Champions in Life
By Pete LaFleur
The past few weeks have seen an impressive collection of former Notre Dame student-athletes be honored in these football game-program pages, as part of the yearlong celebration recognizing the contributions of African-Americans to Notre Dame’s athletic heritage. This week’s final group of honorees – aptly titled “champions in life” – each have woven an inspiring tale, with their years at Notre Dame playing a key role in that lifelong success.
These nine Notre Dame monogram winners – football players Alan Page, Anthony Johnson and Rod West; basketball’s Tommy Hawkins and LaPhonso Ellis; track stars Aubrey Lewis, Bill Hurd and Ron Gregory; and cheerleader Phyllis Washington Stone – have combined to impact a wide range of societal areas. They truly are elite trailblazers, utilizing their diverse talents to make a profound impact on the world around them.
PAGE is a highly respected individual throughout football circles – and certainly beyond. The longtime member of Minnesota’s Supreme Court was an All-America defensive lineman at Notre Dame in the mid-1960s and went on to an NFL Hall of Fame career, playing 15 professional seasons (primarily with the Minnesota Vikings, as a member of the famed “Purple People Eaters”). Over the past 40 years, Page has received numerous honors – among them the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award and the ND Alumni Association’s prestigious Sorin Award – commending his charitable foundation that has raised millions in financial aid for minority college students.
“We must educate our children, for they will be tomorrow’s leaders,” says Page. “Problems can seem overwhelming and out of control, but there are solutions. Everyone here has the ability, opportunity and obligation to make the world a better place.”
The Page Education Foundation was founded in 1988 by its namesake (and wife Diane, mother to the couple’s four children), to provide mentoring and financial aid to the area’s minority college students, with one caveat: “Page Scholars” must commit to volunteer within their communities and thus continue the thread of charity and service. In 20 years, the foundation has assisted nearly 2,400 students and allocated $4.5 million in college aid.
Page – who was assistant attorney general (’86-’93) before becoming the first African-American ever elected to the Minnesota Supreme Court – owns the rare distinction of being included on the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s list of the “100 Influential Minnesotans of the 20th Century” while being ranked 34th on The Sporting News list of the century’s “100 Greatest Football Players.” A native of Canton, Ohio, Page grew up in the town where, decades later, he would be immortalized as an inductee in the NFL Hall of Fame. He dominated in several sports at Central Catholic High School before moving on to Notre Dame, where his strong play helped the Irish claim the 1966 national title (a few months later, he graduated with his degree in political science).
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Page was an intelligent and hardworking lineman, who played the game as an aggressor rather than a defender. The nine-time Pro Bowl selection took that aggression out on NFL offenses for 15 seasons (final five with the Chicago Bears) and became the first defensive player ever named NFL player of the year (’71). He played in four Super Bowls and never missed a game (239), starting all but the first three games of his illustrious career.
The tirelessly driven Page completed his law degree (’78, University of Minnesota) during NFL offseasons and, one year later, became the first active NFL player ever to finish a marathon race. He went on to complete the 1987 Edmund Fitzgerald 100-kilometer (62-mile) race and still was running upwards of 60 miles per week in recent years.
LEWIS – who arrived at Notre Dame a decade before Page – was a starting halfback on the Irish football team and an All-America hurdler in track-and-field. As a senior in 1957, he helped lead Notre Dame’s 7-0 upset that snapped Oklahoma’s 47-game winning streak (longest in NCAA history). A world-class athlete who narrowly missed a spot on the U.S. Olympic decathlon team, Lewis set the world record in the 400-meter hurdles and went on to win the NCAA title. No Notre Dame track-and-field athlete matched his first-place NCAA finish (in any event) until 2001, when Ryan Shay won the 10K.
The pride of Glen Ridge, N.J., Lewis was named by the Star Ledger as New Jersey’s outstanding high school offensive player of the 20th century. His career at Montclair High School included rushing for nearly 4,500 yards, playing for undefeated basketball teams and setting state records in the 100- and 200-yard dashes, plus the discus.
Lewis was the first African-American ever to captain a Notre Dame team (’58 track), but an ankle injury derailed a shot at the NFL. His trailblazing tendency re-emerged in 1962, when Lewis became one of the first two blacks accepted into the FBI’s training program. He later accepted an administrative position with F.W. Woolworth (’67-’95), with his other endeavors including commissioner of the N.J. Sports and Exposition Authority, vice chairman of the state highway authority, and commissioner of the N.Y./N.J. Port Authority.
“I wanted to do a lot of things, to challenge life,” Lewis once said. ”I came along at a time when there were many doors to be opened by the black man, and that was a challenge.”
