Sept. 22, 2015
By Denise Skwarcan
By the time most kids reach their last couple of years of high school, they are transitioning into young adults. Oftentimes, they are juggling the responsibilities of school and/or jobs and extracurricular activities while making decisions about college and their future.
University of Notre Dame sophomore tight end Nic Weishar was no different. An emerging star at Marist High School in Chicago from 2010-13, Weishar became the all-time leading receiver in Illinois football history, was named first-team tight end on the Parade All-America squad and was considering multiple scholarship offers.
He also was going through something no one should ever have to experience. His oldest brother, Andrew, was battling colon cancer. Eventually, Andrew lost his battle to colon cancer in October 2012. The following spring, Nic committed to play for the Fighting Irish as a member of Notre Dame’s freshman class of 2013.
In the months following Andrew’s death, the Weishar family helped grant his final wish – to pay forward all the kindness he and his family had received during his ordeal – by forming the Andrew Weishar Foundation (AWF).
The third annual WeishFest (pronounced “Wish” Fest), an all-day music festival featuring local and national talent, was held this year on July 18. The proceeds from the event help benefit Chicago-area families affected by cancer.
“WeishFest was (older brother) Danny’s idea, and he wanted what we do at the foundation to be different…to make a lot of money but also have a good time,” Nic said. “There’s a lot of music festivals on the south side of Chicago but none like WeishFest for that very reason.”
A foundation may not have been exactly what Andrew had in mind, but with the help of Nic and their parents, Jean and Don, Danny established a non-profit organization out of their home which is staffed exclusively by volunteers. Danny, who has been AWF’s president/executive director since its inception, also is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois.
“I was 19 when Andrew passed and my personal motivation really sparked from the last few weeks I spent with Andrew,” Danny said. “I had the honor of spending every minute with him, and often it was the minutes nobody else spent with him. It was the really late nights when I let my parents get some rest and I stayed up with Andrew. It was during those hours that I got to see a lot of things most people will never see in terms of what he went through. And for him to ask us to help others while he was going through something so horrible…it really struck my heart.
“Danny was still in college when Andrew passed and then he started the foundation and still managed to get a 4.0,” Nic said. “He’s been amazing keeping Andrew’s wish alive and the reason why it continues to thrive. He’s a role model to me and a lot of other people, and I’m proud he’s my brother, that’s for sure.”
Once the organization was in place, the Weishars had to decide how to raise the money and what to do with it. They considered different activities like bean bag or softball tournaments, but settled on the day-long music fest. While they could have helped by donating money to cancer research or to area hospitals, the Weishars wanted to have a more immediate impact through their fundraising efforts.
“During the three years of Andrew’s fight, we learned that cancer is far more than just physical and mental struggles…there’s this huge financial burden as well,” Danny said. “My parents felt it and everybody we’ve heard stories from talk about the financial toll. So we figured there was one thing we could do and that was writing out a check and letting (the families) do whatever they wanted to do with it. That’s a neat way to help, and it has a huge impact on their lives.
Danny is quick to point out that it’s more than just handing out a check. The Weishar family and the foundation are emotionally involved and also form a bond with recipients.
“We basically ask the families if we can come out and meet them, and most of the families are definitely okay with doing that,” Danny said. “So we get to meet most of these families, they share their story with us and we grow close and stay in touch with them. It’s not only about the financial aid. Our goal is to get to know them and let them know that there are people out there who know what they’re going through and that they’re not alone.”
This year’s festival, held in July at Standard Bank Stadium, home of the Windy City ThunderBolts (a minor league baseball team), in Crestwood, IL., was highlighted by Eddie Money, Warrant, Chicago 6 Band (featuring Dan Hampton, Otis Wilson and Steve McMichael from the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears), the Hunter Smith Band, Mike and Joe, C2 and the Brother’s Reed, Jeff Jacobs, Sean & Charlie and Strung Out.
“We get a different lineup every year,” Nic said. “It was a pleasure to have (former Notre Dame punter) Hunter Smith here, and the national acts that came in were great. The local cover bands were awesome…they’re fan favorites in the area so we know they’ll bring us a crowd. It’s a pretty special thing to get national acts for a fundraiser like ours, and there’s not many festivals in the area that can say that.
“We wanted to build an event that everyone looked forward to every year and not just because it was a fundraiser, but because it also was an awesome time. We have some tweaking to do here and there, but we think we’ve hit the nail on the head.”
The festival also had an even bigger Irish flavor this year when Weishar’s Notre Dame family became part of the event. But the tight end hadn’t envisioned that so many of his teammates would want to participate in WeishFest.
“I had become friends with (fifth-year senior center) Nick Martin and (fifth-year senior linebacker) Joe Schmidt when I was a freshman, and they kind of knew about Andrew and the foundation,” Nic said. “They also knew that WeishFest 2015 was the next step and once it started approaching, they let the team know after a meeting earlier this year that I was going to tell them about something that was pretty special to me.
“When I asked if anyone was interested in coming to the event, I expected a few of my closest friends to raise their hands, but everyone did. It really showed me the kind of guys we have on this team and what kind of brotherhood we really have.”
Members of the Irish football squad arrived early in the afternoon and were there for about four hours, signing autographs and mingling with people. Weishar said that all the feedback about the players’ involvement was positive, but then he didn’t expect anything less.
“Just that they went there shows what kind of people they are, and a lot of people showed up just to see them,” Nic said. “I’m definitely very proud and thankful to be part of this football team.”
Prior to WeishFest 2015, the foundation had helped 37 families, with this year’s payout still to come. One of Nic’s responsibilities has been to spread the word about AWF and the festival on social media. Being a member of the Notre Dame football team means he has quite a few Twitter followers, but he also has a hand in determining who receives help from the foundation.
“I’m also a member of the beneficiary committee which means I vote on who receives the money the foundation (distributes),” Nic explains. “We work with Chicago hospitals and social workers who get very close with these families and then contact us with names. We get to hear about (these families’) story and decide who receives help. We also hear about people through word of mouth and, unfortunately there’s a never-ending list of people who need help. But one day hopefully the foundation will be able to help every name we receive.”
With WeishFest 2015 successfully in the books, the Weishar brothers took a break before starting to plan for 2016. Nic began fall camp along with his teammates in preparation for the upcoming football season and Danny started a new job with JP Morgan Chase in Chicago. Yet, Andrew and WeishFest are never very far from their minds. In fact, they are inspired and motivated to continue to grow the event.
“In 10 years I hope the entire Midwest knows about the Andrew Weishar Foundation, and I hope we’re helping thousands of families,” Danny said. “I hope they’re saying, ‘I heard the story of Andrew Weishar and I’m inspired by that.’ He was the most humble kid I know, and I think he would tell me to take his name off the foundation because he doesn’t need the recognition, but I think he would be absolutely honored by what we’ve done with WeishFest.
“The coolest part about WeishFest is the family atmosphere,” Nic added. “During the festival we have a video presentation of all the families we’ve helped and how it helped them get through the cancer process, and then we bring a couple of them up on stage. It’s just cool to see how the community comes together to help these people and to see little kids smile.
“These people just remind me so much of Andrew and how they’ve handled the adversity they’ve gone through. It reminds me that there’s so much more to life than football and also how blessed I am to be able to play football at a place like Notre Dame. I think Andrew would be very happy with all of this.”
For more information about the AWF and WeishFest, visit www.weish4ever.org and follow @Weish4Ever/@WeishFest on social media.