Oct. 2, 2015
By Craig Chval Sr.
Susan Gatewood had been dating her future husband for a few months when she casually asked him whether her 6-3, 215-pound boyfriend had any football in his background.
“Did you ever play football?”
At this point, you can almost picture Susan shining a light directly into Thom Gatewood’s eyes as he sits in a wooden chair in an interrogation cell.
“Really. Where did you play?”
“I almost fell down,” says Susan. She had discovered what so many others already knew – that football was never the most important thing in Thom Gatewood’s life.
As a young boy growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, Gatewood dreamed of being a professional baseball player, and didn’t play football until he was 12. At age 15, he first recognized the possibility that he might be able to finance his college education playing football, and the sport became a means to an end.
Three years later, when Gatewood was choosing from among more than 200 football scholarship offers, his most important criterion was where he could get the best education.
At the University of Notre Dame, Gatewood continued to see football as a means to an end – a career once his playing days ended. He made the Dean’s List every semester while earning his degree in sociology with a minor in economics. Twice, he was named a first-team CoSIDA (College Sports Information Directors of America) Academic All-American and awarded post-graduate scholarships by both the NCAA and the National Football Foundation.
Gatewood was a strong campus leader in a time of great unrest among young people across the nation. His involvement in the South Bend community included delivering sermons at local churches.
And for a guy who never put football first, Gatewood had himself a pretty nice career on the field.
A two-time All-American, Gatewood set Notre Dame records for single-season and career receptions and receiving yards. He also established Notre Dame records for career receiving touchdowns and career 100-yard receiving games. And in January, Gatewood became the 45th player in Notre Dame history to be elected to the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2015.
Ara Parseghian recruited the two-time Parade High School All-American the same way he recruited everybody else to Notre Dame, promising nothing more than a meaningful degree and an opportunity to earn playing time.
“Thom was a fine player, an outstanding team leader and had all the qualities you could hope for in a young man,” recalls Parseghian, who was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980. “This honor is richly deserved.”
Thom and Susan were at home watching TV when the long-awaited call from the Hall of Fame came. After he got off the phone, Thom blew a kiss to Susan from across the room and then began to reflect on the journey that began at age 12.
“First of all, I was thankful to God for the tremendous gifts he had given me, and then I thought of my parents, who had challenged and encouraged me, and all of my teachers and coaches who had guided me,” says Gatewood.
Neither Thomas Gatewood Sr. nor Wilhelmina Gatewood had the opportunity to attend college, but they were determined that their son would do so.
“My mother read the Bible every day, and I remember her telling me over and over again, ‘You must look into yourself and discover your talents before they can be put into motion. We all have God-given talent, but talent is never, never enough.’”
Along with helping their son recognize the opportunities that a college degree would offer, the Gatewoods were Thom’s first role models.
“First with my parents, and then with teachers and later coaches, not only did I listen to what they said, but I watched what they did,” Gatewood explains. “Talk is cheap, and I learned that the measure of a man is what he does and who he influences.”
At Baltimore City College High School, Gatewood played football for George Young, who would go on to lead the National Football League’s New York Giants to a pair of Super Bowl championships as their general manager. In addition to helping Gatewood develop into a high school All-American football player, Young provided invaluable counsel to Gatewood when it came time to choose a college.
“He sat down with me as if I were his own son,” says Gatewood, who was weighing offers from Princeton, Alabama and dozens of others, but had yet to receive an offer from Notre Dame.
“’You’re going to get another offer,’ he told me,” relates Gatewood of his conversation with Young. “’Here’s the deal, here’s the profile. It’s not a large school, and it’s Catholic – and I know you’re Methodist.
“’But I want you to consider it. It’s going to be a challenge for you, but you told me you were willing to take a bus for over an hour each way every day to come here. You did all that just to escape your neighborhood and now you want to go back to it? These are all local schools, but Notre Dame is a national school.”