Lewis and his wife Ann had five children, one of whom (Aubrey, Jr.) is the fifth-year men’s basketball head coach at Montclair State – while another family star has begun to emerge, as Aubrey Lewis III is an electrifying football player for Paramus (N.J.) High School.
HAWKINS, like Page, a recipient of ND’s Sorin Award, has eased into semi-retirement but still is in high demand – whether it be as a jazz radio show host (with KJazz 881. FM), as an engaging public speaker, or on various boards in southern California. His self-proclaimed eclectic nature can be seen in organizations he helps direct: the Amansan relief organization, the Mark Taper Forum and Kirk Douglas Theater, a local burn foundation, the L.A. Sports Council, and Pepperdine’s sports advisory board (located near his Malibu home).
“Metaphorically speaking, if you’re throwing a party and invite me, I bring a lot to the party,” jokes Hawkins. “I’m like the world’s finest fertilizer. Spread me around wherever you want – I’ll make it grow.”
Hawkins – who, along with his wife Doris, has five children and seven grandkids – grew up as a top basketball prospect in south Chicago and developed into a standout four-sport athlete (also football, baseball and track) at Parker High School. His prep coach and “surrogate Irish father,” Eddie O’Farrell, was a former teammate of Notre Dame’s Johnny Jordan and helped steer Hawkins 90 miles east to play for the Irish.
The 6-foot-5 Hawkins was frontline talent, with his flamboyant style showcasing an assortment of slamdunks and hookshots. A physical force and aggressive rebounder, he combined fast reactions with tremendous leaping ability to become the first (and still only) Notre Dame player ever to average over 20 points and 16 rebounds for his career. Hawkins set or tied ND records for points in a game (43), season (576) and career (1,829), plus still-standing records for rebounds in a season (499) and career (1,318).
Off the court, the sociology major and consensus All-American attracted friends all over the campus despite being one of only two blacks in his class. “With the camaraderie of the Notre Dame community, there always was a sense of belonging,” says Hawkins, who credits Jordan and assistant coach Jim Gibbons as being very instrumental in him becoming a “total man.”
Hawkins’ 10-year NBA career spanned stints with the Minneapolis/L.A. Lakers (’59-61; ’66-’69) and Cincinnati Royals (’61-’65). He gained valuable PR experience in his final years with the Lakers and parlayed those connections into a series of radio and television hosting roles (involving sports and otherwise) over the past 40 years. Hawkins joined the L.A. Dodgers in 1987, as VP of communications, and spent 18 years as the poised, public persona for one of the top franchises in pro sports.
A large chunk of Hawkins’ postgraduate life has been spent aiming to strengthen his local community. In the late 1960s, he founded the Athletes for a Better America program that raised youngster’s morale and helped to improve the racial climate in the L.A. area. The true measure of Hawkins’ eclectic nature can be seen in his ability to move seamlessly among peer groups. His inspirational messages can connect troubled youths one minute, and then be repackaged to hit home with senior citizens. A well-deserving member of the California Black Sports Hall of Fame, Hawkins can sit down and talk for hours with the likes of community activist George Parks, former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, world-renowned jazz guitarist Jean Bertoncini, or even former mayor of L.A. Tom Bradley.
“A slew of people have taken me under their wing and helped develop me as a well-rounded person,” says Hawkins, who includes Notre Dame priests John O’Brien (the famous “convert maker/street preacher”) and Arthur Hope (author of Notre Dame: 100 Years) among that group of key influences.
“I’m a classic example of how a wide variety of people can make such a great impact on one person. Life is a challenge and I welcome it!”
STONE’s childhood love of various forms of dance eventually led to cheerleading, which in turn helped open many doors for the Chicago native.”Cheerleading was a natural extension, because it was all about passion in movement,” she says. “We didn’t have a football team at my high school, so cheering at Notre Dame football proved to be a unique challenge.”
Little did the spunky cheerleader know, but lurking on the football sidelines would be the love of her life. Her future husband, Jim Stone, was one year younger and lettered on the 1977 national championship team (he later was the 1980 team’s leading rusher).
Phyllis remained at Notre Dame during Jim’s senior year (and until ’85), serving as an admissions counselor. The couple then relocated out east and now call Somerset, N.J., their home, with Jim a sales executive for Merial animal health care while Phyllis has logged an impressive career with Merck pharmaceutical.
Stone’s rise at Merck has included marketing the company’s global human health products. In 2001, she was named executive director for Merck’s diabetes franchise that introduced Januvia and Janumet. In that role, Stone managed a $30-million program budget as Merck finetuned its vision for diabetes leadership. She was promoted at the start of 2008 to the position of executive director for worldwide marketing, which includes responsibility for the corporation’s philanthropic portfolio and strategy.
