Juggling act

Aug. 31-Sept. 6,06
Juggling act
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Notre Dame football mini camp builds on a number of themes

The last time Notre Dame High School produced an NCAA Division I football player was 1985 when Dave Brown went on to play at Ohio State. Since then, Notre Dame may not have become a football factory in terms of elite-level athletes but it has never given up on its focus of making sports a tool each graduate can use in life.

Joe Elacqua, a 1978 graduate of Notre Dame and the football team’s spiritual coach, summarizes the program’s goal through a quote from his classmate and basketball coach Mike Durr: “We’re not banging out NFL and NBA prospects, so we’d better produce some nice kids.”

Toward that end, the varsity football team recently instituted a new preseason strategy. With the college model in mind, the football team sequestered itself within the confines of the Marriage and Family Center at the Good News Foundation in Utica. The goal was not only to improve chemistry and performance on the field but also to develop a camaraderie that the players will carry with them after they graduate. “I try to teach them stuff beyond the sidelines,” said Elacqua, whose home parish is St. Mary of Mt. Carmel. He now attends St. Mary’s in New York Mills, where he is a very active member. “I try to incorporate biblical themes.”

The mini-camp was the brainchild of head football coach Byron Abraham, a Notre Dame High School graduate, who went on to the University of Notre Dame on a football scholarship before transferring to Syracuse University where he also played football. Although Abraham loves the game of football, the nostalgia and the lessons he learned from college ball are a result of spending time with the team. Abraham wanted that experience for his players.

One thing the Jugglers enjoyed that many Division I programs go without was a top-notch menu each night at the retreat. Several local restaurants contributed to the mini-camp by donating their catering services. Some of the restaurants are connected to the team through players while others are connected through coaches.

“They’re treated like royalty with all the local restaurants catering to them,” said Andrea Buckley, one of the Good News Foundation’s directors.
Among the restaurants that contributed time, labor and food were Hook, Line and Sinker; Delmonico’s; Kitty’s on the Canal; and Danielli’s.

While the dining may have been lavish, the regimen was positively Spartan. Each day, the players were expected to wake at 5:30 a.m. and then attend a morning prayer session at 6:15 a.m. At 6:30 a.m. the players went to the dining hall for breakfast and, at 7:30 a.m., the team bus departed for Notre Dame for two-a-day practice sessions.

The first phase of practice was special teams while the remainder of the morning was concerned with offense-oriented drills and meetings. The afternoon sessions focused on defense. At 5 p.m. the bus left for the practice field to return to the Good News Foundation and dinner followed soon after. Every evening save one featured a guest speaker who was introduced around 7 p.m. At 9:30 p.m., the players returned to chapel and then each was expected to be in bed with lights out by 10 p.m.

According to Abraham, the first two days were taxing on the players as they grew accustomed to the schedule but by Wednesday they had adjusted.
Lapses in discipline were treated as “teachable moments,” according to Elacqua. The spiritual director offered this anecdote from an instance earlier in the week: Seven players had missed the morning bus and had to be shuttled to the practice field by Elacqua and a cook from the foundation. The players who had missed the bus were terrified of whatever disciplinary measures might await them at the practice field.

When the errant players arrived, however, a very different scene played out. When the Jugglers routinely break the huddle, they are expected to shout, in unison, “One, two, three – Notre Dame.” On that morning, they instead shouted “Dedicated football players,” a slight on those who had missed the bus. Abraham’s ire was roused but not so much by those players who had missed the bus as those who had failed to make certain their teammates had been ready to get on the bus. The lesson comes back to team, Elacqua said.

Although somewhat disappointed by a 4-6 campaign during the 2005 season, Abraham returned to the sidelines as optimistic as ever. Although decreased enrollment dropped the Jugglers from Class C to Class D, Abraham is wary of the schedule which opens with perennial powerhouse Onondaga Central School, the alma mater of University of Michigan running back Mike Hart, Friday, Sept. 1, on Notre Dame’s home field.

Although he hoped a byproduct of the mini-camp will be a winning season, Abraham said the success of the camp will ultimately be measured off the field. Dan Ruffrage, a defensive back and wide receiver who is also the team’s lone captain, said by midweek that the mini-camp had a positive effect.
“It’s been good,” he said. “It’s been a good time for the team to come together and we’re getting used to each other and getting to know what they’re like. I’ve noticed the team chemistry has been better.”

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