After tragedy struck his family, Nic Weishar found his calling in community service.
It has been nearly six years now.
Yet the pain never really goes away.
There are daily reminders, and there are hints of the numbness, too.
That’s what happens when you lose a family member.
That’s what happened to University of Notre Dame senior tight end Nic Weishar.
For years the Weishar brothers — Andrew, Danny and Nic — were a local version of the Three Musketeers in Midlothian, Illinois, a southwest Chicago suburb.
They couldn’t have been any closer, couldn’t have done more things together, couldn’t have shared their family bond and brotherly love any more than they did.
Then came the news that changed everything.
Andrew, then a freshman football player at Illinois Wesleyan, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
He did all the right things, underwent all the applicable treatments, had the most positive of attitudes.
“He told me he was going to beat it, just like an opponent in football,” Nic says.
“He was as unselfish and caring a person as you could meet. Totally humble, just an unbelievably good guy.
“Even when he was dying, people would come to see him and he’d want to know how they were doing. He always put others ahead of himself.”
But none of that was enough. Two years later he was gone.
“Andrew passed away October 12, 2012, just before he would have turned 22,” says Nic matter of factly.
“I was a junior in high school. And his last wish to me and my brother Danny was to be able to pay forward the kind of generosity he was shown.
“When he was sick there were so many communities of people who came together to help, bringing dinner and just showing all of us love in so many ways. He was really moved that so many people cared about him and went out of their way to help.
“Even as his condition got worse, he made us promise that we would do something. Andrew wanted other families to feel that same kind of love.”
A few months passed, and Nic, Danny and their parents kept thinking about what Andrew had said in his last days.
“What did he mean by that? What could we possibly do to reach that many people?” Nic says all the Weishars wondered.
And, so, instead of simply grieving, withdrawing and desperately trying to find a way to fight through its loss, the family took another path.
Weish4Ever — the Andrew Weishar Foundation — was born.
Its mission is to serve as an all-purpose resource for the families of children and adolescent cancer patients, providing financial, emotional and moral support, along with understanding and wise counsel.
Nic credits his brother Danny for having the vision and commitment to make the foundation — and, in particularly the annual WeishFest that has become its signature event — grow to be as widespread in its effectiveness as possible.
“That could be a sign from Andrew, kind of giving us that vision,” suggests Nic.
For Andrew, the story was not about him and the difficulties his illness created. He flipped the script and made it about all the others afflicted with cancer, knowing exactly how deeply it affected the families involved.
And, so, with a lot of help from others, Danny and Nic and their family have changed that narrative for their lost brother and son. Their foundation exists to provide financial assistance to families coping with what the Weishars experienced.
It’s their way of honoring Andrew.
“It’s hard,” admits Nic.
“The pain is always here. This is about us having a way.
“We miss him every day.
“I think about him every day.
“This foundation helps us see the joy we can bring to other families through the death of Andrew — and that really helps to cope with that pain.
“I don’t want to move on from Andrew, but it helps you garner the strength to be able to live, knowing that he’s not here but he’s watching over us.
“We feel his presence every day.”
The Weishars represented something of a football family. Andrew played three sports at Brother Rice High School in Chicago and had gone to Illinois Wesleyan to continue playing football. Danny, too, graduated from Brother Rice and then from the University of Illinois in 2015.
Youngest brother Nic (born four years after Andrew) became the star of the family, attending Marist High School and threatening the all-time Illinois prep record book with his 237 career catches for 3,050 yards and 28 touchdowns.
He played both ways in football, displaying noteworthy talents on the basketball court as well — and had football programs including Notre Dame, Michigan and Northwestern (the three finalists he identified) interested in adding him to their roster.
In South Bend, Weishar remains immersed in the middle of a talented 2018 corps of Notre Dame tight ends. His 15 career receptions (two of those for TDs in 2017) may be modest.
Yet there was no question in his mind that he would take advantage of the invitation to come back to play in 2018, even after graduating in May with a finance degree.
That decision had plenty to do with football. But it also had something to do with Weishar’s appreciation for how his teammates and the University responded to his personal trials.
“I did not want to walk away from Notre Dame,” says Weishar.
“(Head) Coach (Brian) Kelly and (offensive coordinator) Coach (Chip) Long see me as a playmaker on this team when I’m called upon.
“And, personally, in the locker room, well, I didn’t want to walk away from that either.
“Notre Dame is a special place.”
And there’s little doubt about Weishar’s leadership role with the 2018 Irish squad. Just check out the Notre Dame locker room in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. Lockers at the end of rows generally are reserved for team captains. One of those belongs to Weishar.
“I didn’t want to pass on the opportunity to come back for another year,” he says.
“It was a combination of all that.”
Weishar is convinced of all that in great part because of the way he saw the Irish program respond to the family’s efforts to honor his brother Andrew.
The foundation began WeishFest, its major Chicago-area musical benefit, in 2013 at a minor-league baseball park in Crestwood, Illinois. The 2018 version is set for December 1 — in its third year at 115 Bourbon Street in Merrionette Park, Illinois.
Among headline musical acts have been O.A.R., Eddie Money, Third Eye Blind, Warrant and Rodney Atkins. Among 2018 musical attractions are Easton Corbin, Suburban Cowboys and Sean and Charlie. Former Notre Dame punter Hunter Smith brought his band one year.
“My first year at Notre Dame in 2014 it happened during fall camp, so I was the only one here able to attend,” says Weishar.
“Then in 2015 it was in late July, and that year the reaction was great.
“I brought it to the attention of the captains and asked if I could bring it up with the whole team — and they were all completely on board.
“The next thing you know everybody on the team raised their hand and said they wanted to come. I talked to more people and we had a bus full of guys come — 30 or 40 guys.