She has served on Notre Dame’s board of trustees since 1995, most notably as a member of the cabinet for the $1.5 billion capital campaign. Stone previously was on the Mendoza Business School’s advisory council, served as secretary for ND’s Monogram Club board, and co-founded both the Alumni Association’s Black Alumni of Notre Dame and the South Bend Heritage Foundation.
One of two delegates appointed to represent the St. Matthias Catholic community on the Bishop’s Synod for the Diocese of Metuchen, Stone draws her life philosophy is grounded in faith.
“My key philosophy is, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’ – words that my mother repeated when I found myself humbled by God’s goodness. My approach is to be open, aware and show gratitude for the many gifts I’ve been given,” says Stone, who majored in American Studies and later took pharmaceutical executive MBA courses at St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia.
Jim and Phyllis Stone – whose son Alex is a member of the basketball team at Xavier (La.) University – made a 2006 pledge of $100,000 toward the endowment of Notre Dame’s department of African studies, which was established in 2005 to offer an interdisciplinary curriculum that studies the African-American experience and history of the African continent.
HURD’s life as a classic “renaissance man” has included excellence as a sprinter and providing medical charity halfway around the globe, mixed in with the undercurrent of his cool saxophone playing.
“My philosophy of life is ‘Do it now. No matter whatever ‘it’ is in your life.’ The older I get, the more strongly I feel this,” says Hurd, who has recorded several jazz CDs and performs regularly as a solo and ensemble act.
“As a physician, I see mortality firsthand. I see high school classmates pass away. If there’s something on your ‘to-do’ list , what are you waiting on?”
Hurd made a key decision to attend Notre Dame, where he was one of only 12 African-Americans in the 1965 freshman class.
“The school learned a lot about diversity and I learned a lot as well,” he says. “I learned the importance of community service and helping my fellow man. Going to Notre Dame made me so much more well-rounded.”
Hurd – whose Memphis ophthalmology practice specializes in cataract, glaucoma and diabetic treatment, and keratorefractive surgery – annually spends several weeks providing voluntary eye surgery to the poor in Africa, Mexico and Brazil. It’s not uncommon for him to treat some 400 patients and perform 35 eye surgeries, on one 10-day mission. His most recent missions to Madagascar were developed through a long friendship with Lee Evans, the 1968 Olympic 400-meter gold medalist (Evans now resides in Guinea, site of a Hurd-led surgical mission next April).
Hurd’s world-class sprinting days as a collegian included being named Notre Dame’s 1967-68 “athlete of the year” and establishing the American indoor record in the 300-yard dash (29.8). The five-time All-American was a finalist at the Olympic Trials in the 100 and 200 meters, finishing fifth in the 100 to narrowly miss a spot on the Olympic team.
In addition to receiving his ND degree in electrical engineering and graduate degrees from M.I.T. (master’s in management science) and Nashville’s Meaharry Medical School, Hurd holds two U.S./foreign patents for optical devices. He was a Rhodes Scholarship regional finalist and received Notre Dame’s 1992 Harvey Foster Award in 1992 (recognizing alumni for distinguished civic activity), later receiving the ND Monogram Club’s Moose Krause Award (’01) for distinguished service to society.
Hurd and his wife Rynette, an attorney, have sent both of their sons to Notre Dame. Bill, Jr., finished at Xavier (New Orleans), added a masters in health care and now works in his father’s office. Hurd’s second son Ryan, a ’05 ND graduate who lettered with the Irish track team, was a double major in computer science and Japanese. He later obtained a masters from Savannah College of Art and Design and currently is teaching computer graphics at China’s Beijing Institute of Digital Design.
Two relatively younger alums, West and Johnson, were roommates at Notre Dame and members of the 1988 national championship football team.
WEST – a linebacker/tight end who majored in American Studies – returned home to attend Tulane, where he received his law degree (’93) and MBA (’05). He spent six years practicing law in his hometown before joining Entergy of New Orleans, as its senior regulatory counsel. West later transitioned into directorship roles with Entergy’s regulatory affairs and distribution operations, the position he held on Aug. 28, 2005 – when Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast.
The chaotic days, weeks and months that followed in Katrina’s wake posed an immense challenge for Entergy, the gas and electric utility company that serves a half-million residents. West’s poised leadership came to the forefront, as he directed some 1,800 utility workers who worked feverishly to restore power and purge the city of dangerous floodwaters.
