Inside the #BeADog inspiration that fuels Notre Dame linebacker Bo Bauer
The person who fuels Notre Dame linebacker Bo Bauer with enduring inspiration lives more than 1,000 miles away from him and could be considered his former rival.
Ian Malesiewski and Bauer remember being competitive enemies from facing each other often in youth sports. Then they became teammates at Cathedral Prep, an all-boys school in Erie, Pa. But even then, the two linebackers battled for early playing time on a varsity squad that contended for state championships annually.
As sophomores, Malesiewski and Bauer played major roles in lifting the Ramblers to 13 straight wins and a Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Class 3A championship game appearance. A 40-3 loss to Imhotep Charter in the title game left them unsatisfied.
Ultimately, they made amends from the loss by claiming a state championship the following season. Cathedral Prep even downed Imhotep Charter in a state title revenge game, winning 27-20 after rallying from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
Part of what galvanized that championship run is what continues to motivate Bauer and fellow members of the Erie community. Malesiewski’s freak accident brought them a new perspective.
“He beat the odds,” Bauer said. “He was supposed to die.”
During the summer before his junior year, on June 3, 2016, Malesiewski suffered an injury that rendered him paralyzed from the chest down and in critical condition. He has since regained some use in his arms and shoulders, but he lacks the fine motors skills to live unassisted.
The incident occurred during a wrestling tournament at the University of Akron. When Malesiewski attempted a headlock, his opponent slipped behind him. Then Malesiewski landed forehead-first on the wrestling mat. He fractured his C4 and C5 vertebrae in the upper spine and neck area from the collision.
Now in order to get dressed, Malesiewski needs help. To open the door, Malesiewski needs help. He suddenly went from a two-sport star with Division I aspirations to someone who required assistance for ordinary day-to-day activities.
Being a C4 quadriplegic who uses a wheelchair has not kept Malesiewski from finding a purpose, though. He’s a junior at the University of Miami majoring in neuroscience. He’s found his voice as an advocate for people with disabilities. He’s created the DefIANt Scholars program, a scholarship fund that benefits disabled people in higher education.
And overall, his experience has left a lasting impact on many.
In Bauer’s first two seasons at Notre Dame, he saw limited time as a niche special teams player. Bauer has earned more of a significant role on defense this season. Through knowing Malesiewski and his story, Bauer found some motivation.
“Through the ups and downs of football, the thought of Ian and his inspiration has been able to keep me consistent,” Bauer said. “Going through all of those hard things, but then I look back, sometimes I meditate and think about what Ian went through. Going from being a world-class wrestler to his situation powering through and seeing his family support him through that.
“And him being so positive about it and using it as a platform. It always reinforces for me to keep that positive mindset and be able to keep pushing through.”
Before his injury, Malesiewski already had a reputation as an intense motivator.
“He was such a strong guy in the weight room and everything. It kind of seemed like he was invincible at times,” said Joe Mischler, Malesiewski’s close friend and quarterback at Cathedral Prep.
Malesiewski brought the energy. And he constantly looked for inspiration.
Cathedral Prep’s head football coach Mike Mischler, Joe’s father, said he saw motivational challenges written on the doorways of Malesiewski’s home. Malesiewski would never leave a room without completing a challenge, like doing a certain amount of pullups.
He had even created a slogan for himself: “Be a dog.” So once word spread about Malesiewski’s injury, so did his “Be a dog” mantra. Soon, #BeADog started trending on social media throughout the Erie community. There have since been various fundraisers, including one that sold #BeADog wristbands.
“Don’t be sorry for yourself. Continue to work hard no matter what you are going through,” said Malesiewski on what the phrase means to him.
Mike Mischler said the football team donned #BeADog stickers on their helmets the following season. In Cathedral Prep’s game against rival McDowell on Sept. 9, 2016, Malesiewski made a surprise appearance and represented the Ramblers for the opening coin toss.
“There would always be talks about, ‘Hey, let’s do this for Ian. Let’s do this. Let’s hit these extra sprints. We know Ian would be here doing that.’ We just used ‘Be a dog’ as just always going a step further, because Ian was always extra in his preparation,” Bauer said.
Capturing the state title three months later felt like winning for Malesiewski.
“That was like a movie,” Mischler said. “To me, how does that happen? You have to have some motivation behind that. That’s all you heard on the sidelines: about Ian. It was the whole team. It was pretty magical.”
The #BeADog catchphrase carried with Bauer to Notre Dame. He wrote it on his cleats during winter workouts. It is all over his social media. He wore a #BeADog bracelet on his right wrist until it recently broke.
Bauer checks with Malesiewski weekly for mutual updates and inspiration.
“Our friendship has grown exponentially since we went to college,” Malesiewski said. “I feel like we’ve gotten so much closer now that we’ve grown up a little bit, we are in college and realized how thankful we are for each other’s friendship.
“I feel like I use him as motivation, and he uses me as motivation. It really works out.”
For Bauer to find success with the Irish, he needed to remain motivated when faced with adversity.
In year one, Bauer played mostly special teams and totaled 10 tackles. He tallied 28 tackles in a somewhat increased role as a sophomore. Still, his opportunities were limited. Bauer backed up middle linebacker Drew White, who tied for a team-high 80 tackles last season.
