I recently had the honor and privilege to accompany a surviving child of a fallen teammate and friend to a Notre Dame vs. Navy football game. Joining us would be her older brother and two other surviving boys, each accompanied by their mentor. Although the event centered around the notorious rival match between Notre Dame's Fighting Irish and the Navy's Midshipmen, there was much more planned for us once we reached our final destination: South Bend, Indiana.
It was a Friday afternoon and the end of a busy week, so I needed to reset my mind and prepare for the journey that lay before me. I was excited about having the opportunity to spend time with Meghan and the other kids. I was humbled when Meghan's mother asked me to be her mentor. I knew the conditions set for these events were specifically established around the father's intentions, and anyone one who was chosen as a mentor, had his trust. Meghan was sure to get my full and undivided attention. After all, I was doing this for Tommy's little girl.
We immediately drove to the Notre Dame pep rally that was already underway at the Compton Family Arena on Campus. We found seats on a crowded staircase overlooking the court. It wasn't long, however, before our group was ushered away from the crowded perch and whisked to the main floor, where only VIPs gathered for the show. The kids were stoked and their excitement grew as the activities on the stage were presented before them. The crowd was lively, just as one would expect from a college football pep rally. I watched the kids intently as they circled their gaze around the stadium with their jaws dropped in awe. The Blue Angels stood before them. One of the pilots turned to our group, and as if he knew who these kids were, motioned them over for a photo. The kids' faces were beaming as they posed for a picture next to the iconic Navy pilots. I'll never forget little Meghan's face as she stood front and center of the Blue Angels. Her smile was priceless. She pulled the sleeves of her sweater over her hands and shyly covered her mouth as she posed for a photograph.
The next day began with a tour of the Notre Dame campus arranged by the same gentleman who donated our game tickets. That's when we learned of a surprise: We would receive a tour of the Notre Dame football team's locker room. No one knew this was going to happen. Not even our hosts.
The locker room was a sacred place and a deeply seated part of the team's spirit. The kids received VIP treatment as they walked around the locker room. All the players' uniforms and equipment were meticulously placed in their lockers. I walked around with Meghan and talked with her about the different types of protective gear. She commented about the enormous shoes and helmets of the various players. I had to agree with her; some seemed other than human.
The highlight of the locker room, however, was not the uniforms or equipment at all, but a small, yellow sign that read, "Play Like a Champion Today!" It was located at the base of a narrow staircase that led to the football field. It is a team tradition to touch the sign (one-by-one) as the players depart the locker room on their way to take the field. They are the last words each player reads before a game, and they each pay due reverence to the pointed phrase. Each of the kids - like the players - were given the same opportunity to participate in the ritual as they departed the locker room.
After we passed through the sacred passageways, we made our way to the football field. The kids gathered around the goal post to catch a glimpse of the stadium. I imagined the kids caught a sense of what the players must feel when they take to the field before a game. We captured photos of the moment then made our way back to the entrance of the stadium for the remainder of our campus tour.
The game promised to be an epic battle I walked Meghan through the crowd and guided her to our assigned seats, which were perfectly positioned above the 30 yd line. We could see the same entrance to the field where the kids had stood just the day before for a photo in front of the goal post.
We all stood to our feet and faced the American flag, which was flying proudly in front of us. The kids knew the drill. It wasn't their first time paying tribute to the flag, and for them, the flag symbolizes something more.
Immediately after the national anthem, veteran game-goers turned to face the sky behind us. Uncertain why, we all did the same. Just as we turned, the Blue Angels jetted overhead in an awesome display of naval air power.
One of the mentors had established contact with the Officer-in-Charge (OIC) of the Navy team. The OIC is was an active-duty Marine assigned to the Naval Academy to ensure the team maintains discipline and good personal relations at all times. Early in the first half of the game, the mentor received a phone call from the OIC requesting that we meet him at the edge of the field. We quickly obliged and made our way down. The OIC met as at the border wall of the stands with a bag of official Navy footballs signed by the players for the kids! Meghan received her first football. It was a great surprise for the kids.
The game continued with an upset for the Navy Midshipmen (30-34). Although it was a rival match, each team showed the deepest respect for the other. Losing the game didn't matter to us, anyway. Navy played a great game. Meghan and the boys had had a blast cheering and showing their support. It was all worth it. The kids and their mentors had gelled and enjoyed the game together, which was the point of it all.
The OIC had offered for the kids to meet the team after the game. We weren't sure if the team would be up to a visit, but we hoped for the best. We received the call from the OIC and meeting the team was a go. He provided us directions to passageway near the visiting team's locker room and asked us to wait outside. The kids were given posters of the Navy's Midshipmen football team as a souvenir by the OIC. The kids waited anxiously outside the locker room for the players to depart. One-by-one, the players exited the locker room, where the kids stood with gold paint pens at the ready. To the man, each player greeted the kids with a smile and a genuine hello; even though they had just lost the game, they didn't show their defeat to the kids. The kids showed great respect to the players, as they shook their hands. Each player scribed their name on all four of the posters; some players went as far as to give the kids the gloves they had worn during the game. The Coach and OIC gave the team a pretty good talk in the locker room. This became evident later. They were reminded that their loss could not compare to the loss of the four kids waiting outside the locker room had endured.
We listened to the kids talk about their favorite part of the game as we walked back to the car through the campus quads. Another mentor and I overheard the kids talking about their favorite parts of the trip. We both looked at each other and grinned as the kids shared great stories about their fathers. It was an amazing moment. We witnessed first-hand why events like these are so important. We participated, albeit vicariously, in a memory that took place long ago and far away.
Our hosts guided us home, where we shared a great dinner and exchanged gifts. The kids wrote their thank you notes and presented them to our hosts. We enjoyed our final night as a group, and discussed all the ways we could do this again in the future. All this was possible because good people came together to make great things happen for these kids. I'm eternally grateful for the generosity of our hosts and donors, as well as the efforts of the coordinators of the Word of Honor Fund team who made this event happen. Thank you to all.