Friday night services at the academy when the Midshipmen play Saturday at home. "I was really torn, I really wish I could have been in two places. It's a real sense of connection, I felt bad for the guys when they lost."

Marge Kramer, Phillips' wife, said his new position has "rejuvenated" her husband, who has also been stationed in Naples, Italy, and Groton, Conn., since they were married 10 years ago. Kramer is aware that her husband is trying to remain at the academy in some capacity after he retires. "That would be a dream come true," she said.

Phillips has given pre-game devotions that are of a religious nature, explaining how the Jewish definition of sin "is to miss the mark, and if that's what it is, we can all work harder, play harder and be a little bit smarter." They have also been about history, telling the team before last Saturday's game against East Carolina how Navy had success battling pirates over the years.

He might be new to the football team, but Phillips has been around athletes his entire adult life. He said he has run 46 marathons around the world, including Boston in 2009, and recently qualified to go back next year to reach his goal of running 50.

That's where his nickname comes in. He said Kramer gave it to him "because I was always buzzing around" and now runs in all events with a black-and-yellow outfit with a bumblebee emblazoned on it and the words "Go Buzz."

It has led to at least one interesting interchange with a fellow runner at the Rome Marathon a few years ago when Phillips was stationed in Naples. Phillips noticed a man in what he thought was a red yarmulke a few yards ahead. As he caught up, Phillips wished the runner good luck in Hebrew.

"I turned around and saw there was a large cross. He was a cardinal," Phillips said. "I said in Italian, 'I'm sorry, your excellency.' "

Phillips, 59, became a rabbi after going to seminary school following his graduation at Penn State. The aptitude test he had taken showed that he had two interests to pursue: the military and the ministry.

"At the height of the Vietnam War, I was not considering [being a] military officer," said Phillips, who grew up in Richmond, Va. "If you look at my background, the minister part added up to rabbi. Twenty years later comes Desert Storm and the Navy is gearing up. I was turning 40 and I needed a life change. I joke with my Christian colleagues that my call to the ministry was not a voice from heaven, but a No. 2 pencil and a bubble test."