Intensity was never a problem for Bauer. He became one of Notre Dame’s more notable special teams players in recent memory because of his passion. With his flowing hair and beard, Bauer brought a Tarzan-like persona. Big plays were often followed by maniacal celebrations. After one tackle against New Mexico last season, Bauer put his hands around his mouth and howled toward the sky as if he were a wolf.
At times, Bauer personified #BeADog. But he needed to learn how to control the mental part to his game.
“We talked about intensity level. People perform at their maximum performance at different levels,” Bauer said. “I always tried to be an 11 on a 10 scale. I’ve since backed that down to three or four, which has allowed me to really breathe and focus on the things that I really need to. And not be so all over the place all the time.”
Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea approached Bauer about tamping down his intensity early in his career. Bauer said he initially rejected that suggestion. He liked being high strung. Once Bauer heeded Lea’s advice, he saw immediate results.
Early last season, Bauer started working with Amber Selking, a mental performance consultant for Notre Dame’s football program. He began focusing on mental preparation like visualizing a tackle or rehearsing plays in his mind.
“Bo’s evolution has been much more about his ability to control and handle his emotional space, said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “In other words, getting into his emotional zone where he can play the game and play it at the level necessary for him to be the best football player.
“That’s not just from a physical standpoint; that’s from a technical and tactical standpoint. He was a bit out of control in a sense he may miss a fit here or not be lined up in the right position. And he’s really done an incredible job of finding that emotional zone that allows him to be locked in and be assignment-correct.”
Being mentally sharp has helped Bauer physically. His coverage abilities were once a weakness. Now Notre Dame features the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Bauer as the lone inside linebacker in its dime package — a specialized lineup used for obvious passing situations. He recorded an interception against Pittsburgh in that look last week.
Through six games this season, Bauer has cemented himself as a contributor. He rotates with White at middle linebacker multiple times per game. He has tallied 15 tackles, two tackles for a loss, two quarterback hurries and a sack.
Reaching his current level of play would not have happened had Bauer not reinvented himself. He used #BeADog and his friendship with Malesiewski to get through those times of struggle.
“I use it as a reminder,” Bauer said. “I don’t use it so much as a hype tool, because I don’t want it to distract me. I just use it as a thing that continues to motivate me to remember that there’s something inside you that can push past what you think you are able to do. And that there’s always people who are going through hard things.
“But it’s going through those hard things that’s going to make you the person you need to become. So just that explicit example of Ian, and just him being a pinnacle picture of a dog for me, it always pushed me to be a better person.”
Spreading the message
No handicap parking spaces were available for Malesiewski at a concert he attended approximately a year ago.
“The last spot somebody pulled into, it was a car full of teenagers. Nobody jumped out and had a disability,” Malesiewski said. “It’s just little things like that that you don’t even think about prior to having this disability.”
Malesiewski brings a unique perspective, being able-bodied for 16 years and in his current condition the last four. What he’s learned has inspired him to pursue a career in advocating for disabled people.
Along with the DefIANt Scholars Program, Malesiewski is involved with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. He’s an advocacy blogger for the nonprofit organization that seeks to cure paralysis. After obtaining his undergraduate degree, Malesiewski plans to attend law school and help those who suffer from disability discrimination.
“Just to raise awareness and let people know that individuals living with disabilities and specifically spinal-cord injuries are completely normal,” said Malesiewski of his mission. “I like to use my story as an example. I’m the same person I was before my injury, just with a little less movement. So I just want to prove that it’s possible to succeed in life after a spinal-cord injury, or in life with any disability.
“I feel like the best way do that is to advocate, try to succeed and prove to others that it’s possible no matter your circumstances.”
With Bauer’s help, Malesiewski has spread the word about his story and endeavors. Bauer has raised awareness and brought attention to Malesiewski through his social media pages. Some of his Irish teammates and coaches know about Malesiewski’s story.
Mischler said Bauer is looking to do a fundraiser for Malesiewski through Notre Dame’s football team, though official plans have not been made.
“I just know that Ian personally has helped me with the realization,” Bauer said. “That serious injury kind of scared me that something like that could happen to me. Having this strong friendship with him has kind of released me of that fear and just his inspiration.”
Players on other teams learned about Malesiewski from Bauer. Miami, Notre Dame, Clemson and Penn State are among teams with players who are advocating for Malesiewski. Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner, an Erie product, also has a close relationship with Malesiewski.
Bauer and Malesiewski always shared a fiery passion, as on-field enemies and while competing for a state title. Now, advocating for people with disabilities. Distance from Malesiewski has not deterred Bauer from remembering what happened on June 3, 2016. He will always remember.
“Not only has he been there and had my back since my injury,” Malesiewski said, “but he has also been helping me grow my story and spread the word about my perseverance. So not only has he supported me, but he also is helping me grow as an individual. That has been really admirable that he can think outside of himself as a college student and think about somebody else who is (far) away.
“So the fact that he has been able to spread my story to not only the Notre Dame locker room but to other locker rooms across the country, it has been really admirable. It has blown me away honestly.
“I’m just beyond thankful for everything that he’s doing and continues to do on and off the field.”