Thursday, May 15, 2014

Notre Dame Walk-On Mike Anello Still Pays it Forward to St. Baldrick's

For every one of the five years I have written this blog, there has been a different idea for a book: Sports and Spirituality: A Symbiosis, The Story of Bookstore Basketball: A Tourney Like No Other, and others. Although one has yet to come to fruition, the work has not been in vain. Every "book" has yielded more stories, additional curriculum for my senior theology course, new friends and unforgettable conversations. One of those was with Notre Dame alum, Mike Anello who walked on to the Notre Dame football team and became a two-time Academic All-American.
My hope was to learn from a broad spectrum of Notre Dame athletes and coaches one thing: What one moment as a student athlete/coach stands out among the others? Describe it. Why this moment? The answer was to be captured in "book number two," Notre Dame Athletics & Athletes: Tender, Strong and True.

A friend said Mike Anello was one voice I ought to include. Mike, who was more than generous with his time, made but one request. Rather than just share one moment on the football field, Mike sought to talk about what his teammates were able to do off of it as well—and that is raise money for children with Cancer through St. Baldrick's Foundation. 

I share this story two years later because this Saturday, I will have to chance to meet Mike and support this great cause at the Irish Times. The San Francisco Bay Area Alumni Club will be hosting the fundraiser and I hope you will join us! Even if you can't, please share the word about the gathering and more importantly about the good work of St. Baldrick's.

His story, which includes their story, is below.

Known for a football career that started as a walk-on and ended garnering not one, but two Academic All-American honors for his special teams play, Mike Anello can’t be stopped.  If it isn’t his impressive speed hurling down the field it is his efforts to rally his teammates in support of the St. Baldrick’s foundation that illustrate why he is a fan favorite. Mike has asked to share two moments, representing each commitment.

I made the football team in the spring of my freshman year as a walk-on but had to battle my way through ups and downs to get there. In the summer leading up to my junior year, I had earned my way onto the depth chart on special teams.  However, this did not last long, as the ball did not seem to bounce in my favor…ever, and by the end of summer camp, I had fallen off the depth charts.

Eventually Mike got his own #
I stood at a crossroads. I could go and compete against the best guys out there or hang my head and go through the motions.  I decided I would work harder. I started the 2007 season on the scout team (in practice they play the role of the opposing team’s players). As we prepared for our second game of the season—Penn State in State College, we knew they had a great gunner. In order to block him from getting to our returner, we decided we would double-team him. 

I played the role of their gunner and I beat the double team every time in practice that week. The night before the game, some of the players told me the coaches decided to change the game plan, stating, “If we can’t stop Anello. How are we gonna stop this guy?!”

The next week we were preparing to play Michigan at the Big House. They too had a gunner that we needed to double team. I beat the coverage all three times during practice that week. After the third rep, Coach Weis screamed for me to get back to the huddle in his ever so kind New Jersey vernacular. He told me I would be traveling to the Big House that week, and I might even be running down the field (I still get cold chills as I think about that day). 

That night I called my family; I talked to my parents and my two older brothers.  I told them don’t tell anyone because I don’t know that I am going to play, but at the very least I’d be traveling for the Michigan game. In true walk-on fashion, I shared my number with the punter, so we had to change it from 43 to 36 the day of the game because you can’t have two of the same numbers on the field. 

As fate would have it, I got in the game and on my second play, I made a tackle on punt coverage. I remember jogging off the field and shaking my head, because no matter what happened the rest of my career at Notre Dame, the Anello family name would forever be etched in Notre Dame history having made a tackle (if they could match me to my new number that is…).  I’ll never forget that moment for the rest of my life.

St. Baldrick’s Foundation
In the spring of my senior year, a student contacted me via Facebook, asking if I could get some of the guys from the football team involved in a charity “head shaving” event on campus for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which supports Pediatric Oncology Research.  She knew many of the kids attending, who were currently undergoing treatment, would love to meet some of the football players. 
It's not hard to see why this little girl changed Mike Anello's life...
The first year I was involved, I got five guys to join me.  We took a picture with a young girl who was wearing a pink bandana as she had lost her hair to cancer.  I will never forget the smile on her face.  And whenever I see that photo today, I can’t help but smile.  That little girl has been an absolute inspiration ever since.

The next year Dayne Crist, Mike Golic Jr., and I rallied over 40 guys from the team to join us in shaving our heads for St. Baldrick’s. 

This is why I love Notre Dame; we know we have a duty, an obligation to “pay it forward.” 

I had such a great experience that first year, that I decided to devote a lot of my time the last few years to bring St. Baldrick’s events to Boston. We’ve raised over $100,000 the last two years and hope to continue building on that momentum. 

Photo Credits
Pink Bandana

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