John Heisler made the drive south by himself over two days, not knowing a soul in Orlando, Florida, and not knowing what a part-time consulting gig he had agreed to might turn into eventually.
His first official function for his new employer, after hunkering down in his hotel room in the afternoon in April of 2019, was an event at a local hotel that evening honoring the University of Central Florida’s newest Athletics Hall of Fame class.
The longtime Notre Dame sports information director wandered into the venue, and the first person he literally bumped into — and randomly spoke to — turned out to be the guest of honor: former UCF football coach and Hall of Fame inductee George O’Leary.
The same man Heisler helped introduce as Notre Dame’s coach more than 17 years earlier, but who lasted only a little less than a week on the job.
“There is one sculpture on the UCF campus connected to athletics, and it’s located right outside our football stadium,” Heisler said. “The sculpture is of George O’Leary, who in his time as head coach accomplished things never done before at UCF.”
The seemingly chance encounter fits the motif of Heisler’s life narrative, as he tells it.
The two most significant instances of randomness colliding with destiny were meeting wife Karen in the Purdue sports information office, just as she was getting ready to take a job at the University of North Carolina. And around the same time frame, there was the start of a brilliant career at Notre Dame in sports information and administration that Heisler never saw coming.
“That was the year Notre Dame (men’s basketball) played in the Final Four (1978),” said the 66-year-old South Bend native and University of Missouri grad. “I was in St. Louis, volunteering. Somehow people put in good words for me, unbeknownst to me, and all the sudden I was interviewing for the job.”
A job that ended up spanning four decades.
Heisler, the valedictorian at Adams High School in South Bend, started accruing experience as a kid that would later help him professionally without even knowing it.
In high school, his parents bought him a season ticket for ND football games, but before that, starting at age 10 with the 1964 season, Heisler would walk over to the stadium every home game looking for someone who would give him a ticket.
“I don’t know if they just felt sorry for me or just had extra tickets,” he said. “I was hooked at that point. I bought a program every single game. Still have them all.”
The most visible part of Heisler’s role once he was actually working for Notre Dame was curating the perception of the program and the personalities advancing ND’s resplendent football tradition. He schmoozed, answered questions, provided context, put out public relations fires and amplified the Lou Holtz renaissance.
He did it so well for so long that Heisler was named the 2021 recipient of the Bert McGrane Award from the Football Writers Association of America. It’s the highest honor presented to an FWAA member in recognition of contributions to the FWAA and college football, essentially a ticket to its Hall of Fame, and a testament to a tireless career.
“My kids are a little older now and they probably would tell you that I was invisible more than I should have been. I did everything I could to make as many practices and youth sporting events as I could,” Heisler said. “It seemed like there were always heavy duty things at Notre Dame going on. Either you were having an eventful football season or you had a new coach. Or you had a new athletic director or you had something that required your attention. You never really felt you had much time when there wasn’t something noteworthy going on.”
On top of all that, Heisler never let go of his great professional passion — writing. Through books. Through columns for the football game programs — and eventually for the web, when universities’ athletic websites came into being and eventually thrived.
Perhaps his most understated contribution was serving as editor and contributor for the Strong of Heart book series. And being strong of heart in life may also be the most understated aspect of who John Heisler became.
That UCF consulting gig morphed into a full-time role similar to what he left at Notre Dame roughly two years ago — associate athletic director/strategic communications. And Heisler and wife Karen have finally made the permanent move to Orlando.
Karen Croake Heisler, meanwhile, had taught a variety of television courses at Notre Dame and journalism at Holy Cross College. She wrote books and award-winning documentaries during her tenure at WNDU–TV and Golden Dome Productions.
In the past couple of years, she and John have taught those around them what courage and hope looks like as she battles uterine cancer.
“She had seven hours of surgery in July 2019,” John said. “She came back from that pretty good and we thought we were OK. All of a sudden in August, some of it popped up again and so now we’re kind of dealing with that. They didn’t want to do any more surgery. They didn’t want to do chemo. She’s doing something called immunotherapy. She has no energy. She’s just fatigued. She’s in bed by 8 o’clock most every night.
“She’s really frustrated, because she feels helpless, but there’s not much you can do. We are hoping that’s going to make some progress. We’ll see. She’s only been doing that for about six weeks, maybe. So we’ll see if she gets better.”
John’s position at Notre Dame was eliminated two years ago in some athletic department shuffling. He took the high road out of South Bend, finding a new home at UCF, but as the McGrane Award shows, the impact of his tenure at Notre Dame has not been forgotten.
“You look back at the list of winners,” Heisler said. “I feel honored and privileged to have known a bunch of those people and worked with a bunch of them. Some of them are names of people who aren’t even alive. And young fans of the sport wouldn’t even recognize who some of those people were. But, as you know, the names on that list are legends in the business. From all over the country.”
“The other thing that makes you feel privileged is that there aren’t very many sports information people on there. That makes you feel like you did something right somewhere along the road.”
Eric Hansen covers Notre Dame football for the South Bend Tribune.