The message on the envelope was stark but clear. “Return to sender: Deceased.” There had been no warnings, no rumors or calls from mutual friends, nor any reason to expect it. We had spoken just a month or two before, but I knew the notation was not an error. With a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, I said a short “Hail Mary” for my friend, and called his parish in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, for confirmation. Yes, they said, it was true: Jim Brennan had died on Sunday, October 27, 2002.
As so often happens when I hear sad and shocking news, my mind quickly shot back to a happier time, when Jim and I lived in Fisher Hall in the early 1970’s. Back then—as now I suppose—most of the young men of Fisher were known within the hall principally by their nicknames. I was T-“Willis” Reid, mediocre but dedicated Rockne hoopster. We also had our share of high-profile athletes in the Fisher community, including “Big T” and “Little T” (Willie and Michael Townsend), “Shu,” “Dice” . . . the list goes on and on. As well known as some of the Irish athletes of that era were beyond the confines of the dorm, within the Fisher Hall community no one was as famous nor as beloved as Jim Brennan, the one and only “Zero.”
When I came to Notre Dame from Westlake, Ohio in the fall of 1971, Jim Brennan was already a campus celebrity, particularly to the members of the Notre Dame Marching Band, to whom he was also known as “Fish.” Slight in stature and marked by a spinal deformity that would ultimately lead to his demise, Zero was known throughout the campus for his intensity, his sense of humor and his irresistible lust for life. In the spring of 1971 (his freshman year), Zero commandeered the Fisher Hall Chariot to victory in the Chariot Race at An Tostal weekend.
From 1971 to 1973 he was a familiar figure in the ND Marching band as the most spirited cymbal player on the field. I remember watching the 1973 Sugar Bowl from my parent’s home in snowy Cleveland and yelling “Hey, there’s Zero!!” when the ABC camera zoomed in on him playing cymbals at halftime in his final appearance as an official member of the Band of the Fighting Irish. Later that academic year, when the Irish basketball team ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak, Jim was injured when he dashed from his spot in the Pep Band onto the court following the game. Back at Fisher Hall following the game, Jim proudly raised what had formerly been a front tooth in the air, smiled a now gapped-tooth smile and announced, “This is a small price to pay for beating UCLA” (and we all agreed).
He ran for Student Body President in the spring of 1973. His two campaign slogans: “A Vote for Zero is a Vote for Nothing” and “It all adds up to Zero” won him laughs and high marks for honesty but not many votes. Those who knew him had a different slogan: “Zero is my Hero.” For Jim Brennan lived every day as a model of faith, love and optimism in the face of incredible adversity.
Zero was a fellow Clevelander, and in spring 1973 I hitched a ride home for Easter with Jim and his mother. I spent most of the ride telling them about finding the love of my life, Lorrie, who was attending the University of Cincinnati. By the fall, Lorrie and I were engaged. When I proudly showed my engagement announcement to Jim, a look of shock came to his face. “I think I know this girl,” he said. “Did she ever live in Berea?”
“Yes,” I said, “when she was really young.”
“She was my next-door neighbor until I was in first grade,” he exclaimed. “They moved away that year. My mother still corresponds with Lorrie’s mom.” From that moment on, we became more family than friends.
In June 1975, Lorrie and I were married. Jim, of course, was there. When Lorrie and I embarked on our life together in Cleveland, Jim returned to Notre Dame for graduate school. After earning his MBA in 1977, Jim returned home to Olmsted Falls, Ohio, and began a career as an auditor with the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Through his years at the Fed, Jim, Mike Sierputowski (ND 1976) and I would meet frequently for lunch and conversation about our favorite subject, Notre Dame. In the 1970s and early ‘80s we attended Cleveland Indians’ baseball games and ND football and basketball games together. Early one September we each happened to have business in New York at the same time, and we met for a game in Yankee Stadium.
Every spring Jim would call me with the same question: “Hey, T-Willis, this is Z. Did you get your ticket application yet?” We would decide what games we would attend together, what games he wanted for his parents, and what games I wanted for my family. Our conversations would always end the same way: “See you later, T-Willis,” he would say. “God Bless.”
