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Fr. Nate Wills describes life as Notre Dame football’s chaplin

| Monday, August 24, 2020

Three years ago, Fr. Nate Wills found himself with a job opportunity he figured he was extremely unqualified for. Now he seems like just the man for the job.

Walking across the quads while teaching through ACE during the summer of 2017, Wills received a call from one of his good friends, Fr. Pete McCormick, Director of Campus Ministry and chaplain of the men’s basketball team. McCormick asked Wills if he’d consider being the football team’s chaplain.

“I said two things. So first of all, I’m really honored,” Wills said. “And second: You know, I don’t really know that much about football, right? Like, I played football for a year in high school, and I wasn’t very good.”

Photo Courtesy of Fr. Nate Wills
Fr. Nate Wills poses for a photo before Notre Dame’s 3-30 loss to Clemson at the 2018 Cotton Bowl Classic on Dec. 29th at AT&T Stadium.

McCormick quickly put Wills’ mind at ease, assuring him that Notre Dame takes great pride in their coaching staff who already know everything there is to know about football.

“We don’t need you to call plays. We needed you to be there [to] chat.” Wills said, recalling the conversation with McCormick that convinced him to take the job.

And for the past three season, Wills has done just that — chat … and pray and help form players in their faith journey — under the helpful guidance of Fr. Mark Thesing, who’s served as the primary chaplain.

“Father Mark is been a really great mentor for me in kind of showing me the ropes and kind of describing the way that he’s been the chaplain, but also letting me kind of do my own thing and kind of forge my own path,” Wills said.

With all the tools and experience at his hands, Wills is ready to take over for good.

“This coming school year will be my first year solo,” he said. “… Fr. Mark was really helpful and patient with me.”

Wills said these past three seasons have taught him about how much work goes into running a college football team and how he can fit into that bigger picture.

“It’s very intricate in terms of the details and everybody has their role, which is really beautiful,” he said. “It’s been great, so I just learned kind of what my role is and just try to do it to the best of my ability”

For Wills, many of the highlights of his time with the team include sideline conversations with players or experiences in some of their most vulnerable moments.

“It’s a tough group to break into because everybody basically comes to them wanting something,” Wills said. “I can see that it took a little while for them to trust that I wasn’t there to get something and just to get to know them, to be with them and to really minister to them.”

Two moments that stand out to him in his time with the team involved offensive linemen. Prior to having surgery, senior lineman Dillan Gibbons shared his very personal faith story with Wills, eventually drawing in the orthopedic surgeon as well.

“I was just completely blown away by how beautiful his faith journey was,” Wills said. “How he had really had to fight for his Catholic faith in a school that he was a part of.”

In a slightly more public forum, Wills found himself engaged in another deep conversation, this time with graduate student offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer, who was sidelined with an injury against Navy back in 2019.

“Tommy always had really interesting logical questions for me,” Wills said. “… During the Navy game last year, he came up to us on crutches and said, ‘I was just thinking about Navy and I was curious, what does the church think about [war] … can you be a soldier and kill people and still be Catholic? How does that work? And what about the morality of drone strikes and stuff like that?’”

While Wills said he welcomed challenging conversations, he felt a little freaked out internally as he tried to approach a very complicated subject.

“We had a great conversation, and lo and behold, while we were having this conversation, apparently, NBC zooms in on us and all of a sudden my phone starts going crazy in my pocket … They were zooming in on Tommy, and talking about the fact that he was injured and … nobody could hear that we were actually having this in-depth theological conversation about the morality of drone strikes.”

For Wills, the privacy of that conversation, despite being in such a public setting, made it all the more special.

“They will know the incredible spiritual curiosity of our guys and the ways in which they’re really just hungry to grow in their faith and to grow closer to the Lord. So that was to me this kind of like our little team in a nutshell,” he said. “I think people can see these guys in a one-dimensional way, and I have the privilege of seeing them in very much three-dimensional.”

Furthermore, the football team has given Wills perspective on the greater student body.

“Half our team isn’t Catholic … I think there is often a challenge — and probably for all our sports — for chaplains to think that the student athletes think, ‘Oh, this person is there for the Catholics,’” he added.

Rather, Wills looks at it as an opportunity to support the players of different faiths, and said players like Daelin Hayes and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa have emerged as incredible faith leaders on the team.

Wills cited the team’s response to racial injustices in America and the growing anxiety over their season due to COVID-19 as a testament to their leadership.

“Working with the team has given me so much hope for not only the future of Notre Dame, but the future of our country and the future of our church in the sense that I’ve seen so many people from different backgrounds really having authentic dialogue, friendship and brotherhood.”

In terms of the anxiety surrounding this upcoming season, Wills is confident these players are prepared to manage whatever adversity comes their way.

“This is something they deal with all the time, right?” he said. “They, they have to find ways to calm their nerves to find inner peace and to do their best.”

While he acknowledges the stressors of this season are different, he thinks great opportunity can come from that.

“That’s where God’s grace can meet us,” Wills said. “To live in the future or to live in the past is really to rob yourself of the joy, of gratitude that God wants to have, that God wants each of us to have. So I think it really is our invitation to just be present.”

Wills said he’s been moved by the entire football program’s willingness to dig deeper.

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because I look at the way that they’re so disciplined and intense, in basically everything in their life, whether they’re required to be so disciplined with their studies, with their training, with their use of time and sleep and food and everything,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they be as intense about seeking after the Lord and trying to grow in their faith life as well.”

According to Wills, this experience has opened his eyes to the ways these athletes are pursuing excellence and growth in every aspect of their lives.

“They’re hungering for deeper realities for spiritual nourishment,” he said. “To know and love and serve Jesus. And so I think there’s a lot there, and I’m blessed to be able to step into that hunger and provide what I can.”

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