Champions in Service
By Pete LaFleur
Many student-athletes who perform as stars on their college teams often develop a sense of entitlement, feeling as if they are owed something for their years of service on the athletic fields of battle. Others, upon reflection, look at that concept of service and take it to another level. They move on to their postgraduate years with a sense of indebtedness, eagerly looking for ways to give back to those who helped shape their lives, looking for ways to help those who are less fortunate, and some even looking for ways to serve their country in military assignments.
The history of Notre Dame athletics is brimming with these types of individuals, many of whom were dedicated to service work during their undergraduate years and many more who were driven to “give back” during their post-ND years. As we continue the celebration recognizing the accomplishments and contributions of black student-athletes at Notre Dame, there emerges an impressive group of individuals who have made a lasting impact through their charitable and community-service endeavors.
(Note that the former Notre Dame student-athletes mentioned below are but a sampling of the university’s many black alumni who have made meaningful impacts on their communities, after their college athletic careers had come to a close. Some of these individuals will be highlighted in the final two football game-program articles, which also will feature a tribute of current African-American student-athletes at Notre Dame.)
The Notre Dame Alumni Association in recent years has honored several black alums who followed up their standout student-athlete careers with noteworthy postgraduate achievements. Those honored with the Harvey Foster Award -which recognizes distinguished civic activity – have included former track star Bill Hurd, football players Chris Zorich, Aaron Taylor and Bryant Young, and basketball player LaPhonso Ellis. Another former Irish football player, Darrell “Flash” Gordon, has received the Alumni Association’s William Reynolds Awards (for “exceptional work with youth for the betterment of quality of life”) while three black student-athlete alums have received the prestigious Sorin Award for distinguished service to the University: football players Alan Page and Dave Duerson, and basketball’s Tommy Hawkins.
The Notre Dame Monogram Club has been led by several African-Americans who have served on the organization’s board of directors. Those individuals have included the likes of former baseball players Buster Lopes and Randall Brooks, basketball’s Stan Wilcox, football alums Chris Smith and the above-mentioned Duerson and Gordon, soccer player Marvin Lett, and track standout Errol Williams. Former football player Reggie Brooks recently joined the Monogram Club’s full-time staff, as manager for monogram/football alumni relations.
Three of the individuals mentioned above – Duerson, Zorich and Hurd – have received the Monogram Club’s Moose Krause Award (recognizing distinguished service), as has former football standout Jerome Bettis.
Brooks – who previously had worked in the University’s Office of Information Technology – is one of several black alums who have returned to work at Notre Dame, in the years following their athletic careers. Zorich also recently returned to Notre Dame and works as a manager of student-athlete welfare and development, alongside former Irish basketball player Harold Swanagan. Niele Ivey, the star point guard on Notre Dame’s 2001 NCAA championship women’s basketball team – is set to embark on her second season as an assistant coach at her alma mater while Allen Greene (a switch-hitting outfielder with the Irish baseball team in the late-’90s) currently works in Notre Dame’s athletics development office, after spending several years in the department’s compliance operation. Fourth-year football assistant coach Mike Haywood helps guide a Notre Dame football team that he played for in the mid-’80s.
On the professional level, Duerson and Bettis represent two of the four Notre Dame alums who have been named the National Football League’s Man of the Year, which recognizes excellence in community service (Zorich, who graduated from Notre Dame’s Law School in 2002, twice was a finalist for that award). And on the U.S. military level, former Notre Dame basketball player Danielle Green was presented with the Purple Heart after losing her left hand during Army duty in Iraq.
ZORICH now has seen his life come full-circle twice in the past two decades: first, when his widespread charity helped the poor and hungry in the gritty south-side Chicago area where he lived as a youth; and now at Notre Dame, where he has been given the opportunity to help advise and encourage student-athletes at his alma mater.
“Before coming to Notre Dame, I always had been on the receiving end of social services. I never got to start giving back until after college,” says Zorich, whose single-mother Zora tried to eek out a life for her son on $250 a month from public aid.
“After graduation, I had the chance to help people in Chicago who were facing situations similar to those that I faced as a child. And now, I’m very excited for the chance to be at the place where I learned so much, and where I grew so much as an individual and as a man.”
The 39-year-old Zorich – who earlier this year became one of the youngest inductees ever into the College Football Hall of Fame – gained some samplings of community service work during his undergraduate years at Notre Dame. Football team projects such as Habitat for Humanity helped to get his “service juices going” when he was still in his young 20s.
But it was the tragic death of his mother that sparked Zorich’s zeal for helping others, showing the same ferocious determination for community service as that which characterized his days as a nose tackle for the gold and blue.
Zorich had capped his college career on New Years Day of 1991 with an MVP performance in the Orange Bowl versus Colorado. One day later, he returned home to the sobering discovery that his mother had died in their home of a heart attack.
Three months later – after being selected in the second round of the NFL draft by his hometown Chicago Bears – Zorich suddenly had some cash to spare, by virtue of a hefty signing bonus. Earlier in the fall of 1990, he had become excited with the prospect of being able to buy his mother a nice house and move her to better neighborhood. But, suddenly, that no longer was an option.
Zora Zorich’s son then made a heartfelt decision, one that honored his mother while at the same time immediately giving back to the school that had done so much for him. The two-time All-American became the first former student-athlete ever to establish a scholarship foundation at Notre Dame. That gift – an annual allotment of $20,000 that fittingly is entitled the Zora Zorich Scholarship – set the ball in motion, as many other student-athlete alums have followed suit in creating a collection of scholarships at Notre Dame that has produced several million dollars in combined donations spanning the past 17 years.
Two years after his mother’s death, the loving son established the Chris Zorich Foundation and proceeded to introduce several service programs in the Chicago area. Most notably, the Care to Share family program is estimated to have helped some 150,000 families since its inception in the mid-’90s. The program has provided: delivery of Thanksgiving turkeys; Mother’s Day deliveries of flowers and cosmetics to women’s shelters; Holiday gift programs (with sponsor matching programs) for disadvantaged families and youth; and numerous other activities for youth, such as attending the ballet, unique and new restaurants, and of course Bears games.
“When things were bad and we didn’t have anything, my mom always was there for me,” says Zorich, who joins Alan Page and Ross Browner as Notre Dame defensive linemen who are in the College Football Hall of Fame. “I wanted to give others that same feeling and let them know there is hope. I felt I was put on this earth to help people, not just play football.”
Zorich – who was presented the 1990 Lombardi Award (as college football’s top lineman that season) and was named to the Walter Camp Team of the Century – also has served as a popular motivational speaker and has moderated town hall meetings focusing on topics such as race and gender issues, the influence of sports on society, and the effect of drugs on America’s youth. While attending law school, he served clients at the Notre Dame Legal Aid Clinic that provides free legal resources to the needy. His four years as a lawyer at Chicago’s Schuyler Roche, P.C., included serving as the firm’s community outreach consultant (in addition to his legal focus on business and estate management).
The NFL Players Association has recognized Zorich with its Byron “Whizzer” White Community Service Award and he similarly was a recipient of USA Today’s “Most Caring Athlete” citation, in addition to receiving Humanitarian Awards from both the Jesse Owens Foundation and the Muhammad Ali Commission.
Most recently, Zorich was asked to serve on the Knight Commission, the NCAA watchdog group co-founded by Notre Dame president emeritus, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C. “I actually had talked to Father Hesburgh about the Knight Commission back when I was a player at Notre Dame and I loved having discussions with him about what was important in college athletics,” says Zorich. “I would keep tabs in recruiting and eligibility issues over the past few years, and I often would forward copies of articles about those subjects to friends and former teammates. It’s a great honor to serve on the Knight Commission, because of what it stands for and the purpose it serves.”
The Notre Dame athletics department in 1998 established the Chris Zorich Award, as a way to honor a handful of student-athletes for their community service excellence. Now, as a full-time member of the department, Zorich will have the chance to select the recipients of the honor that bears his name.
“Looking back to my days as a player here, it was such a hard time when my mother passed away but I had so much support here. I never expected such an outpouring of love from the Notre Dame family and it made it easier to accept my mother’s death,” says Zorich, whose career goals include one day leading his own department as a college director of athletics.
“Notre Dame is one big family and you should treat folks here like they are part of your family. I came back to work at Notre Dame because we do things right here and I wanted to learn that culture. I wanted to identify with what was important at a place as special as Notre Dame.”
