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‘Be a force for good’: Celebrating Black athletes who pushed Notre Dame forward

and | Monday, February 27, 2023

As Notre Dame joins the rest of the world in celebrating Black History Month, an opportunity is presented to recognize the Black athletes who have strengthened the tradition of Irish athletics. Many times, they pushed through adverse conditions unique to Black athletes and attempted to crack a largely segregated sports scene in the mid-1900s. In addition, a chance is presented to acknowledge the improvements that can still be made, especially at a predominantly white institution (PWI) where only 6.6% of the undergraduate student body identifies as Black, according to the University’s report on diversity, equity and inclusion.

For the Irish, those traditions started back in 1944, when Frazier Thompson enrolled at Notre Dame. He ultimately became the first African American graduate of the University in 1947. While at Notre Dame, he competed for the Irish track and field team as a sprinter.

Along with his pre-professionals degree, he was the first Black athlete to earn a monogram from the University. The monogram is a tiered award given to student athletes up to four times as they complete their Irish careers.

In the 1990s, Notre Dame named a financial scholarship after Thompson. The Frazier Thompson Scholarship (FTS) grants are given “to a diverse group of undergraduate, graduate and professional students who have helped to … enhance the experience of the African American student body,” which is, according to Multicultural Student Services and Programs (MSPS), the primary goal of the fund as established by Black Alumni of Notre Dame (BA of ND). Recipients of FTS grants are selected for “their interest in and support for the African Diaspora through demonstrated interaction which has been intellectually, socially and spiritually fruitful.” 

In addition, the Frazier Thompson Award was established in 2021, awarded to those with outstanding contributions to diversity and inclusion within the Notre Dame community. Former Irish football captain Daelin Hayes earned the inaugural award — he led and helped the football team host a Juneetenth rally on campus in 2020. Hayes made an impact as a five-year player with the Irish, captaining the squad to the College Football Playoff in his final season.

Throughout Black History Month, Notre Dame football has given current Irish players the opportunity to speak about Black figures who inspire them. In a post the program made to its Twitter, current Irish defensive lineman Rylie Mills shouted out Hayes, further illustrating the impact Hayes made on the Irish community and how he helped Notre Dame continue to take steps forward. 

Nine years after Thompson enrolled, running back Dick Washington and defensive lineman Wayne Edmonds became the first Black players to don the famed gold helmets of Irish football. Edmonds ultimately became the first to earn the monogram for the program. The 1953 season featured some telling moments, like the Irish football team needing to stay an hour outside Norman, Oklahoma when facing the Sooners because they couldn’t find a closer hotel that would accept the whole team, including Edmonds and Washington. Later that season, the pair became the first Black players to ever compete in the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Memorial Stadium. It was a season of milestones for the Notre Dame football team, and they punctuated it with a national championship. 

In the years since, Notre Dame has improved its efforts to make its campus and community a welcoming place for all, something former Irish offensive lineman Ryan Harris spoke about. Harris spent three and a half years at Notre Dame before heading to the NFL as a third-round selection in 2007. 

“My time at Notre Dame as a Black athlete, I had every resource to be successful,” Harris said. “One of the things I loved about Notre Dame — coaches and school — they placed a high expectation on me. It wasn’t about going to college and just playing football, it was about getting your degree and making sure you win a national championship.”

Harris also talked about those opportunities to enhance his growth on and off the field, adding, “It was interesting for me as somebody who, probably, it would’ve been tougher for me to get in without football, and yet I got two degrees in three and a half years from Notre Dame.”

Harris has enjoyed a very successful career after Notre Dame. The former offensive tackle spent most of his time with the Denver Broncos, winning Super Bowl 50 in the 2015-16 season.

Since his playing days, Harris jumped into a sports entertainment and broadcasting career. In addition to freelance color analyst work (as well as serving as a keynote speaker), Harris returned to Notre Dame to serve as the analyst for the Notre Dame football radio team. Harris noted that attending Notre Dame provides strong opportunities for athletes of color, despite the University’s predominantly white student body. 

“Especially for African American athletes and athletes of color, it’s just an amazing experience to be exposed to the wide variety of people that Notre Dame brings in that are excellent at what they do,” Harris noted. “Especially at Notre Dame, I think it was unique that as a minority athlete, you were rooming with a regular student. 99% of the time, it’s [a situation] where the student is caucasian.”

While Notre Dame has come a long way since the days of Frazier Thompson, Dick Washington and Wayne Edmonds, there is more work to be done, Harris said. He praised the Notre Dame community, but acknowledged its shortcomings.

“So, incredibly welcoming, incredible to feel those expectations, and there’s also this feeling of, ‘How is it that the majority of people of color here are athletes and not reflected in the general student body?'” Harris said. “That’s where we can all be a force for good, and we can all be a force for good together because of the inclusion that Notre Dame has practiced over decades.”

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About Aidan Thomas

A senior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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About Mannion McGinley

Mannion McGinley is an American Studies and Sociology major with a Journalism minor in Notre Dame's class of 2023. She is a member of the Glynn Family Honors program and currently serves as an Assistant Managing Editor at The Observer.

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