If asked what makes the University of Notre Dame special, an answer could lead down several different paths. One could speak of Notre Dame’s abundance of history and tradition, with numerous national championships and Heisman trophies, or iconic photographs of Notre Dame priests hand-in-hand with Dr. Martin Luther King hanging outside the student union. One could discuss the university’s top-flight graduation rates among its student-athletes, rates that emphasize that at Notre Dame the word “student” is placed before “athlete” for a reason. Or one could point out the unexplainable feeling of uniqueness when walking throughout Notre Dame’s campus, a special feeling I still experience every time I arrive on campus, despite visits too numerous to count.
All points are valid, and all help create the aura that is Notre Dame. But what makes the university truly special are the things you don’t see or hear much about, things Notre Dame does out of the kindness of its heart without expectations of good publicity.
Meet April Vernia, a lifelong resident of Kalamazoo, Michigan, a moderately-sized city a short 75 minute drive from South Bend. April has long been a participant in the Special Olympics, and this past Sunday she was excited to arrive on campus for a Special Olympics soccer tournament hosted by the University of Notre Dame.
The round-robin tournament consisted of three teams, with Special Olympics athletes representing universities in their locale. The competing universities were Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, the University of Michigan and the University of Notre Dame. Each team was managed and organized by respective university students, and the event was held on a soccer field behind the Arlotta Family Lacrosse Stadium.
The tournament possessed every element that endears sports fans to Notre Dame athletic competitions. Upon arrival, athletes and spectators alike were greeted by the welcoming and familiar ushers who, before offering direction to the proper venue, made sure to welcome you to the University of Notre Dame. To drive home the community spirit, and as a reminder that Notre Dame supports all of its athletes, tournament participants and guests were treated to Notre Dame’s marching band blaring the fight song from the Lacrosse field stands as Notre Dame’s Women’s Lacrosse team competed against Georgetown. Once at the soccer field, the Notre Dame students assisting the event lived up to the university’s reputation.
As Western Michigan, Michigan and Notre Dame Special Olympics athletes began to stretch and warm up on the field, a Notre Dame student approached the visiting universities to let them know water was available to all participants behind the Notre Dame bench. In addition, he informed everyone a pizza party would take place after the tournament and after every athlete was awarded a tournament medal. April could hardly contain her excitement and told me Notre Dame had hosted a similar tournament the previous year, though she was unable to play due to illness. I let April know I was envious of her – she was about to engage in an athletic competition at the University of Notre Dame, something I had dreamed about since a child running around in the backyard pretending to play football for the Fighting Irish. And just as I was to head to the bleachers for the start of the contest, April gave me a surprise of my own: she handed me my own Western Michigan University Special Olympics soccer shirt that matched the jerseys of the WMU team participating in the tournament. If I couldn’t live my dream by competing at Notre Dame, April made sure I was a part of the team in spirit, a kindness I will never forget.
As the Special Olympics soccer tournament began, Notre Dame continued to impress. ND students came to the bleachers and handed out vuvuzelas, noise-making horns that caught international attention during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, to all interested spectators. They also made signs for fans to hold, even making the extra effort to create signs for every university represented, not just for the University of Notre Dame. Fighting Irish students also were in attendance as fans, cheering the Notre Dame athletes as well as the other teams. One student, during a brief timeout, was even dancing with an athlete as music blared from the nearby Lacrosse match.
Though April and Western Michigan walked away from the Special Olympics tournament with the championship trophy, everyone was truly a victor. The laughter, smiles, dancing and happiness seen from all athletes as they comingled during the medal ceremony was all the evidence one needed.
Sunday’s Special Olympics event made me proud to be a Western Michigan University alumnus and lifelong fan of the University of Notre Dame, and added one more layer to what makes Notre Dame such a special place.