Lofty dreams and buried blessings
When I was a young boy, I had a dream: to be the starting quarterback at the University of Notre Dame.
At Our Lady of Peace grammar school in New Jersey, I looked forward to recess each day. I loved pretending I was Terry Hanratty as I played touch football on the asphalt playground. One day, I walked over to Sister Loyola and told her, “Keep following Notre Dame football because one day I will be their starting quarterback.”
I went to New Providence High School, just across from that playground and, in my sophomore year, approached the football coach and said, “I want you to give me every drill you can to get me to be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame.” He laughed and said, “Notre Dame? You’re not even going to play here. You’re too small and too slow and there’s an All-American quarterback ahead of you.” I said, “Don’t worry about all that, and just help me get to Notre Dame.”
Every day after our regular football practice, coach Don Carpenter would teach me the footwork to run Notre Dame’s offense. I was an eager student; after all, I had a dream. In my junior year, I got bigger and stronger and emerged as the starting quarterback. I had an outstanding season and began to get attention from colleges. Prior to my senior year, I was named a Kickoff All-American and the letters started to pour in, including one from the Fighting Irish.
Three plays into my senior season, I threw my first touchdown pass. On our second series, I turned the corner on an option play, lowered my shoulder and crashed into a defensive back. After the collision, I felt something strange in my shoulder. I had snapped my collarbone in two. On the way to the hospital, my father and older brother Jerry tried to console me, but I knew my dream of starting at Notre Dame was over. They convinced me that I would just have to concentrate on having an outstanding season in basketball. I finally stopped crying and accepted the situation, but on the drive home I turned on the radio and heard a broadcast of a Notre Dame football game. The “Victory March” was playing, and I began crying all over again.
That night my football coach stopped by to visit. He assured me that my dream wasn’t over—that I had to have faith that God would guide me toward the fulfillment of my goals. I had always had tremendous faith in God, and this reassurance brightened my spirits. I found solace in some lines of poetry quoted by Sister John Bertrams, a dear family friend: “Each sorrow is a shadow sweet that tells how near Christ’s nailed feet are walking by thy side!”
I did not return to the football field that year. I had a great basketball season and was offered many scholarships. Most football coaches wrote and said they wouldn’t commit a scholarship to a player who didn’t play his senior year. However, one day in January, Joe Yonto, a Notre Dame assistant football coach, called and said he was going to come and watch me play basketball. After the game he asked for films of our preseason football scrimmages. Months later, I made my official visit to campus and was offered a football scholarship.
When I arrived at Notre Dame for my first football meeting, I looked at the posted depth chart and saw myself listed as the ninth quarterback! Not having played my senior year, I was at the bottom. I decided that I would do everything I could to climb that ladder. I believed that if I worked hard, God would take care of me.
I gradually worked my way up to second string and, as a three-year letterman, I played in two Orange Bowls, one Sugar Bowl, and was a member of the 1973 Notre Dame national championship team. I still believed that my opportunity to start at quarterback, the fulfillment of my dream, would somehow happen. In the middle of my senior season, coach Ara Parseghian asked me if I would like to apply to the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility. He said that we had no experienced quarterbacks returning, and that the starting quarterback job would be mine. I jumped at the chance and was ultimately granted an extra year. My dream was about to come true.
As winter workouts began, I was so excited that I would honk my horn as I drove home, the noise declaring my elation. I attended Mass every day to thank God for rewarding my faith with this opportunity. One day, near the end of communion, an old man walked into the church and sat down in front of me. It was a freezing day, in fact a blizzard, and he was rubbing his hands rapidly to warm them. As I looked closer, I could actually see tears frozen on his face. After Mass, I introduced myself to Harry Davis and a new friendship was born. Harry was in his eighties, yet rode his bike to church every day. That day, because of the blizzard, he struggled to get there so I asked him if I could drive him to Mass each day. He accepted my offer.
As I drove him home one morning, I asked him what he usually did after Mass. He told me that he would ride his bike to the cemetery to visit his wife’s grave. This trip, just 15 minutes by car, would take him several hours of pedaling. He did this every day regardless of the weather. Trucks would speed by, splashing water on him, sometimes knocking him off his bike. Since my first class of the day was a late one, I offered to drive him to the cemetery. He agreed, and a beautiful, inspiring tradition ensued. During our drives, Harry would entertain me, sharing the stories of his past. When we arrived, I would watch his silent ritual as he walked to his wife’s grave, brushed off the snow, and knelt reverently. On the drive home, he would speak of the spring when we would make a wooden cross and put artificial flowers around her grave.
