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Does Notre Dame Only Recruit Catholic Athletes?

ByBryan Armetta

Published on Sat May 29 2021

|

4 min read

Does Notre Dame Only Recruit Catholic Athletes?

Few colleges in the nation have the rich history and tradition of Notre Dame. Located in South Bend, Indiana, the university was founded by French-born priest Edward F. Sorin, who sought to build a "great Catholic university in America".

During Notre Dame's century-long success in college football, questions about the link between athletics and religion have always been present as well. Does the school only recruit Catholic athletes, or are players from all faiths welcome to play football?


Catholicism and Football's History

As previously mentioned, Notre Dame and Catholicism are inseparable from each other. The university is possibly the most famous Catholic institution in America, but to many, the school is most synonymous with gridiron glory.

For American Catholics, the football team's winning ways represented something bigger than national titles, even for those who weren't even alums. The team gave a religious minority that was often socially outcast a sense of pride and honor. During the mid-20th century, so-called "Subway Alums" began to pop up in cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. These fans had never graduated or attended Notre Dame, let alone stepped foot on campus, but rallied behind the university's religious identity.

On the field, recruiters for Notre Dame have long looked towards Catholic high schools for the next wave of Fighting Irish talent. Many of the university's legendary players, such as Alan Page, Paul Hornung, and Dave Casper, came from Catholic high schools. However, other stars have been recruited from the public school ranks, including Joe Montana, Jerome Bettis, Rocket Ismail, and Tim Brown.

Finding talented players from every corner of the country, in spite of high academic standards, is something the Irish pride themselves on. This is not defined solely by location, but faith as well. With rigid guidelines in place as far as grade point average and personal conduct, Notre Dame's football recruiters value character, not personal beliefs.


Faith On and Off the Field

While Notre Dame admits students of all faiths and varying backgrounds, just 18

identify as something other than Catholic. Although all faiths are welcome on campus, the university does not shy away from its roots, as most school administrators in and outside of athletics identify as Catholics. While current head coach Brian Kelly is a practicing Catholic, this does not mean that the football team forces its players to follow a certain religion over others.

Before every game, Notre Dame conducts a mass overseen by two Catholic priests on Friday evening. While this congregation is obviously steeped in the beliefs of one faith, it is seen more as a school ritual rather than a religious one. Many of the football team's captains have willingly led the team in Catholic religious chants such as the Hail Mary. For 2002 team captain and Southern Baptist George Sapp, the prayer was simply "one tradition in a school rich with tradition", according to the Wall Street Journal.

Plenty of Notre Dame's best players have found comfort in the school's Catholic-influenced structure, even if they don't follow the religion themselves. Former ND linebacker and Heisman finalist Mant'i Teo is a devout Mormon, yet chose to come to South Bend, where he found an opening community that accepted him and his beliefs. Then-Athletic Director John Heisler stated in 2012 (Teo's senior year) that the "emphasis here is that this is a place of faith and it really doesn’t matter what your faith is".

Joining Notre Dame is not a decision for everybody. While it is still one of the premier football colleges in America, it is fair to say that some of the allure the school's program once had has been diminished by a thirty-three year national title drought. Still, this is a place that has not only produced quality teams in recent memory, but NFL-ready players as well.

Although non-Catholics are a clear minority on campus, this does not mean that they feel excluded. While some may be wary of the university's unabashedly Catholic culture, part of what attracts many non-Catholics to Notre Dame is the school's openness to other ideas and perspectives. Simply put, this is a college and football team that strives for excellence, and looks to recruit young men who are committed to being the best they can be.

As a school rooted in tradition, Notre Dame may feel like a living museum to college football's past. However, their sustained, if not exceptional, success in modern times (A .723 winning percentage during Kelly's 11 seasons as head coach) would not be possible without the contributions of every player, regardless of their religion. Notre Dame does not shy away from its Catholic tenets, but it is also a place that has made people of all beliefs feel welcome on campus, especially those who choose to wear the gold and blue.

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