Monday, June 30, 2014

We Are ND.

During the last few weeks, Notre Dame has been running a social media "tournament" vote to determine the best picture from Notre Dame athletics this year. The winner featured Senior basketball captain Natalie Achonwa hugging one of the team's ballgirls after they earned another trip to the Final Four.

There were a number of great moments this year for ND teams, but this picture got my vote in each round. Of course I might be a little biased since the ballgirl is our daughter Jessa.

The picture stands on its own quite well. But, a little more background explains even further as to the quality of people associated with Notre Dame athletics such as "Ace".

As most know, ND headed into the tournament undefeated and penciled in for a trip to the finals. But standing in the way was Baylor and the type of player who can put up points by the bundle, Odyssey Sims. Jessa was fired up to have one of the best seats in the JACC that night, taking her spot right under the basket. Heading to the game she was just a little unsure of the earlier instructions not to cheer for ND, since technically she was working for the NCAA that evening, not Notre Dame like usual. She also knew her spring break to the Final Four in Nashville hung in the balance. The crowd was ready for the game (and apparently was the loudest ever recorded at Purcell Pavilion), and more importantly so were the Irish.

Notre Dame rolled to a convincing win. Unfortunately, the evening ended in a bittersweet manner. With just a few minutes left in the game Natalie came down awkwardly and injured her knee. By the look of the play, and more obviously by her reaction (which later in the car Jessa described as hearing her scream), it became clear that this was not just a simple tweak. As it turned out that would be the last play of her ND career because of a torn ACL.

Immediately after the game the team began to celebrate on the floor and started to setup for the always great scene of a victorious team cutting down the net. At some moment the flood and variety of emotions became a little too much for a 6 year old (picture Ron Burgundy in a phone booth!) She began to cry, what were mainly happy tears, but little girl tears nonetheless. She was noticed by a couple of the assistant coaches who called Natalie over.

....A small explanation as to why they called for Ace. Over the last few years Natalie has been extremely gracious and outgoing towards Jessa (and many children as well). Before most home games they have typically embraced as the team came out for warmups and after many games as well. Jessa usually refers to her as "my college friend".........

Because of the win and the injury, I'm sure there were a thousand different thoughts running through Natalie's head immediately after that game. But when a coach calls you over, you come right? So Natalie made her way to them, with a bulky knee brace under her warmup pants, and bends down to give the hug from the picture.

A fairly simple, but yet so genuine and meaningful of an act. And also a great synopsis of the program Coach McGraw has built. That moment doesn't happen without a wildly successful team. And it doesn't happen without high character people (this could be said about so many of the ND teams as well). As a father, physician, alum and youth coach I cannot think of a better organization and group of young women for my daughter to have the privilege of seeing up close.

I am fond of the saying that "Your actions speak so loudly, I can't hear your words." We have seen the impact that the program's culture can have. Those actions might be taking time to make a fan's day with a simple picture. Or by carrying a confidence when other teams think the league newcomers don't have the goods. Or by having your daughter come to you in the middle of her game and say "I'm going to shut that girl down just like Jewell." (sorry for the dad brag :) ). Whatever they may be, it surely helps show why We Are ND is more than a simple twitter hashtag.

The other person who made this picture happen, was the photographer, Katie Schwab. As director of basketball operations one of her many thankless jobs included being in charge of all the ballkids. She was wonderful to Jessa all year even when dad tried to sneak some Nike gear past her! As many know Katie is going through a tremendous medical challenge right now. She has a little one (and so many others) praying for her.




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