Notre Dame football reaches out to fans on common turf

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

MISHAWAKA — DeShone Kizer turned his head before the ball hit the gutter, silently conceding another tiny defeat. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback lifted his heralded right arm and shook it, as if he was punishing it, searching desperately for answers as his deficit steadily grew.

The Notre Dame junior bowled with his father often throughout high school, and even owns two precisely designed bowling balls — one molded to curve, the other to secure spares with direct, accurate strikes.

On Sunday, his equipment failed him.

But that wasn’t really the point.

“I didn’t bring my balls out here because I didn’t want to look too serious and then go out and bowl a 90,” Kizer said, sporting a white hat and scuffed red bowling shoes. “But using a house ball, I think I’ll do all right.”

Kizer may have lost, but on Sunday, everybody won. Nearly 20 Irish football players participated in the fourth-annual Uplifting Athletes bowling event at Strikes and Spares Event Center in Mishawaka, organized by chapter president and senior safety Drew Recker to raise money to fight rare diseases.

There was cornerback Cole Luke, strutting to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” before hurling another ball. There was linebacker Asmar Bilal, bending as low as he could to high five a younger fan. There was wide receiver Chris Finke, missing a spare and proceeding to lie flat on his back, his arms spread behind his head, as if he were catching rays on a sandy coastal beach.

There were kids — lots of them — talking and bowling with their idols, all for a worthy cause.

“This is why we play the game,” senior wide receiver and class president Corey Robinson said. “We go and score touchdowns and win games, absolutely. But at the same time, it’s very important for all of us to talk to the kids who are watching us every Saturday.

“We were once in their position, looking up at the screen and saying, ‘Dang, I wish I could meet guys like Drue Tranquill.’ Now we’re on the other side, so it’s incredible to be able to give them the inspiration that others gave us.”

On Sunday, Tranquill and Robinson bowled alongside 11-year-old Jerzee Sikora, who battles cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus (an excess accumulation of fluid in the brain) and a rare joint disease. They guided her wheelchair down the lane and helped push the ball down a ramp towards the pins, celebrating giddily after each passing shot.

They spent a few hours with a fan, and became fans themselves.

“I think, more than anything, it just puts life into perspective for us,” Tranquill said. “In the day-to-day, we’re battling for a position on the field, but these guys are battling for their lives. However down you might be during the week on your performance or whatever it might be, you come to an event like this and you see kids that are smiling in the face of such deep adversity. It just can’t help but encourage you as well.”

“I think it’s fantastic. They’re great with these kids,” Jerzee’s mother, Cindy Sikora, added. “They’re silly and playful. She just really enjoys the day.”

Kizer might have enjoyed it a little more if his scores had been a little higher. But in the end, it didn’t matter.

His team’s attendance was more than enough.

“It’s an opportunity for the older guys to set the standard of how we go about our community relations,” Kizer said. “We’re a team that likes to get out there. We’re not some perfect celebrity team that’s just going to sit in their dorm rooms and go play on Saturdays. We like to interact with people.”

On Sunday morning, the interactions came in a variety of ways. Fist-bumps. Photographs. Luke and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery even made a video call to a 16-year-old fan in South Carolina to sing her “Happy Birthday.”

Notre Dame football players sing Happy Birthday to Irish fan Carly Lyvers over FaceTime on her 16th birthday. pic.twitter.com/dxg2ePpF2g

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) June 12, 2016

It was a two-hour reminder of the things that matter most.

“These kids are just so full of joy and have so much life, so you just can’t help but leave here full of joy and good spirits,” a beaming Tranquill said. “It’s awesome to just have this opportunity to pour into these kids’ lives.

“That’s what Notre Dame football does for you. That’s what college athletics does for you. That’s what it’s all about.”

DeShone Kizer fails to pick up the spare, and reacts accordingly. pic.twitter.com/33YQDOEv3k

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) June 12, 2016

Isaac Rochell is not pleased. pic.twitter.com/uVhKxcIXQN

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) June 12, 2016

DeShone Kizer: premier quarterback, above average bowler. pic.twitter.com/4NpAK4dWCX

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) June 12, 2016

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame's Deshone Kizer takes his turn as he bowls during an uplifiting athletes event at Strikes and Spares in Mishawaka on Sunday June 12, 2016. Tribune Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES