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Bless each one individually’

TORI ROECK | Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fr. Mark Thesing, the Notre Dame football chaplain, began his relationship with the team as an undergraduate seminarian in 1979.

A 1981 Notre Dame alumnus, Thesing said he used to run the movie projector that would screen a film for the players in the Moreau Seminary auditorium when they used to sleep in the building Friday nights before home football games.

“Actually the football players, I think, got a little freaked out by the seminary,” Thesing said. “It was too quiet over there, and it was an unfamiliar place and there were expectations over there. The rooms are extremely small, and there was nothing for them to do. They were shown a movie in the auditorium and then went up to their room to go to bed.”

The players’ Friday night accommodations have since changed, and so has Thesing’s role with the team, he said. Thesing said he became a chaplain for away football games in 2008 and assumed the role for all games this season when Fr. Paul Doyle stepped aside as home game chaplain.

Thesing said his responsibilities begin Mondays of game weeks when he attends the team’s weekly “Mental Monday” meeting.

“I sit in the back and I take notes, and part of it is to kind of understand where Coach [Brian] Kelly sees the team and where he wants the team to be going, the way he speaks to them and what he focuses on, what he comments about, what he provides to the team in terms of images to focus on, of thoughts to consider – that sets the mood for the team,” he said.

Thesing said he delivers Mass for the team every Friday before a game and at this Mass he gives each player a medal with a particular saint he has chosen for the week. Thesing said he has a list of all the saints commemorated in these Masses since 2007.

“I’m a very systematic guy, so what I decided to do was that I didn’t think we should repeat any saint medal within a five-year period,” he said. “There are enough saints for us to go 50, 60 saints without having to repeat from year after year.
“I decided that the four evangelists and St. Paul would be a good way to represent scripture and the foundational background of scripture. I also realized that we want to keep to the tradition of Notre Dame, so this year the tradition of Notre Dame was represented with St. Edward, the patron saint of Fr. Edward Sorin. I also want to keep within that the concept of the Congregation of Holy Cross …  so this year to represent the Congregation of Holy Cross is the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”

Team Mass before home games moved from Saturday to Friday this year, and Thesing said the switch makes Mass feel less rushed. He said the first time he served as away chaplain at Michigan State University in 2008 he was shocked by the quick succession between Mass and travel to the stadium.

“[After Mass] we’re handing out the saint medals as they’re heading to the bus, so everyone’s left the area,” he said. “I’m back there and they’re going, ‘Father, you need any help?’ ‘No, no. I can take care of this.’ I put everything away. Five minutes later I walk down and everyone is already on the bus, the police escorts are already there, and I’m going, ‘Oh, they’re all waiting for me.’
“As they move closer and closer to game time, everything gets tightly scheduled.”

On gameday, Thesing said he stays with the team, blesses them and leads them in prayer.

“I’m always one of the first back into the locker room,” he said. “Before the game during warm-ups and at the end of the first half and at the end of the game, I’m there and welcome them back into the locker room with a blessing.

“I try to bless each one individually, often in pairs as they’re coming on my right and on my left, moving quickly into the locker room, and then immediately before they move out to the field at the beginning of the game, I lead the team in a prayer. At the end of the game, after Coach has spoken a few words, he says, ‘Let’s pray,’ and then I lead them again in prayer at the end of the game.”

As football chaplain, Thesing said his job is to be supportive of the players at all times.

“What it involves, first and foremost, is to be there with the team in a routine basis and also in crisis moments,” he said. “When I say crisis moments, it doesn’t all have to be disaster, but it’s those unprecedented and unexpected events. One of which that comes to mind is Declan Sullivan’s death.”

Sullivan, a student videographer for the team died Oct. 27, 2010 at age 20 when he was thrown from a hydraulic scissor lift by strong winds during football practice, according to an Oct. 27, 2010 article in The Observer.

Thesing said he received a call the evening of the accident while preparing to lead a reflection in Farley Hall. He went straight to the Guglielmino Athletic Complex to counsel the players and coaches, he said.

“As it turned out, the real difficulty and challenge wasn’t as much the football players but Declan’s fellow workers with the video crew,” Thesing said. “There were times, since I was the away chaplain, during the home games … I went and just stood with them as they’re video taping from their isolated spots on the south scoreboard and up on the photo deck of the press box, just to be with them and let them know that they’re not walking this journey, this challenge by themselves.”

After supporting the team through many challenges, Thesing said his favorite part of being chaplain is participating in the locker room celebration after a win.

“It’s exciting; it’s fun,” he said. “It’s the realization that they’ve done a great job and especially our hard-fought wins, when we’re the underdog. Part of it is because you’re also there at the times of loss. You’re there in Pittsburgh when there wasn’t a word spoken in the locker room, other than the coach. You know how much time and effort and energy these players devote to what they’re doing. [You] marvel at their ability to balance student life with the expectation of being a football player at Notre Dame.
“It’s important to them, it’s fun for the fans, the students and the alumni, and it’s a great experience.”

Thesing said his full-time job as director of finance and administration for the Mendoza College of Business’ Office of the Dean prevents him from attending practice regularly, but he still has developed a rapport with the players.

“I don’t interact with the players as much as everyone would think I do, but there are the opportunities in which we chat and talk,” he said, “and there are those people who engage me in conversations – theological, philosophical or just about sports.”

Contact Tori Roeck at vroeck@nd.edu