By the mid-1980s, the pressure on his spine was compressing the main nerve, and he began to lose control of his hands, arms, feet and legs. Yet he continued to work for the Federal Reserve, reporting to his office in downtown Cleveland each day, even when using a wheelchair. Later, he worked from his home. When his father and his mother passed away in the 1990s, Jim continued to live at home, now alone, unable to walk or even lift his arms, but never beaten. I tried a few times to convince him to move into an assisted living arrangement, but he would react with incredulity, “Why? I’m okay.” Somehow, he managed to go to at least one ND football game each year. At the famous 1988 ND/Miami game, from our seats in the south end zone, my 8-year old son and I spotted Zero on the field, in his wheelchair, in the Alumni Band.
I last saw him in the fall of 1998, shortly before I left Cleveland for a new job in Topeka, Kansas. By that point, Jim needed 24-hour care. I spent a night with him at his home, relieving his normal night-care attendant. I remember that his refrigerator door was covered with photos of family, and children. Right in the middle were my son’s and daughter’s high school graduation photos. (Funny, the things that stick in your mind.) Jim and I spent a good portion of that night talking. True to form, we talked about my problems, not his—the difficulty of adjusting to “empty nest syndrome” and my worries about paying college expenses for two.
I think it helped Jim to talk about my problems. I know for sure it helped me. Jim reminded me that despite an uncertain future with a new job in a new town, with our children far away, God is still in charge. With a little bit of faith everything would turn out all right. I walked to my car the next morning with a new appreciation for my family and for the simple reality that I was, in fact, walking to my car. Of course, Jim was right. Both of my children now have college degrees, the bills have been paid and I can still walk to my car after work each night. Jim could not enjoy any of those experiences, yet he was the one reminding me to have faith.
In September 2000, I drove from Kansas to Notre Dame with my now 20-year-old son for the Nebraska game. Sitting in nearly the same seats as we had for the Miami game 12 years before, I told my son, “Say a prayer for Mr. Brennan. I’m sure he wishes he could be here today.” Although, I was certain it would break his heart to witness the “Sea of Red” in Rockne’s house. When I returned to Kansas that Monday, I called him to talk about the game.
“You should have told me you were going to the game,” he said, “we could have hooked up somewhere.”
“You were there?” I asked.
“Are you kidding?” he said, “I couldn’t have missed that game.”
“The ending was pretty disappointing,” he continued. “That was our game to win from beginning to end. We just didn’t finish the job.”
As to the “Sea of Red”, he said, “Hey, this is Notre Dame football. It’s not entertainment and we’re not spectators. If people want to be entertained, go to a concert. The purpose for us to be in that stadium is to help the team win. If anyone can’t understand how special Notre Dame football is, and how important we are to that team, fine. Sell your tickets. We don’t need you. It just meant the rest of us had to work a little harder, and we obviously didn’t work hard enough. We let the team down.” As always, he ended the conversation with, “See you later, T-Willis. God Bless.”
Once again, I had underestimated Jim. On a day when thousands of Notre Dame “fans” sold their tickets to the visitors, Zero, by then a quadriplegic, managed to travel from Cleveland to South Bend and make his way to the handicapped section to stand tall for Notre Dame against a Nebraska team that he knew we could have and should have defeated. He wasn’t heartbroken, he was mad—_fighting mad!_ For all his challenges, Jim Brennan never lost faith, and he never forgot he meaning of “Fighting Irish.”
My final conversation with Jim was in September 2002. On a warm Sunday morning as I prepared to go to Mass in Topeka, I remembered that Mass from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart was about to begin on the Hallmark channel. I thought of Jim, and called him to tell him about the broadcast. He had not heard about it, and was excited to know that he could now attend Mass at Notre Dame from his home in Ohio. As always, he sounded upbeat and gave no indication of the seriousness of his physical deterioration. “Thanks,” he said, “I’ll tune it in right now. I’ll say a prayer for you and Lorrie and the kids. See you later T-Willis. God Bless.” As it turned out, those were the last words I would ever hear him say. “See you later T-Willis, God Bless.”
I do not know the exact circumstances of his death, I am pretty sure he died a happy man. Jim’s death on October 27, 2002, was the day after the ND’s triumph over Florida State. I’m sure Jim was very well aware of the game that day, in spite of his failing health. It comforts me to think that the boys in the gold helmets gave Jim Brennan—the ultimate Fighting Irishman—one more Notre Dame moment to smile about on his last day on earth. The following day, the day after Notre Dame won its biggest game of the year, the University of Our Lady lost its most loyal son: James F. Brennan Jr., my friend and my hero.
See you later, Zero. God Bless.
In memory of:
James F. Brennan Jr. *
A.B. Anthropology, 1974 *