Sixteen days and three trips to the emergency room after first experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, David Lacey tried to impale the unease in his hospital room with a little humor.
“I couldn’t breathe,” the father of Notre Dame sophomore nose guard Jacob Lacey said. “The doctor looked at me.
“I said jokingly, ‘Is this something I need to call my family about? You know, get things together?’
“And she said, ‘You might want to do that.’”
David Lacey wept, and then made three phone calls. One to his brother, to ask him to take care of his family. One to his pastor, to plan his own funeral service. And one to Mike Elston, Notre Dame’s longtime defensive line coach.
“I said, ‘Coach Elston, a big reason we chose Notre Dame is because of you,’” David Lacey related. “‘You are family. I need you to make sure Jacob graduates from Notre Dame.
“‘If I pass, he’s probably going to want to transfer, come back home and help his mother. But I want him to graduate from Notre Dame. I’m going to put that on you. I’m sorry to put that on you right now, but that’s where I am.’”
That was March 30.
This past weekend, Jacob Lacey made the six-hour drive from the family’s home in Bowling Green, Ky., to the Morris Inn on the campus of Notre Dame to re-engage in his rapidly burgeoning football career.
With his father’s blessing.
In fact, for the first time since early March, David Lacey is able to breathe normally, literally and figuratively. In fact, he felt well enough to drive with his wife to West Point, N.Y., over the weekend to celebrate older son Brycen’s graduation from the U.S. Military Academy.
The normal lung function finally returned last week, David Lacey revealed on a recent episode of ND Insider’s Pod of Gold podcast. The hesitation about Jacob going back to campus for the first time since mid-March was a more gradual dissipation for a man with an undergraduate nursing degree and a deep and long medical background.
But as David grew stronger, his belief in Notre Dame’s plan to stage a 2020 season and a safe summer prep period did as well.
“Notre Dame has been very transparent about how they were going to go about this process,” David said. “We were getting emails and texts and different things as parents of the team. They kept us abreast all the way through.
“I even heard some of the calls Jacob was on with football, and they were meticulous. Compared to some other football teams that I’ve heard, they really were concerned about these players and the staff and the coaches.
“This is a big-money thing. Let’s not play dumb here. But I think Notre Dame — and I’m not drinking the green Kool-Aid on this — is much more sincere. … I feel about as comfortable as you can in this environment.”
Players began arriving back on campus June 8, and immediately quarantining. COVID-19 testing, both diagnostic and antibody tests, is taking place this week, with voluntary summer workouts scheduled to kick off Monday.
Required team activities, heavy on conditioning and weight training and including some film study, begin July 13 and run though July 23. From July 24 to Aug. 6 the amount and scope of those required activities expand, per a standardized NCAA blueprint finalized Thursday, and include walk-throughs and meetings.
Training camp kicks off Aug. 7. The season opener against Navy is slated for Sept. 5 or 6 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. Md., after being moved from its original date (Aug. 29) and venue (Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland).
This month marks the first time the team has been together in the same place since its first and only spring practice of 15 originally scheduled was staged on March 5. The other 14 sessions were canceled because of the pandemic.
Players converted to online learning after spring break in mid-March and NCAA rules dictated that they had to work out on their own and voluntarily. Academically, Notre Dame announced on social media Tuesday that the team achieved its highest GPA in program history, a 3.40.
“In some ways I think it was a blessing,” David said of the online learning conversion. “(Jacob) seemed to be a little more focused. Less meetings and the rigors a Notre Dame football player has to go through.”
Jacob was able to get a key to and work out at a local sports facility. And while David was in the hospital for four days in late March, a neighbor brought over weight-lifting equipment so that Jacob could work out in his garage if he preferred.
“He was doing everything he was supposed to do and more,” David said. “But nothing is going to beat (ND director of football performance) Matt Balis. My wife loves that man. Maybe a bit too much.”
His recovery from COVID-19, as scary as it was at one point and as protracted as it’s been, makes him smile in a way.
“I went through it for a reason,” he said. “I believe that.”
Shortly after his doctor gave him the pessimistic news on March 30, a family friend who was a cardiologist came by to see David in his hospital room and offer a second opinion.
“He’s a great doctor,” David said. “But he doesn’t have the best bedside manner. He said, ‘I’m looking at your x-rays, and you’ve got 48 hours to live, the way you’re cascading.’”
The doctor then urged the staff that David be given the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine and bypass the 24- to 48-hour waiting period to do so at that time.
“This is what I think: God stepped in,” David said. “God worked a whole lot of things out. I was healed, and I think God healed me. But he used physicians and medicines to heal me.
“I was going downhill fast. I got on the hydroxychloroquine, and I know studies show it doesn’t help – and I agree with that – but it helped me.”
And now David Lacey wants to help others.
He does not assume immunity, even though testing shows he has the antibodies in his blood. So he still wears a mask out and washes his hands often and urges everyone else to do the same.
He hopes to be doing that very thing, while social distancing, this fall for Notre Dame’s six home games.
“I would feel comfortable at that time,” he said.
Jacob is already comfortable, David said. Maybe a bit too comfortable.
“I wish he did have some reservations,” David said. “The dude is ready to go. He understands the testing and the issues, based on what I’ve gone through. But he’s a nose tackle, a defensive tackle. He’s indestructible in his mind.”