Irish Extra: This Irish Football Camp Is No Fantasy for Participants

June 8, 2015

Fantasy football doesn’t always mean fantasy moves come true.

Last season at the University of Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp, Ge Wang, a 2008 Notre Dame graduate, tried a move that is a video-game player’s dream.

“I thought I was younger than I was,” said Wang. “I double-tapped the circle button, for those kids playing Madden. Don’t double-tap it. That’s when you get hurt.”

Wang’s attempt to pull off a stunning spin move ended up with Wang being carried off the field.

Suffering a torn ACL couldn’t keep Wang off the turf this season for the Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp.

“I grew up with Notre Dame in my blood,” Wang said Thursday night after the Irish fantasy football game ended on a perfect night at Notre Dame Stadium. “My father is an alum. I cherish every opportunity to come back. I grew up saying ‘Go Irish.’ I’ve been coming to games since I was five years old. When you set foot on campus, there’s something magical and special about this place. It’s hard to put in words.”

Wang’s business creates custom-made suits, shirts and other finery for Chicago’s elite, including top stars from the NFL, the NBA, the NHL and MLB.

At Notre Dame’s fantasy camp, Wang steps onto the green turf where legends have roamed.

“First off, I’m trying to prove that I’m young, which I’m not any more,” Wang said of returning to Notre Dame’s fantasy camp after suffering an injury. “It’s always nice to come back and this is a great experience, but really it’s the friendships you build year after year. You become lifelong friends with the people you meet here. To run out of the tunnel is an added bonus. The friendships you build, they’re really something special.”

Mark Smith of Cleveland, Tennessee, has been at the Notre Dame fantasy camp for 10 consecutive years.

“As a boy, I was an Irish fan,” Smith said. “I’m still a little boy. I don’t want to grow up. This is my boyhood dream. Every Catholic kid in Chicago wants to play for Notre Dame when they’re growing up.

“Notre Dame is a family. There’s no other place that has a family like Notre Dame. Whether you’re here one time or 10 times, it’s all family. Notre Dame is people. That’s what makes Notre Dame more special than any other place.”

Smith and his father run 10 McDonald’s Restaurants. His second passion is college athletics.

What sent chills up Smith’s spine was when legendary Irish coach Ara Parseghian walked into the Notre Dame locker room to talk to this summer’s campers.

“There’s nothing greater than hearing Ara Parseghian in the Notre Dame locker room,” Smith said. “He’s one of the greatest coaches in the history of college football. I have a good friend, George Kunz, who played for him. George was the captain of the 1968 team. He speaks unbelievably highly of Coach Parseghian. Coach Parseghian is a legend. Seeing him . . . it was very special.”

Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp manager Lacey Love said the oldest camper this year is 70 years old and the youngest camper is in his mid-30s.

“The guys have created their own family here,” said Love. “It’s a fraternity, a camaraderie, a family. Three campers who met here four years ago bought a house together in South Bend to come back for games. These guys are a tight-knit group. Once you accept that it’s a bunch of guys who just want to live the dream, it’s a lot of fun.”

Notre Dame’s Football Fantasy Camp has 47 campers who hail from as far away as Hawaii and Canada–and from as close as Granger.

One of the special features for Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp participants is the visits from former Irish greats.

This past week, an Irish pantheon of Manti Te’o, Brady Quinn, Tim Brown, Marc Edwards, Kory Minor, George Goeddeke, Allen Rossum, Allen Pinkett, Julius Jones and John Carlson helped the fantasy camp forge the memories of a lifetime.

Campers weren’t the only ones in awe of the visits from former Irish greats.

“It’s always incredible when former players come back,” Irish cornerback Matthias Farley said. “They’ve all been where we are, and in a lot of cases they have been where we want to go. They still preach the same message that is preached to us from the coaching staff now. It’s exciting and encouraging to have them come back. They are so invested in this place, and they have so much wisdom that they can impart. It’s a great way to pick someone’s brain about, ‘What are you doing now?’ or ‘How’s life been?’

“I always talk to Rod Smith. He lives in Charlotte (Farley’s hometown). I met him before I even committed to Notre Dame. I’ve kept up with him. It was great to see him this week and catch up and hear how life is for him.”

