When his first U.S. tour is done, Pope Francis will return to Vatican City next week with an eclectic mix of gifts. From President Obama, a sculpture of an ascending dove. From Raul Castro, a crucifix made of wooden oars. From Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a customized bicycle.
And from D.C. United, via a web of connections and a delivery plan that fell into place over 24 hours, a black soccer jersey emblazoned with “Pope Francis” and “10” on the back.
How did the shirt get to the Pontiff?
Paul Hill, a United supporter, hatched the idea. Hill is well-connected. He was once married to Courtney Kennedy — daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy — and remains close to America’s most famous Catholic family.
“It was spur of the moment,” said Hill, an Irishman whose false imprisonment in England helped inspire the 1993 film, “In the Name of the Father.”
“I knew [the Pope] is a big soccer fan. Thought it would be a nice gesture.”
Pope Francis is a life-long supporter of San Lorenzo, a top-flight Argentine club from his hometown in Buenos Aires.
Hill also recognized benevolent themes shared by the Pope and Robert Kennedy. Hill’s daughter, Saoirse, is RFK’s granddaughter. Because United plays in a stadium honoring RFK, he said, the gift would carry deeper meaning.
Ethel Kennedy would have VIP access for the Pope’s visit to the White House on Wednesday morning, so on Tuesday, Hill reached out to old friend Peter Smith, a soccer adviser and promoter based in Miami. Smith grew up in the Pittsburgh area with United General Manager Dave Kasper.
Smith contacted Kasper. United was in Jamaica for the CONCACAF Champions League group finale against Montego Bay, but because the MLS club had already clinched a quarterfinal berth, Kasper skipped the trip.
“We jumped on it,” Kasper said of the shirt mission.
United officials instructed staff members to customize a jersey. “They run small, so extra large,” Kasper said.
“The biggest question was: What number do you give the Pope?” Kasper said.
The obvious choice was “1.”
“Any time you give a gift to an Argentine who likes soccer,” Kasper said, “it has to be 10.”
Diego Maradona wore No. 10. Lionel Messi wears No. 10.
Ten, it was.
Late Tuesday, a United staff member delivered the freshly pressed jersey to Hill’s home in Georgetown. Hill wasn’t there at the time; he was at the National Cathedral gift shop purchasing items for Ethel, 87, to have blessed by the Pope.
On Wednesday, Hill entrusted the jersey to his 18-year-old daughter, who had traveled to Washington from prep school in Massachusetts for the Pope’s visit. Saoirse, her mother and grandmother were among many members of the Kennedy clan invited to the White House for the Pope’s visit with President Obama.
The plan did not work exactly as planned: Because of the general chaos at the event and security complications, Ethel was not able to personally present the jersey to the Pope. Instead, Saoirse gave it to a papal aide, who assured her the Pope would receive it.
It’s not the first time soccer and the Pope have mixed.
Two years ago, he welcomed members of the Argentine and Italian national teams to the Vatican, including Messi, and recounted fond memories of watching San Lorenzo play at Estadio Gasometro.
Last year, while the World Cup was under way in Brazil, he was given an Argentina shirt during a general audience at St. Peter’s Square. Later that summer, after San Lorenzo won its first Copa Libertadores, South American club soccer’s most prestigious competition, club officials brought the trophy to Vatican City.
Wednesday was United’s chance.
“It’s not every day the Pope comes to town, and it’s not every day you get a chance to give a gift to the Pope,” Kasper said. “It was a great idea by Paul. Hopefully, the Pope will get a chance to put it on.”
Maybe during the address to Congress on Thursday?
Kasper laughed and said, “Yeah, he could say, ‘I’m the playmaker here.’ ”