Gatewood didn’t grow up as a college football fan, so the lore of Notre Dame football held little appeal to him. But the chance to be seen on national television did.
“I was no Martin Luther King Jr., but in terms of race relations, I had a political mission and Notre Dame was a stage for that.
“If there was an African-American kid watching on TV, and he saw (Irish defensive back) Clarence Ellis or Thom Gatewood, future All-Americans, he could see that there was maybe an opportunity for him,” Gatewood says.
“And for other schools, that still weren’t recruiting African-American players, it was, ‘You guys are on notice, the world is changing, get with the times.’”
That Gatewood was a young man determined to make a positive impact on the world around him was not lost on Parseghian.
“He was a very bright young man, he had outstanding leadership qualities, and it was clear that he was going down the right path,” says Parseghian.
Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., also took note of Gatewood.
“I sat down with him my sophomore year,” says Gatewood of a meeting with Fr. Hesburgh, who was Notre Dame’s president from 1952 through 1987. “He asked me about my future and what kinds of contributions I could make. And he told me, ‘I have a passion for your people, for the downtrodden.’
“And he didn’t just say it, he backed it up,” Gatewood says of Fr. Hesburgh, who served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for 15 years. “He was doing something – he didn’t just want change, he worked for change.”
Gatewood was elected by his teammates as one of Notre Dame’s captains – the first black captain in Notre Dame football history. “That was a huge statement,” says Gatewood.
But when it came to that honor and every other accolade that Gatewood earned as a member of the Irish, Gatewood left it to others to make statements on his behalf.
Stephen Studer was Gatewood’s roommate in Keenan Hall at Notre Dame, and he and his wife have maintained a close friendship with the Gatewoods ever since.
“I wasn’t really a Notre Dame football fan before I arrived at Notre Dame,” says Studer. “And Thom never talked about football. He was very smart, and had a great sense of humor, but he was just one of the guys.
“I learned about all of Thom’s football accomplishments from other people,” he says. “He’s an incredibly humble person.”
Since retiring from the NFL’s New York Giants, Gatewood embarked on an award-winning journalism career, including as co-owner of Larkspur Lane, Ltd., a television video production company that has won 11 network Emmy Awards, two network news Emmys and four Peabody Awards. He also owns Blue Atlas Productions, a promotional products distributor in New Jersey.
Not surprisingly, Gatewood is no more impressed by his considerable post-football accomplishments than he is by his gridiron accomplishments. Julian Rosales grew up in an impoverished section of Chicago, rooting for Notre Dame and pretending he was Thom Gatewood in neighborhood football games. Years later, Rosales met Gatewood through Gatewood’s volunteer work to prevent childhood obesity.
“Thom is such a modest person,” says Rosales. “It’s amazing to see what a role model he is, not just because of what he’s accomplished on the football field, in the classroom and in the business world, but even in his neighborhood.”
Susan Gatewood still finds herself surprised by her husband, even after all these years.
“He thinks it’s very important to be a well-balanced person – the intellectual, the physical, the emotional,” she says. “And he works very hard at expressing himself in those areas.
“But he doesn’t like to talk about himself, and I love that about him,” says Susan. “And I think that draws other people to him.”
Although Gatewood never defined himself as a football player, it’s clear that he cherishes this honor. After years of quiet disappointment, he even sees the delay in his election to the Hall of Fame as the hand of God, enabling him to share the honor with his grandson a star high school running back, in a way that he couldn’t have previously.
“It definitely gives me some credibility with him,” laughs Gatewood, who remains active teaching tennis, health and fitness to youngsters. It’s a joy that the entire family is embracing, including Thom and Susan’s daughter Jessyca, son-in-law Charles, and granddaughter Olivia.
“I think what he’s enjoying the most is not all of the publicity and congratulations,” says Susan. “What he really loves is hearing from all these people that he hasn’t heard from in so long.”
“It’s like a movie where ultimately the hero wins,” she says. “Everybody is happy and excited.”