'Calm before the storm' — Marcus Freeman brings back pregame Mass for Notre Dame football
SOUTH BEND — Kevin Bauman has been through two Notre Dame football seasons already, although he spent much of 2021 recovering from a broken fibula.
The hulking tight end from Red Bank, N.J., knows how it feels to dress in a suit and tie and make the pregame Player Walk into Notre Dame Stadium along with his teammates as adoring fans line their path and call out words of encouragement.
Saturday, however, will be different. This time, the rebranded Victory Walk will begin on the steps of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
This time, their journey will begin after a Catholic Mass at 11:30 a.m.
“I think that’s incredible,” Bauman said as he prepared to face unranked Marshall. “I’m really happy coach (Marcus) Freeman made that change. I think that’s important.”
Since an overall program reboot in 2017, Notre Dame football players, coaches and staff have celebrated Mass as a team at rotating campus locations on Friday nights before home games.
Promoted in early December to replace Brian Kelly after the winningest coach in school history departed for LSU, Freeman wasted little time in reaching back into the program’s past.
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He fondly remembered attending a pregame Mass during a recruiting visit as a high school prospect from Huber Heights, Ohio. Hired in early 2021 as Irish defensive coordinator, Freeman has said he was “caught by surprise” to learn the pregame walk began at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex and no longer included the Mass component.
In consultation with ‘90s-era Irish quarterback Ron Powlus, now associate athletic director for football administration, Freeman decided to fix that. He floated the idea in late February during a public talk at the Mendoza College of Business, then formally announced the return of pregame Mass on April 2.
“For me, it’s huge,” Bauman said. “I love it. I know everyone is excited about it.”
'What better time?'
Raised in both the Christian and Korean church traditions, Freeman hasn’t shied away from the faith aspect of his workplace since his arrival 20 months ago. Although he publicly identifies as Christian, Freeman’s wife Joanna and their six children are all Catholic.
On Aug. 25, Notre Dame President Rev. John I Jenkins spoke to the Irish football team before practice. Freeman stood nearby and jotted notes, then joined with fellow staff members as Jenkins led the team in prayer.
Jenkins was on the field at Ohio Stadium before the Sept. 3 season opener against second-ranked Ohio State. When Freeman met with the media after the 21-10 loss, Jenkins filed somberly into the cramped interview room along with athletic director Jack Swarbrick and a few other university officials.
In an interview with the National Catholic Register that was published on Aug. 31, Freeman explained why he thought it was important for his players, Catholic or not, to attend Mass on game days.
“To me, what better time is there to go have Mass?” he said. “What better time to be able to really be on the edge of your seat to get every word that comes out of the priest’s mouth and to be as close to God as you can?”
During that Feb. 25 leadership talk at Mendoza, Freeman was asked to name his favorite Notre Dame traditions. He quickly cited trips to the basilica and “coming out that ‘God, Country, Notre Dame’ door.”
As for the Catholic faith in general, Freeman said in the interview he had learned a great deal since his arrival on campus.
“I think it was something I really didn’t know much about before I got here,” he said. “And I think you have this perception of what the Catholic faith is: They have this thing called ‘Mass,’ and you have all these different routines that you go to and you participate in.
“But Catholics are Christians, and that’s the best thing about it. You go to Mass — and our entire team goes to Mass, Catholic or not Catholic — and you realize that we are all embracing and believing in Jesus Christ as our savior. That’s important for me. I want our guys to wonder about what it means to embrace Jesus Christ.”
Freeman gave a more football-centric answer when asked at his weekly news conference on Labor Day what he hoped his players and staff would get out of the Mass experience at the basilica.
“For me, the mindset (is) really being calm before the storm,” he said. “You can get so riled up before the game and hours before the game. I didn’t want that. As we move forward, I want to make sure those guys are calm, and part of that is making sure we spend some time in reflection in a Mass.
