God, Country, and Notre Dame is more than an inscription above an entrance to the Sacred Heart Church on the campus of Notre Dame and more than the title of Father Ted Hesburgh’s autobiography. God, Country, and Notre Dame are proud principles Irish alumni and fans live by.
Charlie Weis (class of '78) and four other head football coaches—Auburn’s Tommy Tuberville, Georgia’s Mark Richt, Miami’s Randy Shannon, and Yale’s Jack Siedlecki—recently visited a military hospital in Germany, bases in Iraq, and a naval ship over six days. The journal Charlie Weis kept and his comments afterward reveal much about the man, including his sense of humor.
Weis described the trip’s goal as intending to inspire the troops. The coaches, Weis said, “felt as equally inspired by what we saw.” They were first flown from Scott Air Force Base in St. Louis to Germany by a two-star General Fred Roggero, a Notre Dame grad from the class of 1976.
Weis: “He’s a two-star general and he let me sit up in the cockpit with him on the takeoffs and the landings. He said, ‘It’s your turn to say the Hail Mary’s now. I’ve been doing them for the football team for the past few years.’”
Weis describes a memorable meeting on Day 1 in the medical hospital in Germany. The soldier, Sgt. Christopher Frost, had had an above the knee amputation due to an explosion of a roadside bomb.
“The soldier felt bad but said, ‘Hey, I got banged up, but I’ll be okay. They’ll give me prosthesis and we’ll move on.’ I’m shaking my head and saying, the psyche of this guy, the mental discipline, kind of set the tone for the week.”
On the humorous side, Weis then met a hospitalized soldier from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who said “Coach Weis, I don’t know if that’s you or the morphine.” Charlie signed a hat and had pictures taken with him, saying “Well when you come down from the morphine, this hat will be sitting there and you’ll say, ‘Yeah, it really did happen.’”
Weis: “We saw 10 to 15,000 troops and probably spoke to 5,000, and I didn't one time, out of all those people, hear anyone complain.” That resonated with a man whose book is entitled “No Excuses.”
The coaches met and talked with troops, signed shirts, and had pictures taken with the troops.
Charlie’s journal: “I signed so much today. There were kids from South Bend. There were kids from Mishawaka, kids from Fort Wayne. There was one kid (Sgt. first class Curt Straub) from Cleveland, Ohio. He came in fully garbed in all his Notre Dame deal. He was just going bananas and he was literally shaking. This was my highlight of the day.
He said, ‘I'm the biggest Notre Dame fan. The only bigger Notre Dame fan than me is my father.’ So I have this international cell phone. I made the kid call his dad up. It's 4 a.m. in Cleveland. And so I talked to the dad and I told his father, I said, "It's on my dime. Why don't you talk to your kid for a while?" Who knows whether these people can call or not?
This kid came back to me and said, ‘This is the best day of my life.’ …It's 115 degrees. The wind's blowing 50 miles an hour. It's oppressive. It feels like your whole body is getting blow-dried by a giant hair dryer. And this kid is telling me it's the greatest day of his life? Just imagine that. It was easily the best thing that happened today. Easily.”
As a father whose son is of high school age and the coach of 85 Irish football players who are about the same age, Charlie Weis could personally relate.
The Notre Dame bookstore donated 5-6,000 green t-shirts for signing for the troops. Other coaches brought their school’s shirts. Soldiers would stand in long lines, pick out a favorite shirt, and the coaches would talk with them and all would sign it.
But, if anyone’s supply ran out, Weis said, the joke became “Just give him a green t-shirt! We need more green shirts! Like the green shirt was the big inside joke with us’”—and returned home with personal requests for more.
Weis: “Later in the day I got to see a B-1 bomber. Not only that, they let you go pick out a bomb and write a message to Osama Bin Laden. They wanted you to write a message on one of the bombs that they'd go ahead and drop.
You just literally pulled out a Sharpie and wrote on it. "Go to hell" or something like that. I wrote something like "You will lose. Go Irish." I think everyone might have written something a little nastier, but I was conservative.”
Charlie: “Everyone was glad you were there. I ran into people from schools all over the country, but no animosity toward any school. There were Alabama fans ribbing Tommy (Tuberville), and you name it, there were people that were on the other side, but there were no enemies on this mission as far as college football."
ND-USC—All in the family
While there was good-natured ribbing from “a whole bunch” of Michigan fans, Charlie especially remembers an encounter with a USC fan: “So this kid comes over with a USC football shirt with a bunch of his boys. This was like they were going to be the big joke with a bunch of his boys.
I said, ‘I'm not signing that (USC) shirt. There is no way I'm taking a picture of you wearing that shirt.’ He's from Scranton, Pennsylvania, his wife is a die hard Notre Dame fan; he's recently married.
I said, ‘I'm telling you, I'm not doing it. You put on that green shirt and I'll take a picture.’ And he said, ‘Oh, Coach, don't do me like that,’ and I said, ‘We'll let your boys decide. Whatever they say.’ So I said, ‘How many of you guys think I should take a picture with him with this USC football shirt?’
