The Elite Eight and Father Ted

Author: Frank LaGrotta '80, '81M.A.

Over the years, I had a few chances to talk sports with Notre Dame’s late president emeritus, Father Theodore Hesburgh. I watched a Bookstore Basketball with him one time. Sat with him at a varsity mens’ game. Even talked football with him at a political fundraiser. I actually had the moxie to ask him if he and Father Ned really wanted to deemphasize football at Notre Dame, as Fighting Irish conspiracy theorists loved to assert after a particularly tough loss, a bad season, or a Gerry Faust.

“Heavens no,” Ted said without hesitation. “Football is a huge part of who we are, WHAT we are, at Notre Dame. Mind you, it’s not ALL of who we are, or what we are, but any successful whole is always the sum of its parts.”

Still, whenever I was with him, and the subject of sports came up, I always got the feeling that, while he was a fan, he really didn’t understand, nor did he care to understand, the minutiae that so many Irish fans get (over) immersed in. My guess is Ted would think “a good pick” was not something that would set up a clean three-pointer from the corner, but rather someone selected to serve on some commission set up to save the world.

Nevertheless, despite his lack of technical interest in Saturday’s heartbreaker of a loss in the NCAA Regional Final, I suspect Ted enjoyed the game immensely, although perhaps for reasons different from those of the average fan.

I think Ted would be extremely proud of every player and coach on the team, from Mike Brey on down, not only for how they play, but also for how they conduct themselves, how they treat others, show respect for everyone, and never, ever, display any kind of negative reaction that would reflect badly on the university he loved — we all love — so much.

Still, I also believe he would take a long, deep puff on his cigar and smile at the effort with which this team paved the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena. They played their guts out. No quitting and, most importantly, no excuses. Ted’s whole life was a living documentary on the simple fact that good, clean hard work matters; a 96-year lesson on effort; giving and trying and not quitting and always believing that somehow, some way, this would always be enough. It usually is.

But not always.

And when it’s not; when you bust your ass and fall just a-little-too-long-Jerian-Grant-prayer-from-the-corner-at-the-buzzer short, there are to be no cheap fouls, no cheap shots, no television close-ups of ugly moods, or uglier words. No John McEnroe-like “%*&$@” video for Sports Center allowed. No excuses. Not from Notre Dame men. And believe me, Ted would say absolutely that the guys on this team, were — ARE — not only a reflection of their families, and their coaches. They ARE ND.

And Saturday night they made all of us who believe in that chant, that moniker, very, very deeply proud.

But you know what? Most of all I think Ted would be proudest of and most touched by the coming together of — the communion of — a black kid named Grant and a white guy named Connaughton; two strangers who didn’t know each other only four years ago, who now know they will be closer than brothers for the rest of their lives. These two kids — two men — whose mutual respect and, yes, love for each other set an example for every other kid on this team, at this university, and hopefully across a nation where cops and kids still kill one another just because the other is a different color. Individually, neither Jerian Grant nor Pat Connaughton could have provided the leadership necessary to propel a team that was never the biggest, usually not the quickest, and many times did not have had the most raw talent on the court, to the places these guys went this season.

Together, however, Grant and Connaughton, made a team, a university, and for all but a few seconds last night, a nation, actually believe that it really is character, not color, that makes the difference between success and failure.

That belief, more than anything else, is what Ted dedicated his life to. And that, I am sure, is what made him most proud last night.

So today, while we mourn what ended this weekend, and think about what could have been, we also celebrate what was. And what was one of the finest collections of men, Notre Dame men, that ever played any game at any time for the Fighting Irish.

I am quite certain Father Ted would agree.

Frank LaGrotta was a sports writer for Gannett News Service (USA Today) before being elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1986. He served in that role for 20 years. He is now a full-time caregiver for his elderly parents.

This story was also published in Monday’s Observer.