“As just a sophomore, to be able to feel that presence from the team was unbelievable. It shows you the character of the guys on our team.”
WeishFest moved to December the last two years, but many Irish players trekked to Chicago on their own to attend.
Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer has been something of a one-man promotions committee all by himself.
“DeShone on draft day (in 2017) had the Weish4Ever logo on the inner lining of his suit. That enabled him to raise funds through his connection with Jack Link’s Beef Jerky and he contributed that directly to the foundation.
“Then last year he did ‘My Cause My Cleats’ (an NFL program allowing players for one designated week to wear specially designed footwear to support specific charitable causes) and it was pretty surreal. It really speaks to the character of DeShone.”
While school and football currently occupy so much of Weishar’s time, he continues to be as active as he can be with the foundation and looks forward to the day he can be even more involved.
“We talk all the time about where we want the foundation to go. There are stats out there that suggest about half of non-profits fail after their third years. We’re past that point, so now it’s, ‘Where do we go from here?’
“Danny has an unbelievable vision. He wants to make this one of the biggest charities in America. We could end up with WeishFest in different cities every year — that could be the next step. That would enable us to help more families and widen our reach around the country.”
The tough reality for Nic and Danny is that their foundation work suggests that they constantly relive the years they spent with Andrew while he dealt with the cancer.
Says Nic, “I’m on the beneficiary committee, so we get all the requests, read the stories and sort them out. Some of the referrals come by word of mouth, plus we have a number of social workers in Chicago-area hospitals who bring families to us. We’ve hit just about every state.
“It’s really hard to read these stories of what these families are going through. But we haven’t had to say no very often so far. And the program continues to grow. And we don’t just give you money and forget you. We’re with you all the way through the process.
“Aside from huge medical bills, there are expenses involved with cancer treatment that you might not think about until they hit you. Andrew went to the Mayo Clinic for surgery, so there were travel costs. Travel costs — hotels, meals, even parking if you’re going downtown for treatment — all of it can be a real financial burden on a family.”
To date the Weishar foundation has provided grants to 150 families worth a combined $800,00.
Weishar has grown more comfortable with his role, which often translates to telling Andrew’s story. In effect, he spreads the gospel of his brother Andrew.
“I don’t know if it gets easier to talk about it. But I think over time I’ve done a better job of depicting the scenario and the details,” he says.
“Just being able to tell people how Andrew lived — I’ve gotten better at that. It’s good for everybody to hear the story.
“I don’t think it will ever get easier to tell the story. But I love telling it — people need to hear it and it will enable them to help other people down the road, for sure.”
Weishar credits so many people for helping him personally cope over the last eight years.
“Throughout high school I had great people around me,” he says.
“My family was always there. I had great high school coaches — the football and basketball coaches were really instrumental in me being able to get through all that. They were all there from the start.
“It was an incredible journey for Andrew and we hope to be able to spread his message and his story and be able to help more families. Plus, we actually get to meet most of the families we are able to help and that’s something special. We know their stories and we stay in touch with them as much as we can.”
Weishar admits it can be tough for his parents, Jean and Don, to put their feelings into words.
“My mom has a hard time talking about the story and my dad does, too. They’re definitely involved in the foundation and getting people involved.
“But there are days when they miss Andrew a little bit more. They just need a hug from me or Danny.
“Coming to Notre Dame and with me being involved in football here has been a little bit of an escape for them and that’s probably good.
“When we talk about the foundation, you automatically think of Andrew. There’s no better way to remember someone than by talking about him and thinking about him. That’s something we definitely enjoy.”
Adds Danny, “Andrew’s time with us could not be a better blueprint for how to live a life of faith, courage and strength, knowing each day is a gift.”
Weishar would love to sidestep his business background for now and give professional football a whirl. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see him end up in the Chicago area where he can become a larger part of the foundation.
“I want to give the NFL a shot, that’s always been in my dreams,” he says, with a nod to Notre Dame’s tradition of tight end success both in an Irish uniform and at the next level.
“But it’s good to have other options, too, and there are lots of financial opportunities in the Chicago area.
“As I get older I hope to be doing a lot more with the foundation. My brother works a full-time job, but he does WeishFest full-time, too. Hopefully I can take some of that off his plate — he’s trying to find some people to take a little load off his back.”
Meanwhile Nic walks into the Irish football locker room nearly every day, knowing his teammates have his back, even if it’s an unspoken commitment.
“I don’t know if anyone really brings it up that much with me, but sometimes people ask about Andrew and the whole family,” he says.
“I’m not the only one on the team that has dealt with things like this. And I can lend an extra helping hand — put your arm around a guy and just be there for him.
“There’s something about knowing that someone has been through a similar situation. People know about it and they know I’m there for them if something happens to them.
“Notre Dame has been so great with everything and that really means a lot.”
Irish captain Alex Bars, an Irish offensive lineman in his fifth year like Weishar, has been one of Nic’s best friends since the two enrolled together (they lived together last semester).
He recalls first hearing about Andrew and the foundation in a casual conversation Nic had with some of his Irish teammates in their freshman season.
“It was still fresh then,” says Bars, who became a regular at WeishFest.
“I couldn’t even imagine what he’s gone through — losing a brother. It’s obviously a tough subject. I think all of us understand the struggle he’s been through. We’re not going to talk about it a whole lot, but we’re going to support him every way we can.
“The fact he can come to Notre Dame and do all the things he’s done here is pretty remarkable.
“We applaud him for that.”
Ardent Irish fans may suggest Notre Dame football is a matter of life and death.
Nic Weishar and the Andrew Weishar Foundation know better.
For more information on the Andrew Weishar Foundation, visit www.weishfest.com and follow the foundation on Twitter and Instagram @weish4ever.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.