Nov. 11, 2015

by Renee Peggs

Children who grow up in South Bend have no shortage of sports heroes and role models, thanks to athletes at the University of Notre Dame. Fourteen of those children are now the heroes and role models for Notre Dame athletes, thanks to a partnership with South Bend’s Memorial Children’s Hospital.

Arguably one of the most innovative and impactful initiatives of the athletics department, Fighting Irish Fight for Life (FIFFL) supports local pediatric cancer patients by welcoming them into the Notre Dame family. Participating children are “officially” signed as rostered members to one of the Fighting Irish athletics teams at an event designed with precision and thoughtfulness to recreate the atmosphere and regalia of collegiate and professional sports signing days.

On the Wednesday before Halloween, those children and their parents, siblings, grandparents, neighbors and friends gathered with several dozen student-athletes, athletics department personnel and members of the Memorial Hospital pediatric hematology/oncology staff. The site was Purcell Pavilion’s Club Naimoli, decked out in spooky style with a soundtrack to match.

Children and student-athletes alike arrived in costumes and enjoyed an impressive buffet of treats as they met each other and mingled prior to the kickoff of the event.

Families took seats at one end of the room, set up like a stage ready to receive guests of honor, while student-athletes literally teemed around them. Former UCLA football standout Johnathan Franklin, the community outreach coordinator for the Student-Welfare and Development Office, served as emcee and host for the evening.

One by one, Fighting Irish teams took the stage, each joined by a child who signed a Letter of Intent confirming official membership on his or her respective team. Children received Notre Dame swag, cameras flashed, the crowd cheered wildly and press conferences ensued.

Franklin did an outstanding job engaging the children in – albeit brief, given the number on the docket – question-and-answer sessions, allowing each of them a chance to shine in the spotlight of their own accomplishments or to draw a roaring response from the crowd.

The first signee was a five-year-old girl, dressed as Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. Toward enhancing the realism of the evening, Franklin explained that before the show he had been backstage with Dick Vitale and Kirk Herbstreit (ESPN commentators) trying to figure out if pink or purple is the better color. He asked Sophia to settle the dispute. In a sweet, tiny voice, she said, “I think pink is the best.” Franklin then insisted that Vitale would be thrilled, because pink is his favorite color. Naimoli went nuts, and Sophia was appropriately proud of having rendered the decisive verdict.

Notre Dame rowing gladly welcomed back six-year-old Simon, who had been their FIFFL teammate last academic year as well. Franklin asked him what factors had influenced his decision to return for another season when clearly he could have gone pro.

“Well, Notre Dame is the best, because they named one of their boats after my favorite dinosaur,” Simon explained logically. One of his teammates confirmed that, yes, they do have a boat named the Pterodactyl.

Later in the evening, Simon painted a pumpkin to resemble a tiger – his favorite animal at the zoo. He shared that he also loves museums because they have all kinds of exhibits about bones.

Would he like to be a person who studies bones when he grows up?

“Yes, I’m going to be a paleontologist. I don’t really watch kids’ shows on dinosaurs anymore, because the National Geographic ones are much better and I learn more from them.”

Maybe the archaeology department would like to sign this kid, as well …

Braden plays cello, piano and guitar and wants to be a music major someday. But before he got sick, this 14-year-old was also a boss on the hardwood.

His women’s basketball teammates can’t wait till he’s healthy enough to help them with their slam dunk technique.

“It’s a good thing we’ll all have graduated by the time he’s ready for college …” “Yeah, he’d definitely make us look bad …” “But we’re gonna get him to teach us everything he knows …” some of them remarked.

Sixth-grade Maddox loves astronomy and hoops, and is positive that his presence as the 13th man will be a lucky thing for the men’s basketball team this year.

Junior forward Austin Torres corroborates: “His enthusiasm will definitely make a huge impact on our season.”

Sophomore forward Matt Gregory adds, “This is special, knowing that we can use who we are to make a difference in his day or in his life. That’s what’s really important, that’s what counts.”

Maddox’s parents share a little bit about their son’s spirit: “Ever since we found out he was sick, he’s never complained, never given up or backed down. He’d even come to us, if he saw us struggling, and say, `It’s ok, Mom and Dad, you don’t have to worry about me, I’ve got this.’ He’s been our rock and comfort.

“We have three dogs and we’re talking with Maddox about training one of them as a therapy dog. It was his idea, actually. He’s almost done with treatments and he wants to give back to the Hospital for taking such good care of him. He tells us, `I understand what it’s like to be sitting in those beds, receiving the treatments, having questions, being afraid. I could take one of the dogs and go visit other kids just like me, and I would know exactly what they’re going through, and I could be there to help them through it.’ He’s handled himself incredibly well though this whole journey; we’re so proud of him.”

The relationship between the student-athletes and their FIFFL teammates extends beyond just the Signing Day event. Many of the college athletes spend time getting to know the children and their families, as guests in their homes and visitors in the hospital.

Fifteen-year-old Evan enjoys math and science, and is a huge fan of Notre Dame football.

“Several of us went to visit him in the hospital a few weeks ago and we fell in love with him,” shares sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer, with unabashed sincerity. “We get caught up in things like how cold the weather is getting and how bad our bodies ache but Evan’s going to help us keep things in perspective. We’re really so blessed to have him as part of our team.”

Softball’s Casey Africano, a senior catcher and outfielder, expounds: “All of these kids are part of our wider community. They’re going through unbelievable struggles and challenges, things I can’t imagine facing, and we’re really inspired by them. To hang out with these kids and watch them and learn from them is just one of the greatest opportunities we could have as student-athletes.”

Following the official activities of the night, families and their student-athlete teammates had the opportunity to paint pumpkins, play cornhole, wrap each other up as toilet-paper mummies, squeeze into a photo booth for hilarious memory-making, compete in a balloon bust challenge and celebrate the lives of these remarkable children.

“Seeing these kids laughing and smiling and having the best time, giving them and their families a night of fun and excitement in the middle of what has to be incredible hardship and anxiety – that’s what this is about,” Africano sums up.

With Fighting Irish Fight for Life, everyone’s a winner.