Everyone's saying ‘Noooo. Nooo. Boo.’ ‘How many think I shouldn't?’ And everyone raises their hands. So he had to put on that shirt and take that picture, and he said his wife will never let him live that down. It was one of the more humorous moments of the trip. It wasn't anti anything; it was just a lot of fun with that.”
Charlie, the Jersey guy and life-long Yankees fan, “would bust some chops” of the soldiers, seamen and the other coaches.
“…we were on the USS Nassau out in the Persian Gulf, and the Navy is different. On the ship, you eat in a place according to your rank. So the officers' mess was always there weren't very many people in there, plenty of seats, the food was a little bit better, and as you worked your way down on the ship, in the lower levels there were a lot more people and a lot crummier food.
The night we were there, we decided we were going to eat with the young kids, so you were at a table for 20 that had 30 people on it…I had two kids across from me, one from the Bronx and one from Queens, and the kid from the Bronx was a Yankee fan, and the kid from Queens was a Mets fan. So we started getting after him. Me and this boy, because the two kids from New York City were both boys, so me and the Yankee fan, we're getting after the Mets fan.
So we signed stuff later, and the kid brings down a Mets shirt, orange shirt and he said, 'Coach, I want you to sign this Mets shirt,' and I said, 'There is no way I'm signing a Mets shirt.' So he whined to his commanding officer, and the officer came over and said, 'Coach, will you sign the kid's shirt?' I said, 'No problem.'
I signed, 'Go Yanks, Charlie Weis' and gave it back to him! So I had a lot of fun, ruined his shirt but had fun.”
Charlie: “There was this young woman who was shivering, just like the kid from Cleveland from the other day. She was shivering not for herself, but she said, 'My father would have a heart attack if he were here.' She was literally shaking like somebody had just come out of the freeze.
We signed the picture like we do for everyone. And we had a Notre Dame football left. I had the guy go and grab the Notre Dame football. I signed it to her dad. I remember his name was Fred. I signed it 'Happy Father's Day.'”
Charlie is as likely to poke fun at himself. Randy Shannon was timing the 40-yard dashes in a football combine held on the Nassau. Charlie came up and announced to Shannon, "I'm going to run the 40, Randy. Ready? Got a calendar?"
Charlie felt one of the highlights of the trip involved another ND grad, First Lt Laura Ott, class of ’05. Lt. Ott had an all day flight plan for her AWAC on the day Weis was visiting. "I can't believe it," said Ott "the one day that Charlie Weis is here, we would be gone all day."
Charlie, in his journal: “So she was going to miss me being there, and she was miserable…She was all geared up and walking up on the plane to take off. Her commander said, ‘Nah, we've got somebody to cover for you. Go ahead and meet coach Weis.’
This girl was doing cartwheels the rest of the day. She was at the lunch and then when we went on a tour of the base, who's standing there on the tour, showing off a plane? Her. Smiling as big as you can imagine.”
Charlie, from his journal: “Later in the day, I'm driving around, and the guy in the back seat is from Indiana and a huge Notre Dame fan. It's almost like you're set up everywhere you go. There's somebody from Indiana that's a Notre Dame fan that's either in your car or on your bus or on your plane. They're everywhere—it's unbelievable.”
After the trip, Weis revealed his strongest impressions: “The first thing that is glaringly obvious, well, and twofold. Teamwork. The prideful sense of being part of a team. Now we have these signs around here now about leaving your ego at the door. There were no egos, now.
I mean, the sense of doing their job and doing the job to the best of their responsibility and everyone counting on them to do their job. What better message could you send to a football team or any team or any organization for that matter, about just doing your job to the best of your ability and seeing that was blatantly obvious.
I think more subjective and very obvious was how prideful every single person was about their job and their country and, you know, what they were doing and their role and they're part of a mission.”
Clearly, this touches a familiar chord in Coach Weis. In August 2005, before coaching his first game at Notre Dame, Charlie addressed the kind of teamwork he wants to bring from the Patriots to his new Irish football team—
“(Belichick) was able to get individuals to suppress their egos, to view the team as more important than themselves…You'd never see it. You'd never see anyone with a huge ego. And it was the coaches, it was the management, it was everyone, where everything was about: What can we do to help us win. That's what it was about.”
“What I learned from this trip is that it's strikingly obvious that everyone over here is so upbeat and optimistic and so proud of what they do. They're just happy that we're over here to let them know how much they mean to everyone. It's almost like validating their existence, so to speak. But they are prideful, and it's important to them and they have total faith in what we're doing.”
“I could do this for a month. But I miss my family. Sometimes it was frustrating not being able to have access to (wife) Maura and (son) Charlie because I'm so used to talking to them so much every day. I thought it was a small price to pay for what I gained.
There isn't one day where you couldn't be over here doing some good and just perking up the troops. You should see the reaction we've gotten. It really has been unbelievable. I've had some good good-natured teasing moments. I'll always remember those.
And what better way to end the trip than standing outside the White House behind the president of the United States on Memorial Day?”
"My only regret is that my son and every kid that's on my football team weren't over there with me, to see the mental discipline and toughness of those 18-23-year-old kids. It's really rewarding to see their camaraderie and teamwork. Definitely an enriching, enlightening experience."
“Our goal was to touch as many people’s lives, just lift their spirits just a touch. What they did for us felt just as good as what (we) did for them.”