An Ambassador at Our Lady’s University

Hard weekend for Irish fans – at least football-wise.

It’s been tough enough that a season launched with such promise could falter and fall so abruptly, but there was at least the hope – an assumption even – that the team would land a win for the seniors’ last home game.

Alas.

Even so, there’s more to Notre Dame than football – if you’re a true fan, you already know that. So, for all you true fans smarting from our team’s recent losses, ville.0here’s a happy story from last Saturday to ease the disappointment.

My family and I have been Irish fans long before my oldest, Ben, matriculated this fall at Notre Dame. He’s doing well and keeping busy – we rarely see him even though we’re mere minutes away. Still, we always know he’ll be in the stadium for home games, and we have fun trying to pick him out when the cameras pan the student section.

This past weekend was different because a friend surprised me with a pair of last minute Louisville tickets on Friday afternoon. “It’ll be rainy,” she said, “but not as cold as it was for the Northwestern game.”

I assured her that weather was not an issue, and I gratefully accepted her kind gift on behalf of my family.

Like I said, we’re big fans, but we don’t get to many games on account of (cough, cough) “budgetary constraints.” However, over the years, thanks to occasional splurges and the generosity of others, we’ve managed to get most of our kids to a home game or two – with the exception of our two youngest, Kath and Nick. Kath is only eight, so she’s just now at an age when she’d appreciate the game day experience – we’ve got plenty of time to make that happen yet.

Nick, on the other hand, is already eleven, and he’s the fiercest ND fan of us all (with the possible exception of my wife). He roots and hollers and whoops when we score – “GO IRISH!” he roars ferociously whenever there’s a pause in the revelry. No question: Nick was going to his first home game.

Saturday morning, we deliberated as to who’d take him. Nancy was up for it and reluctant to pass up the opportunity, but she had some work to finish up that evening. I lucked out.

“Nick, guess what?” I asked him. “We’re going to the Notre Dame game today, you and me!”

1383871_10152804864518686_1764748065031248725_nHe was confused – go to the game? Like…go to the game? I told him it was true, and that we’d probably get to see his brother there as well – maybe even sideline reporter Jeff Jeffers, whom we know from church. Nick’s one word response (accompanied by a fist pump): “Yes!”

After lunch, we bundled up and grabbed a heavy woolen army blanket – just in case. Nancy dropped us off on Eddy Street, and we joined in the hoopla as we made our way to the stadium parking lot. We’d made arrangements to meet Ben at Legends, and it was a happy reunion when we saw him coming our way.

“Hey, Nicky!” he yelled. “You going to the game today?” Nick ran into his arms. We chatted a bit, and then Ben took our picture with his phone.

“Classic,” he commented.

“Be sure to send it to me,” I replied. He promised.

By then, Nick was ready for some stadium fare, so we said goodbye to Ben and headed to the gate. Once inside, it was hotdogs and popcorn and Sprite…and then another hotdog, even before we started migrating to the stands. I got a little confused about our section number, and we ended up in a line that wIMG_20141122_142633ould’ve put us in the student section. Before I realized my mistake, we approached a young woman distributing miniature gold pom-poms. “Hey, Nick,” I said as came up, “you can get a shaker for the game!”

“Sorry, sir,” she apologized, “they’re only for students” (pause, glance down at Nicky), “but I have one for him.”

Now, understand that my Nicholas has Down syndrome, and we’ve discovered you can tell a lot about people by how they respond to him – almost like he’s a character barometer. I mean, how can you look at a kid like Nick and not melt? You’d have to be pretty callous – the kid’s pure love. Maybe that ND student-worker would’ve made a pom-pom exception for any eleven-year-old making his way into the stadium, but I like to think that she was especially motivated by Nick’s particular Down’s shine.

And it was the same when we were entering the stadium and buying our grub – smiles, beaming smiles all around at Nicky. And likewise when we got to our seats: Whereas I was just another ticket holder with a bulky down coat, Nick…well, Nick was more, especially during the national anthem.

“Don’t forget to put your hand over your heart,” I reminded him.

“No, papa,” he said soberly, as he formed his fingers into a salute. “I’m a Cub Scout, so I do this.” More beaming smiles all around.

It’s like he was an ambassador, and people changed when they saw his beautiful face – they lightened, they softened, they mollified. Even into that first quarter on Saturday, when the score went lopsided against the Irish so early, Nicky helped us keep it in perspective. After all, he was so happy just to be there! He was in Notre Dame stadium, and there was the marching band, and there was #5 – Everett Golson himself! – right down there on the field.

Score? What score?

Special needs’ kids and Notre Dame have a pretty tight relationship. I know that many ND students get involved with South Bend’s Logan Center in various ways, not to mention Hannah & Friends, founded by former ND coach Charlie Weis, as well as Sharing Meadows in nearby LaPorte County. Those are all excellent programs for the students, but Nick’s reception on Saturday illustrates something beyond programs – something about Notre Dame’s culture itself. marthaartworknd_landmarks

It’s a culture that we also saw on freshman orientation weekend last August as we attended events as a family with Ben. The students, the staff, the other anxious parents, and the volunteer alumni – everyone noticed Nicky. My wife especially observed it at the picnic dinner in the South Dining Hall on Saturday. The smiles, the looks, the whispers of delight.

That says something about Nick, of course, but it also says something about Notre Dame. It’s a place that seeks to form its members to be welcoming and receptive, especially of those less fortunate – the opposite of the “throwaway culture” that prevails today according to Pope Francis. The Holy Father’s remedy is exactly what we’ve observed at Our Lady’s University, at least when it comes to our Nick: The building up of a “culture of encounter, solidarity, and hospitality” toward everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

What with the rain and the long walks up the ramps to our seats, Nick was pretty much ready to go home before the half. We said our goodbyes to those seated near us, and we headed out of the stadium to the bookstore where Nancy was going to pick us up.

“Well, Nick, your first home game experience,” I said as we walked. “What was your favorite part?”

“The food,” he replied without hesitation. “And seeing Ben.”

If you ask me, it was the smiles. I guess it’s all in the perspective.

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The Cumulative Effect of Sub-Violent Events

Concussions and football are in the news again. Actually, they’ve been in the news pretty much continually lately, with revelations and horror stories about football and brain injuries popping up at every turn.

This week, it’s the big documentary appearing on PBS that seems to be dropping the hammer on the NFL, and what the organization may or may not have known about the real risks of professional football when it comes to repeated knocks to the head.

football1I have a boy playing football these days, and I’d be loath to yank him out, even after hearing some of the brain injury stories here and there. He’s in 8th-grade, and sure there’s a risk, but at that level, the chances of some kind of life-altering brain slam are slim. Cris loves the game and the camaraderie, and this year he’s playing both sides of the ball, offense and defense, every weekend. That means he’s getting banged up a bunch, but it’s all part of the action and the thrill, right? As long as he doesn’t snap his spine or black out completely, it’s just routine collateral damage, right?

That’s what I thought, but then I heard a segment on on Sound Medicine about that new documentary League of DenialProducer Michael Kirk made reference to the long-term consequences of “repeated sub-concussive effects,” especially for kids who start playing football at very young ages. This was a major point brought up in a PBS Newshour report which included an interview with ESPN writer and League of Denial investigator, Mark Fainaru-Wada:

The issue with football is not necessarily these big hits that we see all the time shown on highlight, but rather the repetitive nature of playing the game, the sub-concussive blows that happen everyday at the line of scrimmage.

And whether you can mitigate those out of the game or not remains to be seen, and whether you would want to, frankly, remains to be seen. It’s a brutal, violent sport, but very popular, obviously. I love it. My brother, who co-authored the book with me, we both love the sport. And, obviously, millions of people love it.

Indeed, we love it, and not despite it’s violence—it’s “danger” and “gladiatorial” character in the words of Michael Kirk—but because of it. In fact, would there be much left to football if we eliminated those factors? Hard to know. Should I reconsider letting my son play now, or give some serious thought to whether he should play in high school? I don’t know.

But I digress. What really caught my attention and imagination in these reports was the idea of sub-concussive events and their cumulative impact. Could it be that something similar has gone on in our culture with regards to our acceptance of killing as a way of life?

This came to mind as I read through a WSJ story about Ross Ulbricht, the creator and driving force behind the Silk Road website, now shut down by the feds. Silk Road dealt in the shady side of the internet, brokering transactions off the legal radar, especially illicit drugs. It sounds like Ross was a pretty smart guy, but he got tangled up with some nasty business, and it led him down a dark, dangerous path.

[Ulbricht] allegedly agreed to pay $80,000 to a Silk Road customer—an undercover federal agent—to have the associate tortured and killed, according to a federal indictment.

When the undercover agent sent Mr. Ulbricht doctored photos of the victim post-torture and beat up, but not dead, Mr. Ulbricht allegedly responded that he was “a little disturbed, but I’m OK,” and “I’m new to this kind of thing is all,” according to the indictment.

Right. New to this kind of thing—this kind of “thing” being torture and murder. How did Ulbrict get to the place where he’d even consider dabbling in that kind of thing? And, come to think of it, how about those kids in Texas who made their headline splash back in August when they shot and killed the Australian exchange student out of sheer boredom?

Now, you can’t tell me that Ulbricht and those Texas teens were genetically programmed for that kind of senseless violence, and it doesn’t sound like they had particularly jarring childhoods or any significant violent events in their personal histories. Instead, I’d be willing to bet that their embrace of wanton amorality and cruelty came after a gradual acclimation that involved repeated exposures to miniaturized, second-hand violence in the form of entertainment and news—almost like repeated sub-concussive hits to the soul that result in a broken moral compass.water_drip

It’s not any single massive assault, but rather a lifetime of little assaults via television and film, internet and gaming, not to mention the broader society’s easy acceptance of abortion on demand, terminal dehydration of the frail and failing, and drone-mediated targeted killings with associated “collateral damage.” If you grow up with an understanding that such things are commonplace and normal, then is it such a leap that you’d have your business foes tortured and snuffed out? That you’d take potshots off your porch at joggers just for grins?

Debt ceiling? Healthcare reform? I’d say we’ve got even more pressing matters to address. Way more pressing.

And could it be that we have to start on the gridiron itself? Perhaps. Football is, after all, a “brutal, violent sport,” as Fainaru-Wada put it—even “gladiatorial” according to Michael Kirk.

Maybe sub-concussive effects aren’t the only cumulative dangers we’re subjecting our young players to.

Football Widowers Guide

My brother got all the sports genes—what can I say? I collected baseball cards when I was a kid, but I always got killed on the trades because I didn’t know the good players from the bad, nor why they were good or bad. And let’s just say my Little League record closely paralleled by trading card record.

And basketball. And football. Football was especially important by the time we moved to Colorado. Back then, the Broncos were always contenders, as well as the C.U. Buffaloes—yes, those Buffbroncosaloes. The ones who went up against Notre Dame for a national title in 1991. (I remember that much.)

Then there’s the year the Broncos were in the Super Bowl against the Cowboys. While my dad and brother and his buddies crowded around the TV, I drove the family wagon to McDonald’s for burgers and fries, taking time to do some donuts in King Soopers’ parking lot. Yeah, no hurry to get home. It’s only football.

These days? We’re in Irish country, but I have retained my indifference to football. My wife, though, has become a super-fan, and the autumn revolves around Notre Dame’s schedule. We’ve even been to a few games, but staying at home is preferred: You can see what’s going on better on the big screen, and the snacks are cheap and plentiful.

It’s the radio for me, if anything at all. It’s too nerve-wracking to watch the tube and see what’s going wrong and not be able to do anything about it—like being in one of those nightmares that you can’t wake up from. (Not that the N.D. coaches would want my advice anyway, as my sons are all too quick to remind me.)

I used to listen to games on the radio while I worked in the garage or balanced the checkbook, but not so much now. Instead, I putz around, wander in and out where the game is on, and keep tabs on the kids and the dog. My wife can enjoy the game; I can enjoy that she’s enjoying the game.

Probably there aren’t too many American males in my predicament. But for those two or three guys out there who get what I’m talking about, I have a few suggestions. It’s a LIST, and I present it to you despite the objections of Joe Queenan last week in the WSJ.

1. Prepare gastronomically. There’s a good chance there won’t be a regular sit-down meal during the game, so plan ahead. Eat light but nutritionally prudent for breakfast, and skip lunch. You’ll be leaning heavily on cheese puffs, Chex Mix, and other junk food late on Saturday to get you through to Sunday.

2. Don’t radio-jump the TV-watchers. Games on the radio are always a few seconds ahead of television broadcasts it seems. Consequently, if you’re listening and hear a touchdown called and then let out a cheer? The TV-watchers (including your wife) won’t appreciate it. It’s like telling somebody the punchline of a Sunday comic he’s reading before he gets there himself. Taboo.

3. No patronizing or gloating. If you’re not rooting for the home team, keep your mouth shut.notre-dame

4. Anticipate broadcast issues. Get cable or satellite, and make sure it’s working. If you’re like me, and you’ve rejected cable and satellite on principle, then make sure you know ahead of time whether the game will be broadcast at all.

And it’s important to determine the network ahead of time so that the proper channel can be located and the antenna adjusted. Of course, if it’s ESPN, forget it. It’s the doghouse for you that week. Plus you’ll be picking up the tab for nachos and Coke at a local eatery so your spouse and sons can at least watch the kick-off and the first half.

5. Do the dishes. And do them in such a way as to draw attention to your contribution. Once the game is over, and everyone who watched it is either celebrating or weeping, you can use your dishwashing oblation as a means of reconnecting with your spouse. And if it was a bunch of dishes, it can carry over throughout the week.

Until the next kickoff, that is. Go Irish!

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