“And then coming over here, when the foot hits the ball at kickoff, we’ll be ready to roll. But I really want to be able to be at peace and be a little bit calm as we get ready to come into the stadium. Embrace this place, and then when it’s kickoff time, we’ll be ready to roll.”
Asked in April if pregame Mass would be “mandatory,” Freeman said it would be “available.” When the subject of potential Mass opt-outs was raised on Monday, whether due to conflicting faiths or other factors, Freeman said no objections had been raised.
“That hasn’t been an issue,” he said. “We had pregame Mass in Columbus. Everybody was there and everybody was a part of it. That’s just going to be something we do on game days, no matter if we’re home or away.”
Former Notre Dame linebacker Wes Pritchett, like so many other products of a program so steeped in nostalgia, was delighted to see Freeman turn back the clock.
“I didn’t realize that they had gotten rid of that,” said Pritchett, one of the stars of the 1988 national championship team. “That was one of the traditions we had when I was at Notre Dame that I thought was pretty special. It was always something that I just associated with game day. I think it’s fantastic they’re bringing it back.”
Pritchett, who played from 1985-88 for coaches Gerry Faust and Lou Holtz, now lives in Atlanta, where he is a partner in a financial services firm. Pritchett recalls pregame Mass moving around campus back then.
“I think we held it sporadically in different dorms around campus,” he said. “We did it a few times in the basilica, but not every time. I think that’s even more special.”
Parents weren’t part of the congregation, as Pritchett recalls, but it was still a chore at times to wedge nearly 150 players, coaches and staff into the same location.
“The basilica is easy,” he said. “It was getting everybody in the little dorm chapels that was a lot more challenging.”
Going directly from a place of reflection to a field of violence wasn’t a problem for Pritchett.
“That was like part of my burn as I started to psych myself up,” he said. “It would start with church, and I would get God’s blessing. And then on the walk from wherever we had church to the stadium, I would start building myself up to get fired up to play at our best.”
Former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire, a product of Dayton’s Archbishop Alter High School, enrolled in January 2013 and played in 15 games before transferring to Florida after the disastrous 4-8 season in 2016.
Zaire doesn’t recall pregame Mass happening at the basilica during his tenure.
“They’d just changed it when I got here,” he said. “They used to, but I think after the (BCS Championship) loss, they said, ‘Let’s just pick a different spot. Let’s see how it goes.’ “
Team Mass, as he recalled, was sometimes held on the lawn near the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.
“Not the basilica, but it was just as good,” he said. “You can find a special place anywhere on campus.”
He does recall weather being a factor at the outdoor services.
“Sometimes, if the weather wasn’t right, you’d be out there burning up,” he said.
Going back indoors to the basilica — “just the aesthetics of it” — is an idea he endorses.
“You get to dust off some of those pews and sit down in some better chairs than the lawn chairs they gave us before,” Zaire said. “It brings back the tradition, and it just fits what is happening at Notre Dame, and that’s the refresh of the program.”
Pregame Mass on a Friday night?
Retired football coach Bob Chmiel spent seven seasons on the Notre Dame football staff (1994-2000) as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. Formerly a longtime Michigan assistant under Bo Schembechler, Chmiel never understood Kelly’s rationale for moving Mass to Friday nights.
“I have no idea why he did it,” Chmiel said during a June appearance on NDInsider.com’s “Pod of Gold” podcast. “Why we got away from that is completely beyond me. There are just certain things you don’t mess with when you come here to coach. All these teams have walks before a game, but there is nothing like this in college football — absolutely nothing.”
Chmiel chuckled at the idea that the logistics of a pregame Mass could be a distraction.
“It was not a distraction for national championship teams, was it?” he said. “Walking from the Gug, walking to the (Hesburgh) library and then coming down to the stadium is nothing, nothing, nothing like the experience of walking out of the basilica and walking from Mass.”
A southside Chicago bar-and-grill owner’s son who was raised on Notre Dame football replays and coached at Fenwick High School by Johnny Lattner, the former Irish halfback and 1953 Heisman Trophy winner, Chmiel easily turns emotional when talking about the Irish and their traditions.
