His children believed die lies. His brothers and old pals from C.I. figured they were just part of the hype machine. When George's more recent friends asked about his college career, he'd say, "I could hit you, but I couldn't catch you," then nod toward the scar on his knee and allude to a football injury—but not mention that the blow had actually occurred years after college, when he was coaching. The wave of his hand and his silence discouraged more questions, and who had questions about New Hampshire football anyway?
It was the perfect lie, and George the perfect agent for it: Who would suspect subterfuge from a sledgehammer? Who'd suspect it from a religious man with no tolerance for preening, the same modest man at a million a year as he had been at $14,322? If his secretary hadn't pulled his coach of the year awards out of a box and displayed them in his office, nobody would have laid eyes on them.
The one man George wished to shine for—the one he called minutes after every game—was dying a slow, gasping death from emphysema when Tech named George head coach. Dad never saw the glory. George leaned over his coffin and pinned a Georgia Tech button to his lapel. He was shocked, days later, to find himself sobbing with the team priest, unable to sleep. Shocked at how many mourners had materialized with previously untold tales of Mr. O'Leary's acts of kindness.
More and more George found himself slipping his barber $100 for a haircut to help him through hard times, or tucking a C-note beneath a plate after finding out that his harried waitress had five kids at home, or inviting a custodian home for Thanksgiving dinner and to sleep over. "Don't tell anyone," he'd tell people who witnessed such acts. He wanted no one to know who lived inside the wall he'd built, a wall so thick that he couldn't hear those last... few... ticks.
Notre Dame called. Its athletic director. Kevin White, who'd grown up just a few miles from Central Islip, had interviewed 50 people who were sure of three things: George's honesty, his character and his ability. Notre Dame offered to buy out George's $1.5 million contract with Georgia Tech. Notre Dame wanted George.
A strange thing happened. George hesitated. It was the quiet uneasiness of a man who owned his reality and wondered if he should let go of it for anything, even his dream. "Imagine if Dad were here to see this," said his brothers and brother-in-law. "It's Notre Dame, George. It's Notre Dame."
Dec. 9-13, 2001 Head Coach, Notre Dame
The moment he set foot on campus, all his doubts vanished—he knew this was right. He entered the grotto where the blue-sashed Virgin Mary stood amid stones blackened by the candle soot of a century of adoration. The day before, he had signed on to begin the crowning chapter of his life, at Our Lady's university. On her day, Dec. 8, the Feast of the Blessed Mother. He looked skyward. The Golden Dome gleamed. It was true, what they said about this place. Everything was magic.
He entered the basilica. The choir, rehearsing, hurled its song at the gilded angels and saints upon the soaring ceiling. He could hear and smell a hundred Sundays at the altar of his childhood, a thousand dusks of saying the rosary surrounded by his kneeling family. The emotion rose in his throat and tightened the knot on his blue-and-gold necktie. He knelt alone to offer thanks. At 55, he'd clawed his way forward to his past. He was home.