Hours before landfall, West was faced with a dilemma: he could join his wife (former LSU basketball player Madeline Doucet) and 11-year-old daughter Simone in their evacuation spot, or he could remain on the frontlines. He opted to stay and fight, hunkering down for weeks in a vacated Hyatt with no electricity or water supply and inconsistent cell-phone reception.
By mid-September, Entergy had restored all utility service – sparking the long rebuilding phase. West was promoted in late 2006, becoming president and CEO for Entergy (a $6-billion operation) and elevating his status as a key figure in the city’s return from devastation.
“I could not find a more relevant role in a purpose-driven life than being a part of the rebirth of my hometown,” says West, who in 1996 became the youngest person and first African-American to be voted president of Notre Dame’s National Alumni Board.
A product of the top Catholic high school (Brother Martin) in New Orleans, West is chairman of LSU’s board of supervisors and taught a Tulane law course in business/legal aspects of sport.
West’s college coach, Lou Holtz, passed on some lasting words of advice to the future CEO and his teammates: “(1) Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans; (2) If you can answer yes to three questions – can I trust you, do you care, and are you committed to others – I know I’m dealing with a successful person; and (3) In life, you’re either sipping the wine or stomping the grapes.
“Coach Holtz reminded us that the difference between where we are today and in five years would be a function of the books we read and people we meet, because success comes before work only in the dictionary. I found my experience at Notre Dame and in life affirming that maxim.”
JOHNSON was an often-overlooked superstar for the Irish football teams of the late ’80s, scoring the most touchdowns (34) in the Holtz era while serving as a hard-nosed fullback who could impact the game in many ways. The South Bend native and Adams High School product then began his 12-year career with the Indianapolis Colts and played with four other teams, before retiring in 2001. He later joined the counseling staff of Athletes in Action and is in the midst of his fifth year as team chaplain for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
“My philosophies on life are rooted in the Bible and all people are created with unique abilities for a good purpose,” says Johnson, whose current family, wife Shelly and five children, is only half as big as the 10-sibling family he was a part of while growing up in South Bend.
“Faith in God helps make life a process of living, instead of dying. This truth drives what I do because it is based on who I am – a renewed child of God. All of my experiences at Notre Dame led me to my faith and opened so many doors for me in my life, while allowing me to further God’s agenda in me and through me.”
GREGORY – despite not being as well-known (or notorious) as his comedian/activist brother Dick Gregory – has fashioned his own story of inspiration, triumph and service, summed up in his “Three A’s: athleticism, academicism and activism.”
As a freshman at Sumner High in St. Louis, Gregory heeded the advice of track coach Warren St. James that athletics was a way out of his impoverished living conditions. Four years later, with two national high school track records in his back pocket and a full-ride scholarship at his feet, Gregory headed off to Notre Dame and prepared to tackle the “second A.” That’s when Father Thomas Brennan – possibly the “patron saint” for Notre Dame student-athletes of that era – came to the rescue.
“Fr. Brennan became my mentor and drummed two words into my head: ‘duera’ (things the way they should be) and ‘defacto’ (things the way they are),” says Gregory, an All-America cross country runner who set ND records in the half-mile, mile (4:10) and two-mile (9:14).
“He’d say we must strive to make the world we live in a deura world, rather than a defacto one.”
Gregory’s “duera” quest began shortly after graduating in 1961, as a St. Louis public-school teacher and later as a community activist. His brother Dick ran for governor of Chicago in 1966 and Ron made a similar mayoral bid 23 years later, in St. Louis (where both Gregory brothers have long been legends in the track-and-field community).
A lifelong advocate for children, Gregory spent 13 years as a director of neighborhood development programs through the federal War on Poverty and was a key administrative figure and leader at a youth and family center in Old North St. Louis. He remains socially active while spending much of his free time with his wife Joan Beth, daughter Tracie and granddaughter Zoe –
ELLIS – Notre Dame’s 1994 recipient of the Harvey Foster Award (recognizing student-athlete alums for distinguished civic activity) – continues to make a lasting impact on his community, after retiring from professional basketball in 2003. Throughout a 12-year NBA career that included stints with four teams, he proved to be a consummate team leader who was focused on volunteer service.
After leading East St. Louis High School to pair of state titles, Ellis went on to set the Notre Dame record for career blocks (200) while averaging 15.5 points per game and finishing third on the Irish career rebounding charts (1,075). The 6-8 forward received his degree in accounting and was selected by the Denver Nuggets with the fifth overall pick in the 1992 NBA draft.
A two-time recipient of the NBA Sportsmanship Award, Ellis has brought his dynamic personality and role-modeling skills back to the Notre Dame basketball family as a member of the radio broadcast crew. But the primary focus remains his family – wife Jennifer and their three children – who for the last year have called South Bend home.