Sept. 28, 2006
By Katie Stuhldreher
Touchdown Jesus. First down Moses. Hail Mary in the end zone. It only takes one look around Notre Dame’s campus to understand that this institution holds two things as sacred: religion and football. And here, there is no such thing as separation of church and stadium.
Senior offensive lineman Ryan Harris understands this tradition better than anyone. He relies on his faith to get him through tough games. He attends mass with his teammates before taking the field on game days, and he prays in the locker room.
So why is this unique at a school like Notre Dame? Well, because Ryan Harris is not Catholic.
“This school has a great tradition of spirituality and I am very grateful for that,” says Harris, who converted to Islam in middle school.
The Fighting Irish have welcomed team members of diverse religious backgrounds for decades, a practice seen to enrich Notre Dame’s Catholic heritage. That ideal was best expressed by former Irish head coach Lou Holtz in a recruiting visit with a non-Catholic player in the 1990’s. When the recruit asked about the emphasis of Catholicism at Notre Dame, Holtz said, “The lady on top of that golden dome is Jewish.” The player signed with the Irish following that visit.
Harris said he felt much like that young recruit in coming to Notre Dame and finding acceptance for and interest in his beliefs.
“Notre Dame is an amazing place and I’m perfectly happy here. I’m not at all outcast in this community. We share a lot of similar morals and principals and foundations,” he says. “I believe in the works of Jesus just like Christians and Catholics. I’m grateful for the moral atmosphere Notre Dame brings on campus and in the classroom.”
In his upbringing, Harris had exposure to many different faiths. His father was raised as a Baptist and his mother as a Unitarian. In her adult life, Harris’ mother converted to Buddhism, but now both parents belong to the Unitarian church.
“Growing up, I read from the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran. It was different. I was never really taught a religion growing up. I was able to choose freely and I’m very thankful for that,” says Harris.
As a result of his mother’s interest in Buddhism, he added that he also often read about eastern philosophy and religion.
“I always liked those ancient samurai books, especially one called The Book of Five Rings,” he explains. “It’s about honor and how to focus your mind and things like that. It’s definitely one of my favorite books.” Harris said although he enjoyed exploring different faiths, he studied about Islam in his social science class in eighth grade and that religion’s major tenets appealed to him more than any other.
“At the time, I was searching for my beliefs and what I believe about God. I looked into it and I decided that I believe in God, Jesus, Moses and Abraham. And I believe that Mohammad brought the last message,” Harris says.
His eighth grade year was significant for another reason, too. Harris began to play football that year, linking the beginning of his new faith and football career in his mind.
“In football, I try to show the same dedication and passion I have for my faith. It carries onto the football field. It is a large part of who I am. Both my faith and my status as a student-athlete here are important to me,” he comments.
However, both faith and football skills take time to develop. Harris recalled that he had an especially slow start on the football field. “I finally got to start playing in the eighth grade. My parents didn’t really want me to play. It was funny because I showed up in my pads and everyone made fun of me because I didn’t know how to hit. I guess I’ve come a long way since then,” says the 6-5, 292-pound lineman with a chuckle.
Senior offensive tackle Ryan Harris comes into today’s game with Purdue, having started 35 consecutive games in his Notre Dame career. He’s been one of the key performers in the success of the Irish offensive attack. (photo by J.D. Smith)
“I grew up in Minnesota and was always a big Vikings fan. I used to watch them play and I just thought the sport was awesome. It’s high scoring and physical and I wanted to play.”
Harris quickly learned to block and hit, and by his senior year, he was being heavily recruited by 10 NCAA Division I schools.
And with good reason. Harris had an impressive high school resume to boast. He was a ranking officer in Cretin-Durham High School’s ROTC program, played drums in the band–even during halftime shows at his own football games–and competed on the wrestling and track teams.
But regardless of Notre Dame’s well-known religion affiliations, Harris decided it was the right place for him.
“For me, it was just a matter of finding a school with both a high level of academic and athletic competition. I feel like I can try to achieve at a high level here in both areas,” says Harris, who is double majoring in political science and economics.
In his transition to Notre Dame, Harris, who badly needed to bulk up for the college gridiron, became a minor celebrity. Harris was featured on an episode of “True Life,” on MTV about positive weight gain.
Harris explains, “I was surprised when they called me up the summer before coming here. I thought I was just a little guy from Minnesota. I didn’t realize what a big deal it would be. It’s everywhere. It was one of the top episodes, I think.”
Harris also found himself a minor celebrity among the youth of South Bend after he arrived. He and other Irish teammates offered to volunteer time at St. Adelbert’s parish and the local boys’ and girls’ clubs. He even began to volunteer at his mosque, where he taught local children to play football.
“I think it’s a big part of my responsibility. I’d feel wrong if I didn’t dedicate myself and my time in that manner,” says Harris, who attends services and Koran study groups every week.
“Actually, Rhema [McKnight] and Marcus [Freeman] came to a Koran study group with me one time. I mean, there’s some fun and jokes, it’s funny that way. But my teammates are wonderful in the fact that they accept me for my beliefs and allow me to practice my faith,” comments Harris. Harris said he attends mass each week before football games with his teammates and does not feel out of place.
“I go to mass with the team. I feel very fortunate to be able to spend time with my team, especially time to relax and place God in my thoughts before a game. It makes me feel thankful for all the blessings I have received,” he says.
But Harris’ commitments on the football field can make practicing Islam challenging in some ways. For example, the offensive lineman, who has to carefully watch that extra weight he worked so hard to put on, can’t fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“For me, I have to keep up my weight, so it’s not something I can do. But there are other things I can do. It’s very similar to Lent. You can give up other things. Some people stop watching TV or things like that. For me, it’s making sure I get all my prayers in and read more Koran,” Harris says.
And in that regard, he goes above and beyond his duty. To learn more about Islam, Harris took several classes in Arabic at Notre Dame. “I speak Arabic just a little bit. I know the alphabet and I can give you some words I know from the mosque, but I could not carry a conversation. I took two Arabic classes here and it’s a hard, hard language. But, it’s the traditional language of Islam,” he says.
Harris said later in his life his plans to make a pilgrimage to the holy sites of Islam in the Middle East.
But for now, he has his senior year of Irish football ahead of him. Harris said he plans to be a leader on the field, protecting quarterback Brady Quinn with the same fervor he shows in the classroom and at Friday prayers.