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The truth of Notre Dame is somewhere between the mythology and the haters' vision. Vikings safety Harrison Smith spent five years at Notre Dame, three under Weis and two under Kelly. "I was never a guy who would say, Oh, we're Notre Dame, we do things in a special way and we're better than all these other schools," says Smith. "You're expected to go to class and not just be a football player. That's real. It's going to be hard academically, just like it's hard academically at a lot of schools. But we're all just college kids, we're all playing football, and we're all going to make mistakes. Notre Dame is not some golden perfect place. It's a place that tries to do the right thing."
WINNING AS TRAGEDY
The current generation of Notre Dame football will be forever connected—and in a very complex manner—to the lives of Declan Sullivan and Lizzy Seeberg, both of whom died during Brian Kelly's first season. Sullivan was a 20-year-old junior who worked as a videographer for the football team; he was killed on Oct. 27, 2010, when the portable tower from which he was filming football practice crashed in high winds (after which the practice was not immediately stopped). Seeberg was a 19-year-old freshman at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind.; she accused a Notre Dame football player of assaulting her on Aug. 31, 2010, and 10 days later committed suicide in her dorm room.
Three days after Sullivan's death, which came on a day when wind speeds reached 53 miles per hour, Notre Dame honored him with a moment of silence before a home game against Tulsa, and players wore helmet decals in his memory. In July 2011, after admitting that adequate safeguards were not in place, Notre Dame agreed to pay a $42,000 fine imposed by the Indiana Department of Labor to launch a program aimed at improving safety in the use of scissor lifts.
The school also made a substantial donation to the Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial Fund, which was established by Sullivan's family, and established a scholarship in Sullivan's name. On Oct. 22, 2011, Notre Dame dedicated a memorial to Sullivan at the corner of the Guglielmino facility. On the weekend of Notre Dame's win over Brigham Young this fall, people sent photos of the memorial site to the Sullivan family, with little gifts left on the ground nearby, silently commemorating the two-year anniversary.
The Sullivans, Barry and Alison, did not seek legal action against Notre Dame. "The university shared our sorrow, they embraced us," says Barry Sullivan, a 56-year-old Marquette graduate whose daughter, Wyn, is a Notre Dame junior, and son, Mac, is a high school senior with plans to apply to Notre Dame. "Their support helped us deal with it. To drag them through another painful experience seemed like a cruel thing to do." The Sullivans went to graduation last May, where they accepted Declan's diploma posthumously. They have been to half a dozen football games. "Unavoidably, when we're on campus, we think about Declan," says Barry. "But we think about him every day. It doesn't take a trip to South Bend to trigger memories. Now we participate in the things that Declan enjoyed, and we create new memories. We cheer for Notre Dame. We're happy to see them doing well."
His memory is a part of the team; many of its members were on the practice field when he died just a few yards away. "The Declan Sullivan situation, in particular, is something that we all carry scars from," says Kelly. "They're both tragedies, but we walk past a memorial with Declan's name on it every day. It's a reminder that you have to appreciate the things you have."
The aftermath of a loss has not been so satisfying for the Seeberg family. After an interaction with a Notre Dame football player on the night of Aug. 31, Seeberg sent a text message to her therapist that said: "Hey- can we talk in a little bit. I've been drinking and something bad happened. I can't talk right now because I'm kinda in an awkward situation but I'm on my way back to saint mary's." Upon returning to her room, Seeberg wrote and signed a description of having been assaulted by a Notre Dame football player in his campus dorm room and gave the paper to Notre Dame's campus police the next day. Two days after the encounter Seeberg received a text message from a friend of the player, which said: "Don't do anything you would regret. Messing with notre dame football is a bad idea."
Eight days later Seeberg committed suicide by ingesting a lethal dose of medication that had been prescribed to treat depression and anxiety. Notre Dame police didn't attempt to contact the accused player until nine days after the alleged assault and didn't reach him until five days after Seeberg's death. The story of Seeberg's accusation and death remained largely unreported until the Chicago Tribune broke it in mid-November of that year. On Dec. 16, 2010, the prosecuting attorney for St. Joseph County announced that there would be no charges filed in the case, most pointedly because Seeberg's written statement would be ruled inadmissible as hearsay, because she is dead. In his first interview on the subject, Lizzy's father, Tom Seeberg, told the Tribune, "Ultimately, there's a sense of betrayal."
In conversations with SI, Tom Seeberg declined to make further public statements, but it was clear that his outrage has not ebbed. The player accused by Lizzy is still a member of the football team. Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame's president, refused to meet with the Seeberg family, 11 members of which have attended the university (and two others Saint Mary's). Two years ago, Jenkins made one statement to the South Bend Tribune in which he explained that as the final arbiter of campus discipline he couldn't meet with the Seebergs because, "I try to remain somewhat distant so I'm not tainted by one side or another presenting their side of the story." A Notre Dame spokesperson declined further comment this week. The Seeberg case did trigger an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights into student-on-student sexual harassment, including sexual violence at Notre Dame, and resulted in significant changes in the ways such incidents are handled by the university.