Oct. 23, 2013

Lizzie Mikes

Media Services Coordinator

When I was in college, I joined a sorority. Not just any sorority, but one whose open motto was `Active, Self-Reliant, Trustworthy’ (AST, which stand for Alpha Sigma Tau). My motivation for joining was to be a part of something: a community of like minds and kindred spirits, of people who wanted to do more with their collegiate years and lives after college than just say “I got this degree, and now I work here.”

On Monday, October 21, 2013, the University of Notre Dame’s football team had that same thought in mind when 70 players traveled to the South Bend Center for the Homeless. Those same burly, menacing players who beat USC two nights prior sat down with approximately 100 residents at the Center and proceeded to share a meal and laughter throughout the evening.

The players were joined by head coach Brian Kelly and his wife Paqui, and the visit was supplemented by donations from the Kelly Cares Foundation. Each player gave a guest a gift bag with toiletries and other donated items, while children received homemade blankets that were hand-made by residents in the Cavanaugh, Pasquerilla East, Howard and Walsh dormitories on campus.

The gift bags also featured personalized notes from the players, for guests to draw inspiration from long after the evening had ended.

The experience was both unique and heartwarming to witness; enjoyable and exciting to partake in, and left a lasting impression with all who were present that the best things in life can’t hold a candle to true friendship and camaraderie.

Intimidation and Fan Clubs

Linebacker Jaylon Smith and defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt had their own personal fan club, as brothers Nahsir and Jeremiah ran gleefully around telling anybody that stopped to high-five the duo that “Jaylon” was their favorite player and that “Stephon was going to be a `PRO-fes-sion-ALE’ football player”. While they meandered around asking players how they got so tall – the answer invariably being drinking milk and eating vegetables with lots of fruit – their youngest brother chased after, clutching his gift bag in hands just too small to catch a football quite yet.

At another table Selena Turner sat nearby, too intimidated by the likes of Kona Schwenke, Carlo Calabrese and Tyler Stockton to even eat her meal. As the group munched on Caesar salad, Turner shared her story with the defensive players and was amazed to see how kind the big guys were towards her.

Kona Schwenke (left), Tyler Stockton (center) and Carlo Calabrese (right) pose for a picture with some guests.

When asked what she learned from the players, her immediate response was “that they’re human.” She continued, “They’re tough boys on the field, but they all have a sensitive side to them. Here we were, all intimidated to see them on TV crushing another player, and yet here they are asking us questions and being interested in our answers!”

Herc For The Homeless

The players took their lead from junior tight end Troy Niklas, who ever since high school has shown compassion to the homeless.

“I really feel for the struggles those people go through, being homeless, where there’s not a lot of hope and it’s hard to witness. That sadness, the lack of hope; sometimes it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel because things haven’t been going their way,” he explains. “I can tell it’s really hard to be homeless, to literally be stripped of all dignity and have someone take care of you even though you know you can work – you just can’t find a job. I really felt sad for the people at the Center that night, and I wish I could help more.

“What inspires me the most from that evening was the lady at the end of the meal, who talked about the reality of being homeless; of the struggles that come with it, and coming to the realization that you are homeless and accepting that fact. She started to tear up, and at that point I just felt, `Wow, that’s so true what she said, and at the same time, so sad’. It made me really happy to know that just by us being there, we were able to brighten her day.”

Tight end Troy Niklas and a fan chat over salad and rolls.

When asked about what it was like taking the initiative to start planning an event like this, Niklas replies, “It was difficult; it’s a side of me I’ve never really shown to the team. I like to mess around and have fun, but I also like to get my work done and homelessness is a serious thing. At the same time, I felt like we could really make an impact at the shelter, and that’s why I decided to go ahead with it.”

Of all the players that came, Tuitt surprised the tight end the most. “I was really surprised at Stephon,” Niklas remarks. “I always knew he was a really passionate guy because we roomed together the summer before freshman year, and I got to know him better than most. I knew he had a really big heart, but when he talked at the dinner, and to see how much he opened up, that really surprised me.

“I would love to see other Fighting Irish teams and their coaches hold similar events,” Niklas says to questions about community involvement outside of football. “I think helping someone, that’s what its all about – doing good and having a ripple effect throughout the community. You never know where a ripple can lead (to), and I’d like to think tonight we created a big ripple. I’d like to see that ripple carried.”

Inspiration Is Two-Fold

Kelly and his wife both elaborated on the idea of that night’s meal being a two-way street. “They (the players) are inspiring others, and they’re getting inspiration at the same time, right at the same table. They’re a Notre Dame football player, but they’re able to be inspired by somebody less fortunate. That’s the special part of Notre Dame” Kelly says.

Tuitt and his defensive teammates shared more than laughter at their table, as the conversation revolved around a shared hobby of cooking. One guest shared a recipe for New York style cheesecake, while Tuitt countered with southern foods he enjoys making.

When asked what the event meant to them, the gentleman responds, “These guys, the fact that they care and are still real young but have a social motivation to reach out to people in a hard spot, that’s very cool and inspiring. To know that there are people out there that have good hearts is wonderful to experience.”

Tuitt elaborates, “It inspires me, listening to everybody’s story, and to be able to use that story as fuel to keep moving forward in my own life. When I fall down, and when I want to give up, I can get up and keep moving forward with my life. That’s the best lesson I take away from tonight.”

Sweetest Surprise

While the dessert plates were being cleared and the last of the thank yous were being said, a surprise still waited in the corner for center director Steve Camilleri and his residents. Niklas, in his closing comments, presented Camilleri and the center with $4,700, $1,700 of which he personally had fundraised by reaching out to friends, classmates, teachers and teammates.

The remainder of the funds were donated through the Kelly Cares Foundation in an effort spearheaded by executive director Lisa Klunder. The Foundation became involved when director of player development Ernest Jones reached out to Klunder with the idea.

Head coach Brian Kelly and wife Paqui, in conjunction with the Kelly Cares Foundation, donated several items and some of their time to speak at the dinner Monday night.

“Ernest contacted me a few weeks ago, and said a few players had approached him with a vision on this project, and it just made sense to make the Kelly Cares Foundation a part of it,” Klunder says. “We are a three-dimensional foundation, we have three pillars that we hold true to our mission: health, education, and community are those three pillars, and this event with no question falls within our community pillar and gives us an opportunity to pair with the football team and with a common goal to help others in our community.”

While many of the players were touched by the sense of kinship experienced in the dining room that evening, senior walk-on kicker Jude Rhoads focuses on the spirituality and togetherness that the night brought to everyone. “They are regular people just like us and have gone through tougher times than us. It definitely gave me perspective on what I have, and homelessness isn’t just here it’s everywhere, it’s worldwide, and a night like tonight makes me thankful for what I have,” Rhoads says.

Klunder agrees: “Just seeing all the smiles around the room and knowing the faces they belonged to didn’t have a lot, but relating to their stories, (it) was nourishing for the soul. To see these people want to get back on their feet, and back out in the community because of the inspiration we provided tonight, that’s a big motivation to go out and pay it forward.”

Active, Self-Reliant, Trustworthy. The Notre Dame football players took action, inspired other less-fortunate people in their community to be self-reliant, and proved trustworthy to carry out a cause near and dear to their teammate. For a team with a reputation of hard hits, and a tight end that goes by the nickname “Hercules”, these gentlemen proved to everyone in attendance that they are more than their field personas; “(They) Are: ND.”