Feb. 12, 2016
By Leigh Torbin
Triskaidekaphobia, a fear of the number 13, afflicts millions of Americans in particular.
Airlines skip a 13th row to help assuage fears of passengers. Hotels skip a 13th floor so that their superstitious guests can rest more comfortably.
Overachieving jack-of-all-trades Notre Dame women’s lacrosse midfielder Katherine Eilers has an inherent triskaidekaphobia immunity, however. For Eilers, wearing 13 for Notre Dame is a family tradition.
Eilers is the daughter of similarly overachieving jack-of-all-trades former Irish football player Pat Eilers who wore the allegedly-unlucky number for Notre Dame from 1987-89, including for the 1988 consensus national championship season.
After Katherine wore number 20 for her first two years at Notre Dame, the graduation of Caitlin Gargan opened up number 13 for this, her junior year. Most would run from 13. Eilers sprinted to it.
“I decided to switch over to 13 to embody him,” Katherine said of Pat. “He’s been one of my role models my whole life. It’s a special bond to have with your father.”
The bond from an athletic standpoint is eerily similar. A transfer from Yale, Pat Eilers received no promises when he joined the Irish football team. He earned a position in the starting lineup through sheer determination, even scoring a touchdown in the momentous 1988 upset of Miami. Although hardly the most physically-gifted athlete on a team with Tim Brown, Rocket Ismail and others, Eilers crafted out a niche with his versatility and engineered it into a six-year NFL career.
Hailing from suburban Chicago, Katherine Eilers does not come from the seat of lacrosse royalty. While the game is rapidly developing in the Midwest and other parts of the country, the top players still often reside in the northeast. Katherine’s zip code is moot to Irish head coach Christine Halfpenny however. Halfpenny is merely interested in Eilers’ zip and the surge she has provided of late has earned Eilers a spot in the starting midfield.
“She’s that kid who is nothing flashy but does the dirty work,” Halfpenny says of Katherine. “She’s usually that one who does all of the behind the scenes stuff that doesn’t even end up on the stat line. She might be the pass before the feed (for a goal). She might be the transition player that handled the ball through a triple team. She does everything that you ask her to do. She’s incredibly coachable. She can make the adjustments and does it all with a smile on her face.”
Lest someone think that the apple feel anywhere but adjacent to the tree, former Notre Dame head football coach Lou Holtz said this of Pat Eilers in 1989 “I don’t want to put him down on his talent, but he’s certainly an overachiever. He’s played running back, defensive back, been a wide receiver. He’s willing to do anything for this football team.”
All of which leads back to exactly how this family tradition of wearing the most unluckiest of numbers for the Irish came to be and the true significance of the number for both father and daughter.
Dan Marino ended up with 13 when his youth football-coaching father didn’t want to appear to be showing his son any favoritism. Wilt Chamberlain claimed that 13 wasn’t unlucky for him — it was unlucky for his opponents.
Indiana Pacers star Paul George recently switched to 13 for self-promotion, liking how his initials and new number matched the familiar movie rating PG-13. Pat Eilers elected to wear 13 for a different type of marketing pitch — not one to motivate kids to buy jerseys, but one to motivate himself.
“When I decided to transfer to Notre Dame, (Yale defensive line coach) Dave Kelley told me that he thought I wouldn’t ever play,” the native Minnesotan recalled. “I said that it might be, but I’d rather try and never play than not try.
“When I got to Notre Dame, (equipment manager) Gene O’Neill had different numbers available and I asked him if I could wear number 13. The reason I chose 13 is because transferring from Yale, I felt I was going against the odds. Thirteen is supposed to be unlucky, so I felt like I might as well stack all the odds against me, which was my way to motivate myself. Every time I put on the jersey it always reminded me the odds are against you and it has a way to focus yourself knowing that you have to perform.”
Perform Pat Eilers did for the Irish. The intrinsic meaning behind the 13 she now dons on the lacrosse field is not lost on Katherine as she performs.
“What I try to embody the most from my father is his work ethic,” she said. “He always wasn’t the most athletic on the field but that he always gave 100%. Some days it won’t go in my favor but in order to compensate for that I just have to give 100% effort.”
Does Katherine succeed in this area? There is no question in the eyes of her coach.
“She’s a coach’s dream,” Halfpenny said. “She shows up. She rolls up her sleeves. She works hard. She is there for her teammates. She’s one of the best teammates that you could ask for. She champions her teammates. She celebrates her teammates. You need that at this level where day-in and day-out you’re playing some of the best teams in the country. She reminds our team that we are one of the best.”
On the 13th day of February, that run of elite competition will continue for the Irish as they play host to No. 15 Stanford inside the Loftus Sports Center. Number 13 for the Irish will again be in the starting lineup. After seeing her playing time increase significantly from her freshman to her sophomore year, Katherine is poised to take another step forward as a junior.
In the season-opener last Saturday at Jacksonville she controlled four draws, giving All-American Barbara Sullivan a respite. Eilers caused a pair of Dolphin turnovers to contribute on defense. She scooped up two ground balls to gain Irish possessions. She was even credited with a goal on a deflected shot by Casey Pearsall.
“Freshman and sophomore year I got a chance to develop my skills, solidify my fundamentals and understand what we really want both offensively and defensively,” Eilers said of her transition and maturation as a player. “As a junior, having this new leadership role, has been a new transition having those qualities solidified along with the seniors to look up to.”
Katherine Eilers was typically soft-spoken when asked of how her father took the news of her uniform change. “He just smiled, said that was really cool and gave me a hug,” was all that she said of it.
Pat Eilers elaborated about how he did not take the gesture lightly.
“She grew up around Notre Dame and its football and I was flattered and humbled that she’d want to wear the same number that I chose to wear when I was there,” he said.
“To me, it’s a number that’s supposed to be unlucky. Instead of running from trying to overcome the odds, you might as well hit it straight on. Every time you put on the jersey it reminds you of it. For Katherine it’s similar in that most of the people for lacrosse come from (the northeast). Katherine coming in is a little bit against the odds too.”
Pat’s experience at Notre Dame was fulfilling. The Yale transfer who was warned he may never actually play for the Irish saw the football field consistently for three years, making 18 career starts. Eilers hit .307 for the baseball team and earned degrees in both biology and mechanical engineering from Notre Dame. His Irish experiences have led to a successful post-football business career.
That supposedly unlucky blue and gold 13 that helped push Pat to succeed under Saint Mary’s mindful eye from atop the golden dome now inspires Katherine to reap the same benefits of Notre Dame.
“It warms your heart knowing that a good experience that you had that your kid can participate and be a part of that as well,” Pat said. “Nothing makes you feel better as a parent if you went to Notre Dame. It’s bittersweet because you’re leaving your kid but you feel so good about where you’re leaving them.”
Not only is Katherine, like her older sister Elizabeth before her and her father before them, attending one of the top academic universities in the country, she is also attending one of the top lacrosse universities in the country.
The Irish women’s team is ascending the national rankings as it aims for its school-record fifth consecutive NCAA championship berth and a deep advancement into the field. Notre Dame’s roster, ripe with 11 returning starters and the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation, has the pieces in place to play well into May.
The NCAA championship begins on May 13. A portion of how far the team advances will rest on the shoulders of an overachieving jack-of-all-trades junior named Eilers with the number 13 on her back. It is a familiar scenario for Irish fans, not a single one of which need to be reminded about how Pat’s junior year of 1988 culminated.
Leigh Torbin, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013 and coordinates all media efforts for the Notre Dame women’s lacrosse team while serving as the football publicity team’s top lieutenant. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.