Sophomore TE Durham Smythe.

IRISH EXTRA: Football Makes a Holiday Contribution

Dec. 19, 2014

In December, festive lights beam a full spectrum of color that celebrates holiday joy.

The brightest lights of the season, far brighter than any scoreboard lights, burn within and illuminate the soul.

This Christmas season, some of the brightest lights burn within University of Notre Dame football players Durham Smythe, Jacob Matuska and Colin McGovern.

Sandwiched between football commitments and finals, Smythe, Matuska and McGovern took a rare Saturday off to visit a pediatric cancer center in the Chicago area.

For Smythe, a 6-foot-4, 242-pound sophomore tight end, visiting Cadence Health/DuPage rekindled childhood memories.

“As a kid, my dad (Dr. Roy Smythe) was a resident at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston,” Smythe said. “When I was young, from age 4 to about age 10, my dad would take my sister and me every Christmas Eve to the cancer center. We would walk around to his patients’ rooms and pass out holiday candy.

“That was always cool to me,” Smythe said. “I haven’t been able to do it the past couple of years, being busy with school. I thought if the opportunity ever presented itself, I would try to do that again.”

After Smythe attended an on-campus pediatric cancer party involving Notre Dame student-athletes, he was inspired to do more.

“I wanted to do something like I used to do when I was a kid,” Smythe said. “I called my dad, who now lives in the Evanston area, just north of Chicago. I asked if there were any local pediatric cancer centers that might be excited to have us come in and see the kids.”

Smythe’s father, who played on Baylor’s 1980 Southwest Conference championship team, and Notre Dame football’s director of player development, Duke Preston, made arrangements for the visit.

“The main reason I was doing something like this, when I was 12 or 13, you try to put yourself in the position those people are in,” Smythe said. “It’s worse with kids, because it’s so early on. You see these people who are in cancer centers over the holidays. That’s a time you really want to be home with your family. If our presence has the ability to make them happy for a couple of minutes, it’s worth it.

“It’s fulfilling for us, but hopefully it’s something special for the people we visited. I think it’s a really cool deal. We’re doing it for them, but we get so much out of it, too. I’d love to keep doing this.”

The Notre Dame players met the children and their parents. They gave Irish posters and lanyards to the children and posed for pictures.

Matuska, a 6-4, 289-pound sophomore defensive end, said Notre Dame encourages all of its students to embrace service.

“This is a Catholic University, and it’s built on faith,” Matuska said. “I have a theology class, and we were talking about how our University emphasizes getting out and giving back. That’s really important to me and it’s important to our football team.

“This University not only makes you a better student, and in our case, better athletes, but also it builds you as a person. Just being here the past couple of years, it’s made me become a better person and made things like this more interesting to me and more important to me.”

When Matuska and his teammates met a 13-year-old boy, the child’s parents asked what advice they could give to their son.

“We shared what we’ve learned through our lives so far,” Matuska said. “We’re still young, we’re still becoming the people we’re going to be. It was tough to know what to say. We explained our experiences. We talked about putting all of your effort into something that you love, because that’s how you’re going to become whoever you want to be in the future. If you see something that you want, and you have that as your goal, you have to work at it. It’s not just going to be handed to you.”

For Matuska, the experience was moving.

“Going in, I thought it was going to be a pretty emotional day,” he said. “These are kids going through tough times and families that are going through tough times. It’s not something that we’re used to seeing. It really put our own lives in perspective. Overall, the experience was very special. It was really eye-opening for us. I was excited to be able to contribute and give something back to the community.”

A 6-4, 313-pound sophomore offensive lineman, McGovern also appreciated the opportunity to help the Christmas spirit burn brightly.

“It gives you a different feeling other than success on the football field or the classroom,” McGovern said of the experience. “It gives you a holistic feeling, being able to help someone who is underprivileged or not in a good situation.

“There’s definitely that aspect of giving back that Notre Dame encourages. Especially in athletics, they stress that. I think it’s really important to Notre Dame as a whole. It’s not about how successful you can be in life, it’s about how, if you are successful, you can give back to the community.”

For Smythe, the experience was uplifting and carved into the essence of his being.

“All the patients have their own story, their own influence on us,” Smythe said. “Being able to experience everyone’s story was meaningful. Each patient was extremely important and each created a presence in our hearts.”

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent