Hansen: Notre Dame football embraces a cause worthy of staying power

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

“Juneteenth has never been a celebration of victory, or an acceptance of the way things are. It’s a celebration of progress. It’s an affirmation that despite the most painful parts of our history, change is possible — and there is still so much work to do.”

— Barack Obama

SOUTH BEND — What does significance look like?

When it’s real, profound and enduring, it’s a process. Not an event.

Not that events can’t be important building blocks. And Friday’s staNDtogether experience, on the Irish Green on the Notre Dame campus and initiated by the Irish football team, had a momentous feel to it.

Not because of its size. Roughly 1,500 people attended the peaceful prayer/rally/campus walk in which the loudest sound beyond defensive end Daelin Hayes’ impassioned voice was a super-charged golf clap in reaction to what he was saying.

Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins and defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa delivered prayers during the celebration of Juneteenth, the holiday which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S.

“So for all Black people in this country, today is our Fourth of July,” Hayes said. “It’s our Independence Day. May it always be recognized as such.”

Head football coach Brian Kelly, Hayes and walk-on offensive lineman Max Siegel followed with powerful speeches addressing a racial equality movement that’s been gaining momentum in the three weeks since George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

Included in the crowd Friday were 13 Notre Dame sports head coaches and at least one head coach or assistant from every one of the 26 sports ND offers.

A few people brought their pets. A few others brought their kids. Seemingly everyone in attendance brought and wore a mask in perhaps the most social-distancing-obedient gathering of its size since COVID-19 started rocking our world in March.

The crowd even gave the still-quarantining team a buffer during that walk that Hayes asked for in his closing remarks: “If you all want a season this year, we’re going to keep us separate.”

What made the loop through campus that the players and supporters made, starting and ending at the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts, feel like a walk into history was the commitment to making sure it would be.

TOP: Notre Dame defensive end Daelin Hayes walks with head coach Brian Kelly during a celebration of Juneteenth by ND football players on Friday.

Kelly adeptly captured that sentiment.

“It’s easy to come out one day to talk about change,” he said. “It’s easy to have one rally. But to keep that change moving — substantial change —it requires a spirit and an energy like no other.

“So then when we look at real change, it’s easy to take a Confederate flag down. We can do that from the office. It’s easy to take Quaker Oats’ Aunt Jemima off the shelves. That’s not what this is about.

“This is about making substantial change: Better public schools for Black men and women. Better healthcare available for all. Funding for private businesses, across the board. This is change that really matters.

“And Black Lives Matter when it comes to those things.

“They will celebrate today. It’s Independence Day. And that’s why this group is here today. We want to rejoice the fact that it’s Juneteenth day. But this means so much more than that. And that’s what I’ve learned.

“And I’ll continue to open my ears and my eyes and continue to educate myself to the real cause that we have to keep championing every single day.”

Hayes was championing it long before it became a movement.

He told the story of suffering a season-ending shoulder injury Sept. 28 against Virginia, and that he suddenly had too much time on his hands. So he and his fiancee volunteered and began teaching conflict-resolution classes twice a week at Lincoln Elementary School, roughly four miles south of Notre Dame Stadium.

“Notre Dame can’t just be an ideal,” Hayes said. “It can’t just be something our community looks at and says, ‘Fine, that’s great, but it’s never going to be for me.’

“To hell with that. When I talk about commitment to our community, it’s not just serving certain parts of our community. It’s serving our whole community.

“These Black and brown kids need tangible examples to overcome adversity, to see what that looks like.”

ABOVE: Notre Dame defensive end Daelin Hayes speaks during a celebration of Juneteenth by Notre Dame football players on Friday at the Irish Green on the campus of Notre Dame.

The Black Lives Matter movement itself figures to offer that very example in the coming weeks and months. It’s not just pushback the must be transcended over the rhetoric of the phrase itself. Indifference also can be a formidable adversary.

“No longer is it OK to say, ‘I have black friends. I treat black people with respect.’” Hayes said. “It’s not good enough. The same standard that you hold yourself to is the same standard that we should be holding each other to.

“It’s not enough. Let’s stand together.”

There is an uneasiness for some people, even some who may be sympathetic to the cause, to see it encroach into their escape world — sports.

And they just can’t wait for it all to go away so they can find out if Kevin Austin Jr., is going to be the breakout receiver he’s rumored to be or whether cornerback Nick McCloud can be the most impactful grad transfer yet or if there’s another level to quarterback Ian Book’s game to which new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees can dial in.

Ideally, the new normal has room for both.

What happened Friday on the Notre Dame campus should be the start of something, even if it takes some getting used to.

People look on during an on-campus celebration of Juneteenth by Notre Dame football players on Friday.

“Coach (David) Grimes always tells us in fellowship when we were born, God creates us,” Hayes said, referring to the words of ND’s assistant strength and conditioning coach. “He creates us and breathes life into us.

“But not only does he breathe life into us. He breathes gifts into each and every one of us. … It means absolutely nothing to have these gifts breathed into you and for you to hold your breath and not excel them back into the world.

“My challenge to you is to continue to excel your time, your resources, your love, your empathy, your passion. We have some of the most capable minds here at Notre Dame. We pride ourselves on it.

“Imagine if we use this time, this platform, these resources and aim them at creating a more equal and unified community. Imagine where we’d be.”

Notre Dame football players march with signs during a celebration of Juneteenth, Friday on the Notre Dame campus.