'Huge impact:' Giving back is Blake Fisher's way and South Bend's YMCA is better for it

Greg McKenna
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Blake Fisher likes to get away from the noise. Sometimes, he’ll go for a drive. This past spring, though, Notre Dame’s starting right tackle found a way to clear his head while helping the organization that gave him fun memories as a “young-in” growing up outside Indianapolis.

“The YMCA for me was a place to get away,” said Fisher, who remembers playing “gaga ball” — think dodgeball in an octagonal pit — and climbing the rock wall at his local Y. “And giving back, that's just who I am. As a man, as a person, that's how I grew up. It's never me. It's always, ‘Who's around me? How can I make those other people around me better?’”

As the youth development director for the local Y at the O’Brien Center on East Walter St., Maycie Wise served as the point-person for Fisher’s involvement. She said he visited all three of the Y’s local aftercare sites and attended a “Kids Night Out,” a lock-in for children ages 5-12, at the O-Brien Center back in March.

Notre Dame offensive lineman Blake Fisher (54) tries to block California linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo (10) during the Notre Dame vs. California NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Notre Dame football:Brainstorming Irish-appropriate versions of UNLV's Turnover Slot Machine

Wise recalled that on one of those aftercare visits, Fisher noticed a kindergartner who wasn’t involved in a game the rest of the group was playing. Fisher asked if the boy wanted to go on the swings. The child admitted he didn’t know how.

So the 6-foot-6, 327-pound Fisher sat on a swing next to him, demonstrating how to pump his legs forward and pull them back to build momentum.

Fisher posted pictures of himself swinging with kids while encouraging his followers to donate to the Y in March. He also included shots of him assisting the YMCA’s youth basketball league and a selfie with kids from the lock-in. Fisher had challenged them to construct different shapes by laying on the floor, with Fisher showcasing the rectangle of the winning group.

Star Irish tight end Michael Mayer became the second Notre Dame player to get involved with the Y, appearing at a summer day camp in early September. Both he and Fisher were on hand at the O’Brien Center in early October, meeting with children in the pre-K “Child Watch” program while promoting special edition cleats they’ll sport Saturday against UNLV for a team-wide initiative supporting local charities.

As part of “Cleats for a Cause,” in partnership with Under Armour, every Irish player’s footwear will be emblazoned with the logo of either the South Bend Center for the Homeless, the Boys & Girls Club of St. Joseph County, Cultivate Food Rescue or the YMCA of Greater Michiana. The cleats will be auctioned off online before the game, with proceeds equally distributed among the four nonprofits.

“It’s going to put a smile on my face, just being able to represent a great organization,” Fisher said. “The guys that I love and everyone wearing the cleats truly loves it, truly appreciates the opportunity to wear the cleats.”

'A big deal'

Charles King, director of Community and Urban Youth Services for the YMCA of Greater Michiana, said all the funds the Y receives will go to youth development programs.

“We're going to make sure that more young people can engage with the Y and have access to the Y,” he said.

Charles King poses for a portrait Thursday, March 18, 2021 at the O’Brien Center in South Bend.

Wise said the Y is extremely thankful to be one of the four participating community partners.

“It's a big deal,” she said, “and we're beyond ecstatic to be a part of it. It's going to bring in more than they know.”

King said Fisher and Mayer became involved with the Y through Friends of the University of Notre Dame, or FUND, a nonprofit funded by former Irish quarterback Brady Quinn that compensates Notre Dame student-athletes for using their name, image and likeness to assist charities of their choosing.

According to FUND’s website, players receive a stipend for efforts such as assisting at charity sites, participating in social media campaigns and appearing at fundraising events. The charity also receives a donation from FUND.

When “strong and incredible athletes” are willing to take the time to play duck, duck, goose with young people, King said, the attention it draws is “massive.”

More:Jim Tressel's message to Marcus Freeman: 'Hey, you'll be fine'

“These young men were just recently — probably in the last 10 or 15 years — in that age where they needed somebody to be a mentor or somebody to encourage them,” King said of Fisher and Mayer. “So, for them to give back at that level is very impactful. Even if these young people don't pursue football, if they just pursue college and go after education, their impact was well worth the time.”

Lifelong memories

When King told one camper Mayer was coming, the boy thought he was joking. King said parents, typically rushing to pick up their children from aftercare or summer camp, have been similarly “floored” by the sight of Fisher or Mayer playing with their kids.

“They stood out in the hallway waiting for them to finish with their activities,” King said. “Huge impact on the parents. Huge impact on the kids. A lot of parents were excited to maybe snap a picture with the players as well.”

Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer (87) celebrates after making a touchdown catch against BYU during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Wise’s 11- and 6-year-old sons were able to meet Mayer at summer camp. She’s not a huge sports fan, but she makes sure to point out Mayer when he makes the local news or when a Notre Dame game is on TV.

“Oh, he threw a football with me,” her 6-year-old will recall. “We played sharks and minnows.”

It’s the type of memory young people don’t forget. It’s no surprise, King said, that Fisher returned to the Y after benefitting from similar activities during his childhood.

“When you have (the Y) at the foundation of your youth activities,” King said, “it really does make you want to give back.”