Oct. 5, 2000
by John Heisler
The air hung heavy with football.
First, there was the aftermath of Notre Dame-Nebraska, a contest as invigorating for its intensity and passion as it was teeth-gnashing for its near-miss conclusion.
Then, there was the daunting prospect of Drew Brees and his Purdue teammates coming to town. As physical as the Nebraska game had been (and many long-time Irish football observers were hard-pressed to remember a game so chock full of collisions), now came the adjustment to the finesse of the Boilermakers.
Notre Dame coach Bob Davie, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and the rest of the Irish defensive coaches lost track of how many hours of film they watched of the Purdue quarterback.
Would the Irish be up for the third of what would turn out to be four straight outings against nationally-ranked opponents?
Now, inject Scott Delgadillo into the mix.
The 13-year-old from San Diego, Calif., had traveled to South Bend that Wednesday with his older brother and parents. It was his first visit to Notre Dame, with the hope he might someday return to study here.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation, which helped arrange the trip, proposed a variety of activities surrounding his stay, most related to the Notre Dame-Purdue game.
On Thursday, Delgadillo met with University president Rev. Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C., in his office. A day later, he and his family stopped by the football office for a 2:45 p.m. visit with Davie.
What Davie had learned from longtime National Football League assistant Dick Coury (a '51 Notre Dame graduate) was that Delgadillo in January had been diagnosed with leukemia. He'd been in and out of a hospital for 13-14 weeks, and he wore a Notre Dame baseball cap, in part to hide his loss of hair due to chemotherapy.
Ultimately, Davie invited Delgadillo to join the football team for dinner (he sat with Joey Getherall, Jeff Faine and other Irish players) in the Joyce Center Monogram Room at 6:00 p.m. When the Irish squad walked onto the basketball floor an hour later for the pep rally, Delgadillo joined the group and sat right next to Notre Dame's head coach on the floor.
"When we were in the office, I jokingly asked him if he was ready to speak at the pep rally," Davie says.
"He didn't hesitate, he says, 'Yeah.'"
A few minutes later, Davie introduced Delgadillo and invited him to say a few words to the audience. The pep rally crowd of 11,000 fans might have come expecting motivation to come from former Irish walk-on football player Dan Ruettiger, whose experiences became the movie "Rudy."
Delgadillo nearly upstaged him.
It wasn't what he said as much as what he stood for.
A year earlier, Delgadillo had been playing football. The onset of leukemia prompted doctors to advise him against that pursuit, but he continues to run cross country.
Somehow, against the backdrop of Notre Dame playing Purdue in football, the sight of this 13-year-old boy standing in front of a microphone lent a dose of perspective to the scene.
Where Davie and Mattison had been up nights worrying about Brees, here was a young man more concerned about whether he would make it through another day.
For a first-time visitor to Notre Dame Stadium, Delgadillo saw a fairly decent finish -- in fact, only the third time in the history of the facility that the Irish had won a game with a field goal on the final play.
Somewhere amidst the post-game pandemonium, Davie thought to look for his young friend whom he'd invited to the lockerroom. Turns out Delgadillo had come down on the field but decided against finding his way into the locker area in the crush of the crowd.
Too bad, because the first game ball presentation in the giddy Notre Dame lockerroom went to Delgadillo. A week later after it was painted with his name, the teams, date and final score, it went into the mail to San Diego.
"I was so impressed with him. I've met a lot of kids, but this is a guy with some special qualities," says Davie.
The unassuming Delgadillo wrote a note to Davie a few days after the game, saying, "It was so exciting that two days after the game my voice was still scratchy. I will never forget the lasting impression you left on me as well as the football team. They were also caring and really nice and I know they will be successful the rest of the season. They just have to have a positive attitude and I know that they have that."
And, after all, maybe there are other things in life as important as Drew Brees and Stanford and Navy and West Virginia and all the rest.