GREEN has a similar backstory to Zorich, after being raised on the south side of Chicago by her grandmother Evelyn Hackett, who made ends meet living on welfare. Driven by her goal to play basketball at Notre Dame, Green opted to attend Roosevelt High School despite a 4:45 a.m. daily wakeup and three-hour roundtrip voyage (via two trains and a bus) to that northside school, which had a solid academic program and one of the city’s top computer science programs.
In addition to playing four sports at Roosevelt, Green also served as sports editor for the school paper and was student council treasurer. She developed into a prep All-American on the hardwood and fulfilled her dream by receiving a scholarship to Notre Dame, becoming Roosevelt’s first women’s basketball player ever to receive a Division I scholarship.
Green went on to total 1,106 career points while helping elevate the Irish women’s program to a spot among the national elite. Despite her 5-8 frame, Green was known as a defensive stopper, tough rebounder and quick slasher driving to the basket. She regularly posted “double-doubles” from her guard/forward position and was the team’s third-leading scorer in each of her final two seasons before graduating in 1999 with a degree in psychology and then enrolling in graduate courses during 1999-2000, due to a fifth year of eligibility.
During both her high school and college careers, Green had to overcome major knee injuries (including one that wiped out her entire second season with the Irish, the historic Final Four campaign of 1996-97). Those setbacks, coupled with her difficult childhood, insulated Green with a sense of resiliency and a bountiful supply of coping skills – all of which ultimately helped prepare her for the biggest challenge of her life, four years removed from her days at Notre Dame.
After teaching and coaching at her hometown Washington High School, Green opted to enlist in the United States Army. A military career always had been an option for Green, who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel with the Junior R.O.T.C. at Roosevelt High School.
“When I was playing basketball at Notre Dame, I couldn’t continue with R.O.T.C., but military service was something I kept in my heart,” says Green. “It was something I wanted to do, but I didn’t know when it would come. When it came time to make the decision, I didn’t want to look back on my life and think ‘what-if?’ I knew this would be a way to help people while doing something I enjoy.”
Green trained for one year at Fort Lewis (near Seattle) before being deployed to Iraq with the 571st Military Police Company, early in 2004. While on furlough three months later, she married Willie Byrd back in the states, before returning to an increasingly turbulent scene in Baghdad. Roughly seven weeks after her wedding, Green found herself stationed with her unit only a few blocks from where the Saddam Hussein statue had toppled to the ground (in April of ’03). The team leader was preparing to advance to the roof of the two-story Sadoon Police Station, but Green insisted on taking that position and headed up the stairs.
With 110-degree heat blazing down on that late-May day, Green was stationed on the roof behind a stack of sandbags when a series of rocket-propelled grenades exploded around her. One of the projectiles ripped through her left arm, severing the limb below the elbow. Green also suffered shrapnel damage to her left leg and a dislocated shoulder blade.
“I told God that I was only 27 and still had so many things to live for,” Green later would recall, when looking back to those initial moments of extreme pain and shock. “I was determined to live on and tell my story.”
Green – the second U.S. woman ever to lose a limb during war – underwent surgery in Baghdad’s green zone and awoke to see members of her unit in tears and half of her left arm now gone. A fellow soldier then returned Green’s engagement band and wedding ring to her wounded colleague, who later would hear the tale of her comrades digging through seven inches of sand to retrieve the severed hand.
The ensuing transfer to Germany’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center provided Green with a well-timed Notre Dame moment, as she was greeted by longtime Notre Dame women’s basketball fans Dave and Eileen Woods. The couple just so happened to be in Germany visiting their son Tim, an Air Force surgeon who was stationed in the area. That unexpected pick-me-up helped calm Greene and was a precursor to the outpouring of Notre Dame family goodwill that soon would come flooding her way.
Green – whose diverse basketball skills had included a smooth lefthanded shot – spent parts of seven months at the Walter Reed Medical Center, where she learned to use her prosthetic device and even started to write with her right hand. She ultimately was medically retired from the Army on Dec. 7, 2004, and returned home to Chicago.
In the middle of her stay at Walter Reed, Green made an emotional return to Notre Dame to serve as the flag presenter prior to the ND-Michigan football game, held on Sept. 11 at Notre Dame Stadium. The emotional weekend included being honored at the Friday-night pep rally, leaving Green overwhelmed “at how supportive Notre Dame people are and how they stick by people.”
Green recently received her masters degree in counseling from Chicago’s St. Xavier College and now is pursuing a masters in education leadership at DePaul. She has been working full-time as a city-wide coordinator in the sports and administration department of the Chicago public schools and hopes one day to be a sports psychologist, knowing that her “perspective and experiences could prove helpful to others.”
The player once known as “D-Smooth” remains active in sports such as skiing and golf. She also enjoys teaching youngest in the Chicago area about basketball, sprinkled with some life lessons.
“I have the chance now to encourage young girls with big aspirations, just like me when I was a kid,” says Green, who still readily displays the tenacious and courageous sides of her personality. “I’m a role model and tell them if there’s a dream what you want, don’t let anybody stop you.”
Darrell “Flash” Gordon
GORDON has compiled an impressive career resume that includes receiving three degrees from Notre Dame (economics and business as an undergraduate, then a masters of science administration as a fifth-year senior), followed by a law degree from Northern Kentucky in 1997, completing Harvard’s program for strategic perspective in non-profit management, and most recently receiving his CRFM (certificate in fundraising management) from the Indiana University School of Philanthropy.
Beyond the academic realm, Gordon has interned on the New York Stock Exchange (in the summer before his final football season), held a managerial position with Advanced Drainage Systems (in southern Ohio), served as a professor of sports law at Ball State, clerked with a prominent Cincinnati law firm, held a position with the IMG sports management firm, and worked for the NCAA’s membership service group. One of his primary projects with the NCAA was developing the Stay in Bounds sportsmanship and character program that was passed on to the NFL and NBA professional leagues.
Gordon appears to have found his true calling over the past eight years, serving as CEO of the Wernle Children’s Home in Richmond, Ind. A residential treatment and behavioral healthcare agency, Wernle has grown into a multi-million-dollar, non-profit operation that features nearly 150 staff members who assist upwards of 100 young residents (ages 6-21) on a 70-acre campus.
During his time at Wernle, Gordon has been praised for using his wide-ranging experience and impressive list of contacts to think “outside the box” (as one Wernle employee put it) and make key improvements to how the organization does business. Such changes have included adopting a business-like management style that is more strategic and proactive, while also encouraging a consistent and value-driven staff that (in the words of their CEO) seeks “to do everything with integrity and care” for the residents, each of whom is looking to recover from abuse, neglect, mental illness or a conduct disorder.
“My primary goal is to see these young people finally develop hope in their lives,” says Gordon, a recent recipient of the Exceptional Service Award from Northern Kentucky’s Chase Law School. “We have the program in place that will allow these youth to have confidence and faith, with the newfound ability to take care of themselves. I am driven by the passion to provide all the necessary ingredients that allow these kids to get better and improve their lives.”
Gordon – known for his classic combination of size (6-3, 225), speed and intelligent play – was a starting outside linebacker during his final season with the Irish, when he joined Zorich and many other star players on a defense that helped the Irish win the 1988 national championship. His dedicated leadership often was praised by head coach Lou Holtz, who readily would have predicted at the time that Gordon would develop into the quality motivational speaker that he is today.
Notre Dame’s family atmosphere played a key factor in Gordon’s decision to head west from his hometown of Hillsdale, N.J., eager to become the first college graduate in his family. During his five collegiate years, Gordon developed a core group of values comprised in the acronym RICHER (Respect, Integrity, Caring, Harmony, Excellence and Responsibility) that clearly have carried over to his professional life.
“My time at Notre Dame showed me many key principles that you need to succeed in life,” says Gordon, who joins his wife Tonia as the proud parents of their daughter Justis and son Darrell, Jr.. “The place opened me up to so many new opportunities and truly was an invaluable leading experience.”
Three weeks ago, Gordon was back on campus for the dual purpose of the Monogram Club board meeting (he will serve on the board through 2010) and the 20-year reunion of Notre Dame’s 1988 championship team. It provided a perfect chance to verify his thoughts on the school’s value to its student-athlete population.
“When I look around at my teammates, I see a group of what I like to call career winners,” says Gordon. “It says so much for Notre Dame when you can look at these guys and see how impressively they have transcended the game of football and carved out wonderful lives for themselves, both professionally and in their family situations.
“Athletes who come to Notre Dame are not focused solely on a pro career, but on developing into quality individuals through all aspects of their daily life. When you look at Notre Dame graduates – athletes and non-athletes alike, which is key – you encounter people who are leaders in their chosen profession and actively involved in their communities. You see winners in life and that’s what makes Notre Dame a place like no other.”