My Advice to Manti: Letters from Notre Dame’s Past

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Hi Manti,

Me again. As I hinted in my last post, your email to the Smith’s (as inspiring as it is) is just one of a great many letters that are a part of Notre Dame‘s legacy. For example, note the similarities between Lou Holtz‘ letter and your salvific email:

Dear Coach Holtz,

Thanks for the hat, football and great time. I had the very best time in my life! I could not have dreamed of anything more. Thanks again!

Dear __________ ,

Thank you very much for your card. I really enjoyed having you here at the University of Notre Dame. I really wish I could have done more…to let you know how much we respect and admire your courage and determination…While I don’t really have the authorization to do this, I personally want to give you an honorary position on our football team. I have never done this before, but consider yourself a member of the 1995 Fighting Irish. All you have to do is cheer hard for us and be brave.

Thank you again.

Sincerely,
Lou Holtz

At this time, Manti, I should point out that not all of Holtz’ many letters ended in tragedy; after fourth-grader Allyson Treloar wrote Lou congratulating him on his 1986 comeback win against USC, they became penpals and lifelong friends. Ms. Treloar not only went on to write the foreword for my book, Champions of Faith: Catholic Sports Heroes Tell Their Stories, but is now teaching and coaching students to “Play (and learn) Like Champions” herself.

Still, to feel the full impact of Irish letter lore, we should go back to a man you’ve certainly heard of, but perhaps don’t know much about. Although I do not have a copy of the letter that Knute Rockne originally sent to the young man, the return letter from the boy’s father (written after Rockne’s tragic death) tells you all you need to know.

April 4, 1931

Dear Father O’Donnell:

I feel that I must express the sympathy and the heartfelt feelings of myself and my family on the terrible loss suffered by the University of Notre Dame and the entire world in the death of Knute Rockne.

I am the father of a crippled boy, twelve years of age. He cannot leave the house and lives on the radio. He [loves] baseball and football, and Knute heard of him last November at the time he was most hard pressed. He wrote Eddie a letter and sent him an autographed picture of himself.

Father, when at noon Tuesday he heard the announcement…that Knute Rockne was killed, he simply shut off the radio and cried; and when I came home that night he said: “Dad, the best man in the world was killed and I can’t help him.” Well, Eddie and I knelt down and said the rosary for Knute, and I know he heard the crippled boy pray for him, and…appreciated it.

We…heard your wonderful sermon today at the funeral, and I am forty-six years old and not ashamed to say I cried, for the whole world lost a friend when we lost Knute Rockne. And a man who would write to a crippled boy and try to make his life happier under the conditions Knute was fighting under last fall, is a man.

Knute’s picture is draped in black in my home tonight, and the kiddies all knelt before it and said the rosary…But little Dick, six years old, said, “Dad, will there be a Notre Dame next year?” “Yes son, next year and every year, Notre Dame will be there fighting with the Rockne spirit.”

So, Father, when all this is over, if you see Mrs. Rockne, please tell her of Knute sending his picture to little Eddie Carty, a crippled kid out in Ohio, and that Eddie is going to pray every night for the one he calls his old friend Knute …

So although Rockne’s death was mourned by presidents and kings, I think you can now see, Manti, that his death actually affected his young fans the most.

So what am I saying with all these letters, Manti? I guess it’s that while such letters help folks to realize that there are still heroes, it also means that every time a fool like me writes about them, that more letters will follow. And I’m sure you noted that these past heroes were not players, but coaches, equipped with full time staffs to help them with this writing task. And just as the Apostles said it is not right for us to neglect preaching or the sacraments to wait on tables (Acts 6:2-3), I doubt that you should neglect interceptions or sacks for the sake of composing letters.

Two things come to mind. First, although you rightly say this team has a lot of heart, the place to find real “heart” at Notre Dame is at Sacred Heart Basilica, where the equivalent of Jesus’ Heart exists in the tabernacle. But if the door to the church is locked, any dorm chapel with the “body, blood, soul and divinity” of Jesus present will do. And, as a last resort, the grotto is open 24/7.

But as powerful as prayer is, the book of James testifies that in cases where you can also do something, it is not enough (James 2:14-17). Not only are you lacking in time to write, but as a Mormon you must be sometimes at a loss for what words to use, or what term is proper when a Catholic kid comes to you for help. Perhaps that is where I come in.

You see Manti, there are really only two things in life I know—and love—but they happen to be the Catholic faith and Notre Dame football. On second thought, those two things aren’t exactly mutually exclusive, so I really probably only know one-and-a-half things…but you get the point.

If Robby Toma could bypass four years of frivolous college fun to be your photographer (just kidding, Robby!) surely I can spend a few fortnights helping out as your “ghost” (as in Holy Ghost) writer; so that the words are still coming from you but are phrased in a “Catholic” way. For although we do not share the same vocation or even follow the same faith, I know in my soul that we are after the same hearts.

Related: Notre Dame Football: A Letter from Manti Te’o
Related: Manti Te’o to Play Saturday Despite Loss of Two Loved Ones
Related: Top Ten Telegrams / Eulogies Mourning Knute Rockne’s Death

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