April 14, 2015
This written feature appeared in the 2014 edition of Strong of Heart, an annual magazine profiling the best human interest stories centered around the current and former student-athletes, coaches, staff and others who make Notre Dame athletics about more than mere competitions.
The telephone call came at 3 a.m.
The women’s lacrosse team had just suffered a disappointing loss to Stanford in the first round of the NCAA Championships a few days earlier, and Irish defender Katherine McManus lay groggy in a South Bend hotel room with swollen cheeks after having her wisdom teeth removed.
Katherine’s mom, Ann Beach, rolled over to answer the phone and heard the news: Her eldest daughter, Victoria, had been murdered.
Within hours the entire coaching staff and many of McManus’ fellow players filled the hotel room, able to offer little more than strong arms to hold the grieving family and logistical support to get them home. A few days later, nearly every member of the team and coaching staff was in McManus’ hometown of Sharon, Massachusetts, for the funeral. The flood of support astonished McManus, but head coach Christine Halfpenny says it’s a reflection on how McManus brings people together.
“We have somebody who would have been there in a heartbeat for all of us. That just speaks to what Katherine is, what she does,” Halfpenny says. “We didn’t charter a plane; we didn’t get on a bus together; everybody just knew where they needed to be at that time.”
Notorious for her positivity, words of encouragement and ability to see the big picture, McManus is the team player every coach searches for, Halfpenny says. She’s a fiery defender on the current roster who attacks each play with an offensive mindset. After two years watching and learning from the veteran players, she’s stepped into a leadership role as a junior both on and off the field.
“She has an intangible ability, quite honestly, to be a peer coach while she’s playing. And it’s natural,” Halfpenny says. “It’s always about helping others. It’s never about herself. That’s how her game has come around.”
On the field, McManus is quick to shout encouragement to teammates and verbalize strategy.
Off the field, she does much of the same for a young boy named Bobby Russell. Russell was diagnosed with a non-Hodgkin B-cell lymphoma when he was 3 years old and has been undergoing treatments for the past three years.
During that time, he was partnered with the Notre Dame women’s lacrosse team as part of the Fighting Irish Fight for Life program, which pairs pediatric oncology patients with Notre Dame student-athletes. The kids have a signing day, like a recruit, to add them to the team and throughout the year are invited to games, Christmas parties and ice-skating events.
But McManus took it a little further, Halfpenny says. “Katherine found a way to bring smiles to the family and excitement and joy.”
Having had some exposure to pediatric oncology patients from her mother’s work as director of the Dana-Farber Jimmy Fund Walk, which raises money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, McManus recognized creative ways in which she could support Bobby and his family.
McManus started going to chemotherapy appointments with Russell, occasionally with treats or video games in tow, so he had something to look forward to during his long days of treatment, she says. The team got him his own lacrosse jersey and let him do a ceremonial draw with McManus at the start of a game against Marquette in Arlotta Stadium. She’s attended his birthday parties and has brought him to campus to see other Notre Dame teams play.
While she was trying to bring support and joy into his life, he ended up teaching her about resilience and strength.
She recalls that during one of the first sessions she attended with Russell, he had to get a spinal tap. He had wanted to go to the lacrosse game that night, but she thought he’d be too worn out by the procedure. But, as McManus ran down the field later that day, she looked up to see Russell smiling, waving and running around in the bleachers.
“It was that moment that made me understand what I was doing. It wasn’t so much community service, it was creating a really special bond with a really special 6-year-old,” she says. “He taught me so many things.
“He was so good in helping me with perspective. So many times at Notre Dame you have your foot in so many different doors, and when they’re all overwhelming sometimes you feel like it’s the end of the world. He was a great example to make me take a step back and realize how lucky and fortunate I am, first to be healthy, but also to be able to do all the things I’m doing and to take advantage of all these opportunities.”
Now a junior, McManus was recently named the community service co-chair for the Notre Dame Student-Athlete Advisory Council, and she already has plans to grow Fighting Irish Fight for Life as one of her duties. The program has expanded to include 14 of Notre Dame’s teams and 10 pediatric oncology patients, and a new alumni club will be formed for kids like Bobby who are now in remission but who want to continue to participate and inspire kids just beginning the treatment process.
“It’s really fun to have that life and that spirit around your team. It gives you something bigger to play for,” she says.
This fall, McManus also helped organize the first Habitat for Humanity build for student-athletes. The teams came together to begin constructing a house in South Bend that is expected to be ready for move-in this March.
For someone who devotes much of her time to helping others, she admits it was initially awkward to be on the receiving end of help while she grieved with her family.
“My parents have always taught us to give back, but they’ve also taught us that asking for help isn’t weakness,” she says. “I think this has pushed me to grow and become a better person. I’m glad I have the great social support networks I have.
“Through this all I really learned how strong the Notre Dame family is. My mom and I, still to this day, say that being on campus was a blessing in disguise. The support and love we felt immediately on campus made us feel like everything would be okay. It helped us take a step in the right direction from the get-go on how to handle this tragedy and move forward and celebrate an amazing life.”
Just three weeks after her sister’s funeral, McManus was back on campus for summer school. Her family decided Notre Dame could provide an outstanding support structure where she could grieve and where she could try to get her life to a new normal.
“There are some moments on some days where you get completely blindsided. It’s a sucker punch almost. It’s a very brief moment, but it’s kind of a moment that knocks you off your feet because you relive that. You realize this is real. She is not coming back. That did happen.
“But,” she insists on a positive note, “I think those moments will become fewer and fewer as life goes on.”
Looking forward to this lacrosse season, Halfpenny predicts a fortified McManus will step onto the field.
“She brings a lot of perspective to a lot of situations.
“She brings a lot of life to what we do.
“When you think of Katherine, you think about life.
“You think about life, energy, positivity.”
— Tara Hunt, Strong of Heart