Farley said the campers also make a huge impact on the current Irish players.

“I look forward to this week all year,” Farley said. “It’s a great way to kick off the summer. It’s a great way to kick off the 2015 season. You come out here, and there are all these die-hard Notre Dame fans who would do anything to trade spots with me and any of my teammates. It’s humbling that these guys come here and battled through a bunch of injuries and come out and compete. It’s so special for them to play a game at Notre Dame Stadium. It means so much to them that it really puts it all into perspective for my teammates and me.”

Notre Dame running backs coach Autry Denson said he loved being around the fantasy camp participants because their passion for Notre Dame reminds him how blessed his is to be part of the Irish football program. He also likes what it does for the current players.

“This event teaches the players we have now what it’s all about,” Denson said. “When you’re here, you don’t get it. You’re too young. When you’re here, you’re thinking, ‘I want to get out of here and I want to get to that Notre Dame network. I want to get to the NFL.’ You want to get that degree. You’re so focused on what’s ahead that you forget what’s right in front of you and you can’t appreciate it.

“If you talk to every alumnus here, he will tell you that you spent your time trying to get out of Notre Dame and then you spend the rest of the time trying to get back. What’s nice about this is our players hear the stories, they further appreciate what they have–and hopefully they slow down a little bit so they can appreciate the journey while they’re here.”

Mourning a Friend

Manti Te’o, who helped lead Notre Dame to the 2012 national championship game, returned to South Bend to mourn the passing of Robert Sedlack, a professor of visual communication and design at Notre Dame.

Te’o said Sedlack helped him decide to stay at Notre Dame for his 2012 season.

“He was not only my professor, but somebody who I trusted, somebody who had a lot of impact on my life,” Te’o said of Sedlack. “My conversation with him my junior year was very influential in my decision to stay. He and I had been in contact since I left.”

Te’o loved the opportunity to visit Notre Dame.

“It means the world,” Te’o said of coming back to Irish ground. “Notre Dame is home. Within a home, you have family members. I told the younger players, `I don’t know any of you personally, but the fact that you wear the Notre Dame logo and emblem on the chest makes us family.’ I’ve only met Tim Brown two or three times, but I feel like I’ve know him my whole life because that Notre Dame logo brings us all together.

“Notre Dame brought a lot of people into my life, like Professor Sedlack, who had a tremendous impact on my life and became part of my own family. His passing affected me deeply. He meant a lot to me.”

Next Phase

Former Notre Dame tight end John Carlson is retiring from the NFL after seven seasons. Carlson played with Seattle, Minnesota and Arizona after leaving the Irish. Carlson said Thursday at the Notre Dame fantasy camp football game that his transition to life after football will be aided by his Notre Dame experience.

“The principles I learned at Notre Dame will help me a number of ways after football,” Carlson said. “The thing that jumps out at me immediately is the Notre Dame family. It’s a real thing. It’s something I experienced in the eight years since I graduated. It’s a network of people who truly care about one another. I’ve been the recipient of a lot of great advice and support. That’s a key component of what Notre Dame is, the alumni network, the family.

“Beyond that, I have a history degree from here that I’m proud of. If I choose to go into education, that will be directly correlated with my degree in the education path that I chose. I’m continuing to pursue different opportunities and figure out what I’m really passionate about. Football has been my passion for five years in college and seven years in the NFL. It’s going to take a little time to figure that out, but I’m going to try to be patient and work the process.”

Fullback Memories

Marc Edwards, who was a captain for the Irish in his senior season (1996) and played in the NFL for eight seasons, lamented the lack of plays for a fullback in the Irish fantasy camp game and football overall.

“There are no fullbacks in today’s game,” Edwards said.

“I talked to kids nowadays. They say, ‘Oh, you played professional football? What position did you play?’ Fullback. ‘What’s that?’

“Fullback will come back a little bit,” Edwards said. “You look at teams that are having some success in the NFL, Seattle, San Francisco in past years. They have the fullback in there a little bit. But it will never be what it was in the 1980s and the 90s.”

Although Edwards ran the ball and caught the ball some, Job One for him was blocking.

“I take a lot of pride in the fact Autry Denson is the all-time leading rusher at Notre Dame and I got him started his first two years,” Edwards said.

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent