From college athlete to Catholic bishop


By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

MOUNT VERNON, IOWA — After a stellar academic and athletic career at Mount Vernon High School, Tom Zinkula decided to move away from home to attend Cornell College. He didn’t have to move far, though; the college was in the heart of his hometown.

Thomas Zinkula poses for a
picture in his Cornell Rams football uniform in the late 1970s.

The college, affiliated with the United Methodist church, provided the future Bishop of Davenport with an opportunity to study math and economics while participating on the Cornell Rams’ NCAA Div. III football team.

He enjoyed pushing himself academically, and earned a near-perfect grade-point average. His athletic record wasn’t bad, either; the Rams football team compiled a 30-6 record during his four years of play. He was named MVP his junior year and captain his senior year. He was later inducted into Cornell College’s Hall of Fame.


Despite being a model student and athlete by just about any account, recognition was not his goal. Bishop Zinkula later said, “Everyone wants to win but… it’s about using your gifts to give glory to God and bring joy to others.”

“Tom was a leader by example,” said Cornell teammate Aaron VanDyke, who also attended grade school and high school with the future Bishop Zinkula. “He inspired you to be your best because he was always working to be his best.”

Still, he was willing to sacrifice his ambitions for the good of others. While serving as a residence hall advisor his senior year, the future bishop responded to reports that one of his students had fallen out of a third-story dorm window. He learned that the student was the victim of a prank in which his door was shut tight with pennies. The student attempted to make a rope out of belts and escape out the window, but the “rope” failed mid-descent. Although Tom had a midterm test to take, he chose to see the student safely to the hospital instead, according to the college’s newspaper, The Cornellian. Fortunately, the future bishop was able to make up the exam later that day.

“He had to try to keep everyone safe from each other,” recalled Cornell teammate Steve Dean. Dean was not living in the dorm at the time and heard about the incident later. “He was a very calm and even-headed person at that age, always willing to help. …Tom was one of those guys you could always depend on.”

Through it all, Tom remained committed to the faith of his childhood. He made time for Sunday Mass off-campus and participated in Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Friday night devotionals.

College friend Doug Ramos, who grew up in Centerville and attended Bishop Zinkula’s ordination Mass, recalled that “many an evening I would burst into his room to find him kneeling at his bedside praying or saying the rosary. In a manner of loving disrespect I would bother him, tackle him, annoy him or wrestle with him. He would kindly throw me out of his room and resume praying. … I knew his faith was deep; I learned that by talking with him, watching him and seeing those semi-private displays of prayer.”

“He was a stand-up guy, respected on campus,” said Dave Ver Woert, a Cornell classmate and fellow football player. “I’m not surprised he has risen to such a high level in the church.”

Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on