A decade later, Sureeni Ekanayake ’01MBA still recalls one of her toughest lessons in raising triplets.
Two of her children — Cameron and Samantha — were getting special attention for breaking a record on a statewide elementary school test. Completely overlooked was Derrick, the third of Sureeni’s triplets, who had finished just one point behind.
“If it wasn’t for the other two, Derrick would have seemed like the smartest kid in the world,” she recalls. “Sometimes I have to stop myself. I don’t want to be bragging about any one too much.”
For Sureeni, that can be a tough task, particularly this year. All three of her children are seniors majoring in science disciplines at Notre Dame, preparing for graduation in May. All three have excelled academically and likely will be accepted into elite medical schools. They all seem to be equally amazing.
It is a Notre Dame parent’s dream come true, times three.
But this past fall, the attention shifted heavily toward Cameron. There he was, playing football for the No. 2-ranked Fighting Irish, and there he was again, being named a finalist for the ultra-prestigious Rhodes scholarship.
“Everyone has been asking about him,” Sureeni says. “I want to say something about the other two. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”
The triplets were born to Sureeni and Chanaka Ekanayake on November 20, 1998 — Cameron at 10:31 a.m., Derrick at 10:32 and Samantha about 10:33. Sureeni, who now works in Notre Dame’s investment office as director of tax compliance, was an MBA student then.
The triplets grew up in Niles, Michigan, about five miles north of Notre Dame. Devoted to academics, they were selected to attend the accelerated Berrien RESA Mathematics and Science Center at Andrews University in Berrien Springs. Their achievements were such that they would be welcome at the top colleges in the country.
The complication was football, especially for middle-child Derrick. He loved the sport more than anything else. His dream was to play football at the U.S. Naval Academy and study to become a military surgeon.
But in his freshman season as a linebacker at Edwardsburg High School, Derrick was stretching to make a tackle along the sideline when another player hit him from behind. “I had a sudden pain in my shoulder,” he recalls. “I sat out a few plays and went back in. The next morning, I couldn’t lift my arm.”
His recovery had its ups and downs. A top prospect before the injury, he was able to play enough during his senior year to impress some college scouts. However, he had two screws in his shoulder, which disqualified him from the Naval Academy.
Instead, he went to Norwich University, a private military school in Vermont, where the shoulder pain got worse. He couldn’t go on. With football off the table, Notre Dame was his best option. “My best path is to get into med school as a civilian,” he says, with the goal of joining the military after he becomes a surgeon.
Meanwhile, despite his success as a quarterback at Edwardsburg, Cameron had little interest in playing college ball. He focused on academics with plans to go to an Ivy League college or Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That changed when the Notre Dame football staff offered him a spot as a preferred walk-on. Basically, that meant he would get no athletic scholarship aid but would be welcomed on the team without having to go through a tryout.
Playing football at Notre Dame was a childhood dream that had faded. When the walk-on opportunity came, he realized how much it meant. “I love football,” Cameron says. “I know it wasn’t going to be my future, but it’s the thing that turned me back toward Notre Dame.”
Cameron says he had been to just one Notre Dame football game in his life. Despite his mother’s work there, he hadn’t really explored campus. But at the invitation of the athletics department, he attended the spring intrasquad scrimmage, the Blue-Gold Game, and took a serious look around.
He realized, even if he never earned a grass stain or a bruise during a varsity game, he could not walk away from the challenge at Notre Dame. “I could take advantage of this opportunity in a different way,” he says. “I could use this platform to reach more people.”
He became a running back on the scout squad, preparing the defense for upcoming opponents. At the end of his fourth year of getting bashed and mashed in practices, he was thrilled to get on the field for the final regular-season game against Syracuse. He carried the ball three times for a total gain of one yard.
He had no delusions about climbing the depth chart or winning the Heisman Trophy. He knew instead that his time and effort would prepare others for glory. “You have to be grounded in reality,” Cameron says. “As walk-ons, you know you might not receive the benefit of your work. But there’s something to be said about suffering and struggling with all these other people.”
His participation in sports helped him qualify to apply for the Rhodes scholarship, which traditionally takes athletics into consideration. The idea came to him late and he rushed to meet the application deadline. When the email came informing him that he was a finalist, he was shocked. The next step involved meeting the other candidates — virtually, because of coronavirus restrictions — and interviews.
“It was very cutthroat,” he says, “but it was one of the coolest experiences. The other finalists were some of the most awesome people I’ve ever met.”
With all three on the same career path as potential surgeons, often taking the same classes at Notre Dame, test scores and GPAs inevitably come up in conversation.
This sort of competition is an everyday thing for the triplets, although “cutthroat” isn’t a fair description. With all three on the same career path as potential surgeons, often taking the same classes at Notre Dame, test scores and GPAs inevitably come up in conversation. Their competitive spirit is “not really selfish in nature,” Samantha says. “I think it’s very helpful.”
By starting his college career at Norwich, Derrick admits he has a slight advantage now. Often, he is in classes that Cameron and Samantha took a semester or two earlier. “So I know the grades they had,” he says, “and I know what I have to beat.”
Like Samantha, who played varsity basketball in high school, he views the competition as constructive, as setting higher standards for each other, and it doesn’t prevent him from enjoying their successes as well. “If anyone was going to play football at Notre Dame and it wasn’t going to be me, I’m glad it was Cameron,” he says.
Sureeni supported Cameron’s decision to divert hundreds of hours away from academics, even though she still doesn’t understand the game of football. Growing up in Sri Lanka, she and Chanaka had other sports — tennis and track, cricket and rugby.
But she is grateful for any part that football played in drawing Cameron to Notre Dame. “None of them wanted to come here,” she recalls. “They grew up here and just wanted out. It was like a place in their backyard.”
She is glad to have had the triplets close for these important years, even if that means some extra duty on laundry or buying lunches. “One thing they tell us is that we are always here for them,” she says. “That gives them some comfort.”
Sureeni has one more story she wants to tell. “One of the fondest memories I have is when Samantha, who was only 9 months, started walking for the first time,” she says. “The other two were so upset and they could not wait until they did the same. So all what the other two did in the next week or so was trying to walk.”
To this day, no one wants to be left behind.
In the end, Cameron wasn’t chosen to receive the Rhodes scholarship. He may end up spending a year or so at Oxford anyway, studying public policy before he heads to medical school. Derrick and Samantha also are planning on taking a year off before medical school. Many decisions await them in May and June.
So much about attending Notre Dame is about earning your choice for the future. The Ekanayake triplets are not immune to that. But for Cameron, football has trained his brain for split-second decisions that bring clarity in the moment.
One such moment for him came at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night after a home game. The fans were long gone. Instead of celebrating at a party, he was headed to the library, knowing he needed to put in a couple more hours of studying. “If that’s not the life of a walk-on, I don’t know what is,” he recalls, chuckling.
The stadium was gleaming on his right, the library glowing on his left, and he paused. “It just struck me,” he says. “I’m at this place that is the best in academics and the best in athletics. I really am at Notre Dame. I’m living my dream.”
Ken Bradford is a freelance writer and former reporter and editor at the South Bend Tribune.