July 14, 2015
Austin Webster, a sophomore wide receiver for the University of Notre Dame football team, pushed a wheelchair that held Aaron Tuttle of La Porte, Indiana, up a ramp Sunday morning at the Strikes & Spares bowling lanes in Mishawaka, Indiana.
Webster helped position Tuttle in front of a device at the top of the alley that held a bowling ball. With a push, Tuttle sent the ball rolling down a slide and onto the alley toward the pins.
When the ball reached the business end of the alley, it sent the pins clattering.
Smiles and high fives swept across the lanes.
Irish football players, led by linebacker Joe Schmidt, turned out at Strikes & Spares to help raise funds and awareness in the battle against osteosarcoma. The Irish chapter of Uplifting Athletics, which pairs football players with rare diseases that receive limited attention and funds, staged the event.
Schmidt and the Irish became aware of osteosarcoma, a cancer that develops in the bones, when the team adopted Sam Grewe of Elkhart County (Indiana) in 2012. Grewe, who is now a student at Northridge High School, has been cancer-free for two years.
"We're so passionate about giving back to our community, and we're in line with giving to this cause," Schmidt said. "Sam Grewe is a good friend of ours. We became close to him, so this cause is close to our hearts. This is a great event. It's one of our favorite things to do out of the whole year."
Becky Mayes of Uplifting Athletes, a non-profit organization based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said the Notre Dame football players have been exceptional to work with in advocating for the fight against osteosarcoma.
"The Notre Dame chapter of Uplifting Athletes has been around for about three years, and it has been an absolute joy to work with," Mayes said. "The athletes are very devoted to giving back to the community and giving to people who really need their support."
Schmidt threw himself into organizing the event with the passion he has when he's hunting down opposing quarterbacks. Schmidt said the culture of Notre Dame--primarily the five pillars of excellence, education, faith, tradition and community established by University vice president/director of athletics Jack Swarbrick--encourages Fighting Irish athletes to take a stand in the area of service.
"Notre Dame always stresses developing the person--academically, socially, culturally, spiritually," Schmidt said. "I think they do a good job of encouraging us to do things like this. When we started this four years ago, I had a lot of people in my corner helping me start this, and the University has been really great about it.
"A lot of guys who are out of town this weekend are mad about missing it. When I announced it a couple of weeks ago, that it was July 12, I had several people come up to be who were sad about missing this day. I think it says a lot about our team and the kind of players we recruit here. We all really want to give back to the community."
For Rusty Tuttle of La Porte, seeing Webster help his son enjoy a morning was a heart-warming sight.
"I think, more than anything, it's an appreciation that the players come out and spend time with our kids," Tuttle said of his feelings about the event. "Our kids don't get to be a part of a lot of things, and Notre Dame and the students are reaching out and helping us get our kids out and active in the community.
"Aaron is a people person and loves being around people," Tuttle said. "He follows the games when we're home on Saturdays. This really means a lot. Austin has been great, talking to my son, engaging him in the event. That's what our kids need."
Webster said the moment was just as special for him.
"The best thing about doing this is seeing the smiles on the faces of the kids after they get a strike or they get a good shot," Webster said. "It's a great experience. That's what we do it for.
"The community is so supportive. They come to our games, they're so supportive when we're in the community, at restaurants or whatever. We always want to give that love back to them, because they are such a big part of our football program."
Irish linebacker Jarrett Grace loved the chance to have fun and help make a difference in a life battle.
"I've been smiling non-stop, interacting with these kids, getting my butt kicked in bowling," Grace said. "It's really great that we have a great cause behind it. That makes it even that much better.
"Service is huge for us. I think a lot of us at Notre Dame recognize that we did not get here on our own. A lot of people have reached out along the way and helped us out. So if we can do anything to give back, we're more than happy to do that."
Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith created a stir in the bowling center when he arrived carrying a customized orange and white-swirled Spike and Hammer bowling ball.
"Look, look," Schmidt hollered when Smith walked toward the lanes. "He's got his own bowling ball."
Irish players talked bowling smack and their fierce competitive nature came out on the lanes--but they deferred to Smith's talents on the bowling alley.
Knocking down quarterbacks is his first love, but knocking down pins is a close second.
Smith joked that if a career in the National Football League doesn't happen, he could have a future in the Professional Bowlers Association. The Fort Wayne product said he has a high score of 255 and tries to bowl at least once a week.
"Bowling is something like golf, you can play forever," Smith said. "It's very exciting. It's competitive once you get good at it. I've loved it my whole live."
Smith, who delighted participants with his strike celebration dance, loved the opportunity to participate in the Uplifting Athletes cause.
"I love these events. It's serving a good cause and you're at a bowling alley, getting after it," Smith said. "It's a blessing to these people from the community. We have so many opportunities to get involved. It's up to us to take advantage of it. I'm honored to be here."
Schmidt was having fun mingling with the families at the event.
"You see yourself 10 or 15 years ago in all of these kids," Schmidt said. "I remember as a kid, if I was able to do this, I would have died. This would have been it for me. It would have been the highlight of my 10 years as a kid. I see myself in every kid who comes in here and wants to bowl, wants to get an autograph, wants to get a picture. It's really cool to connect on that level."
What has been a great source of pride for Schmidt is to see the event grow.
"Year 1 it was really kind of feeling it out," Schmidt said. "I had no idea what I was doing planning it. I didn't do a very good job, but we still had a great time. We had 50 of our guys out here. We didn't market it as well. This year, we probably have 60 or 70 people out here, bowlers and families. We're raising a lot more money and awareness. It's really been a blast.
"What I love is it teaches you a lot about yourself. You're giving to this cause that's so much bigger than you. Osteosarcoma is underfunded. It makes you feel good to give back. There's so much more to live than playing football."