He remembers trying to prepare former Purdue coach Jim Colletto for the pregame Mass experience after he was hired as Notre Dame offensive coordinator in 1997.
“Now here’s a veteran coach; Jim didn’t come here as a GA,” Chmiel said. “We start walking together, side by side, from the basilica, and as we approach the stadium, I look at Jim and there are tears rolling down his face. This is a guy who’s been around. He said, ‘Bob, I don’t even know what to say.’ “
One doesn’t have to be a practicing Catholic, Chmiel said, to benefit from the experience. And that goes for visiting recruits who, like Freeman nearly two decades ago, might be invited to the Mass.
“Some of the players are Catholic; some of the players are from multiple faiths,” Chmiel said. “The basilica is large. Behind the altar of the basilica, there’s what they call ‘Our Lady’s Chapel.’ It’s very intimate. You’re side by side. It’s close. It’s tight. It’s not even that.
“When you get inside there and you’re together … it’s more than just a presence. It’s a feeling. You feel it all around you. It’s a time to come together.”
The impact, he said, will be obvious for a recruiting operation already running at full throttle under Freeman.
“If I’m a young recruit,” he said, “and I have an opportunity to walk with the Notre Dame team through that experience, it could be a difference maker, regardless of what your faith is.”
Flipping the switch
Irish wide receiver Matt Salerno, a product of Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino, Calif.; also looks forward to Saturday’s pregame Mass.
“I’m not really sure what it will be like for the team,” said the senior, a former walk-on who was placed on scholarship in January. “I think each individual will have their own perspective of it. I think, for me, personally my faith is a big part of my life.
“To be able to put football away for about 30 minutes to an hour before the game and really have some perspective on how grateful I am for the opportunity that’s in front of me, I’m personally excited that we’ve started doing that (again).”
Flipping the switch, he said, should come naturally.
“I don’t think it will be too difficult,” said Salerno, whose grandfather, Frank Salerno, briefly played football at Notre Dame in the 1950s. “I think most guys try and remain calm before the game as well. You see people who get super amped-up like three hours before the game, and by the time the game comes they’re out of energy.”
At Crespi, with its modest enrollment of about 550 students, pregame Mass was part of the experience for the Celts’ football team.
“Ours was probably about the same timing as the basilica Mass now, like an hour or two before the game,” Salerno said. “We had a chapel across the street, so we would just go in the chapel. Our varsity team was like 20 or 30 guys, so we fit in there pretty easily.”
At Red Bank Catholic, where enrollment is around 700, Bauman and his fellow Caseys never had pregame Mass. Instead, there was an abbreviated prayer service led by the team chaplain.
What does Bauman hope to take from Saturday’s basilica experience?
“For me personally it helps me calm my nerves,” he said. “I can take the 30 minutes and focus on Christ, focus on my relationship with God and sit in silence and prayer. That just personally helps me get ready for the game, where you feel so many emotions and nerves run high. It gives you that time to settle in, focus on the things that really matter (and) what you’re grateful for.”
Bauman has visited the basilica a handful of times, but he’s more apt to stop by the Grotto “where I can be in nature and just sit in silence and not worry about homework, your phone, anything else.”
On the field, as pressure builds and the clock ticks down, Bauman has long embraced a personal mantra: “I’m confident because my confidence lies in Christ.”
“It’s something I repeat to myself, just a saying that will help calm my nerves and grant me that confidence,” he said. “That’s something I’ve always stood by, and truly that is what gives me my confidence. I was raised Catholic with my family, and it’s been such an important part of my life and truly why I’m here today. That’s something that I try to keep at the center of everything I do, no matter what.”
On Saturday, as Notre Dame football restores a lost tradition, that shouldn’t be very hard at all.
Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for NDInsider.com and the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino and TikTok @mikeberardinoNDI.