It is always good news to hear that someone has entered the Church. This month, that beautiful and profound event happened to the University of Notre Dame’s new football coach, Marcus Freeman. As if people were not already praying for him, especially as it relates to a 1-2 start, now we can pray with him as fellow Catholics.
For some of us, the luster has faded from the school’s famous Golden Dome over the years: many of the school’s faculty and students aren’t on the same page when it comes to Catholic teaching, as evidenced by the honors it has bestowed on the most pro-abortion of American politicians in recent years.
Still, a sentimental connection remains. My paternal grandfather had passed away before I was born, but his allegiance to the Fighting Irish was “grandfathered” into all of our DNA. Though I never met the man, I too became a Notre Dame fan and breathed in all the mythology that came with it. We are the “Catholic” university. Notre Dame did not cheat.
Facts are stubborn things. The great George Gipp of “Gipper” fame left his mark on college football, but not so much in the academic halls of Notre Dame. There is little evidence he attended many classes, and the apartment he kept off campus was a notorious place for gamblers and a standing poker game.
I am now at best a casual observer of Notre Dame’s football team. I do not burn many brain cells trying to trace the decline of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity. A friend of mine who still clings to the university’s history likens the modern version of the university to New York City, something that can represent the best of America and the worst.
The news of Coach Freeman’s conversion bears witness to this. But regardless of what I think of the school he coaches for, it is still a source of a very personal moment of grace.
No, it was not me being reminded of when Notre Dame beat USC 51-0. Rather, it is all about my memories of the biggest Notre Dame fanatic I had ever known: my oldest brother Roger. He died too soon, and he has been gone too long, yet even something as trivial as a college’s football program can turn my thoughts toward him.
No one — and I mean no one — on the planet drank the Notre Dame Kool-Aid as much as our brother Roger. I was guaranteed a call from him a few weeks before the start of every Notre Dame football season. He would tell me how good the team was, how great the recruiting class was, and how it all inevitably pointed to another national championship run.
His misplaced optimism aside, I cherished all those calls from my brother. We lived about 60 miles apart, so phone calls were our most common form of communication. Hearing his voice made all nine of his younger siblings feel more comforted and secure. It went far beyond football fandom. My brother had a special gift. He seemed to know when he needed to call. Years ago, I was having a tough time in a job that had become increasingly unbearable. Out of the blue I got a call from my big brother. He was just checking in and almost immediately eased into a conversation about what was happening at my job. A professional negotiator (as the oldest of 10 children, how could he have been anything else?), his wise counsel saw me through my crisis like it had done to so many of his brothers and sisters.
When he passed away due to complications from his horrific arthritic condition, it left a void in us all that will never be filled. But every fall, the emptiness Roger’s passing carved out of me, temporarily spills over with memories of the best big brother anyone could ever have.
Whether the newly minted Catholic Marcus Freeman becomes a great football coach or goes the way of his most recent predecessors, what does it matter in comparison to his conversion? This year, I hope and pray not for “W’s” but for his continued growth as a Catholic — just as I pray for mine. But on the odd chance he becomes both a great football coach and a great Catholic, he will be fulfilling the dream of the greatest Notre Dame football fan I knew — and a man who was Catholic in body and soul.
As delusional as he may have been regarding football, there were few better examples of a faithful man than my brother. And if coach Freeman follows that example, who knows: he may be able to do a little missionary work in South Bend, Indiana.