Weeks later, spring practice began and I stepped in as the number-one quarterback. In our first scrimmage I threw a touchdown pass to tight end Ken MacAfee, my favorite receiver. Everything was perfect. I was going to have that senior year that I was denied in high school.
Toward the end of the spring, I was rolling out to pass and a linebacker dove at my feet and tripped me. As I put my right arm down to regain my balance, a defensive end dove on top of me and we crashed to the ground. My right shoulder absorbed the full impact of our combined weight. The shoulder was burning, and I knew I had a serious injury. The trainer came over and all I could say was, “All of the time I put in, all the years, all the work—for this?”
I was so close to my dream.
I was diagnosed with a shoulder separation that would need immediate surgery. As I lay in my hospital bed, I was trying to figure out why this always happened to me, and why I could never get a break. I was angry, and I couldn’t understand why God was not there for me.
That evening Notre Dame’s new head coach, Dan Devine, came to visit. I asked him if I should just give up my dream and go ahead and graduate. He told me that I was his only experienced quarterback, and that if I was well, I would start. I decided to stay at Notre Dame for the summer and began the difficult task of coming back. I worked out every day like a man possessed. I was determined to come back better than ever. I lifted weights and did range-of-motion exercises in the Rockne pool. The culmination of my intense daily workout was running the Notre Dame Stadium steps. Every day, I ran up 60 rows and down 60 rows for each of the 36 gates.
One day, as I completed the 31st gate, I was hot, exhausted and, for the first time, thought about letting the last five gates go. As I slowed down, I looked above the tunnel entrance to the stadium and saw an older couple, apparently there dropping off their son for his first semester at Notre Dame. I was wearing my jersey, with my number and name on the back, and as I glanced at them, I thought, “They know I’m the starting quarterback at Notre Dame…” When I said those words, I had a burst of adrenaline and sprinted those last few gates. Then I ran over and introduced myself and welcomed the young man to Notre Dame.
Toward the end of the summer, I was throwing the football well and was in the best shape of my life. Then, on a follow-up visit to my doctor, I was told that the mersilene tape holding my collarbone in place was creating a small divot. He explained that this weakness could cause my collarbone to snap. I needed another operation to take the tape out. It was a minor surgery, but this second operation set my rehab back; I was never quite able to regain that time.
Our season opened with a nationally televised game at Boston College. I was on the traveling squad, but was told that I would not play in this game. I remember standing on the sidelines and crying as the national anthem was played. This was going to be my game to start, but here I was, unable to play. I took solace in the fact that Coach Devine told me I would get an opportunity later in the season. That opportunity never came and for the first time in my life, my faith was not rewarded.
Throughout that final season, I constantly wondered why God would do this to me. I had always tried to do the right thing: I worked hard, I followed my faith, I always gave my best, and yet, now my dream was being denied. My faith was weakened. I felt like God had cheated me. I had done everything he asked and I still didn’t get what I wanted. It was a miserable senior season.
Toward the end of the season, a letter arrived from my best friend’s mother. In the letter she told me that she was sorry that I never got a break. She reminded me of my senior year in high school. With 19 starters returning, we were projected as one of the top teams in the state, and then, with one hit, our dream season ended. She wrote about my patience in college, working and waiting for a final opportunity and then losing it on one fateful tackle. She concluded by saying it just wasn’t fair that I had never gotten that break to fulfill my lofty dreams.
I thought about her letter and about my journey to achieve my dream. For days, I wrestled with my feelings and emotions. I finally wrote back and told her that although my career had been filled with adversity and disappointment, I really didn’t have many bad breaks. I realized that at each step of my journey, when God had planted an obstacle for me, there had always been a lesson in it.
Through my daily attendance at Mass, I met Harry Davis, the man who rode his bike in the sleet and snow of an Indiana winter just to spend a few moments at his beloved wife’s grave. He was sent into my life to teach me what real love was.
I now realized that I wanted to be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame for all the wrong reasons. I wanted the fame, the NFL career. I wanted to please and impress others, but God had wanted me to learn that real satisfaction comes from within, not from the adulation of others.
I wrote about my experience running the stadium steps—how I couldn’t run one more step, but then when I saw that couple and their son, I could have run for days. I told her that through my disappointments, God was showing me that the beauty of sport is not in the glory of success and the fulfillment of dreams. It is in the journey. It is in the man who runs the stadium steps when the seats are empty. Anyone can run them when they are full.
Years later, I appreciate that all of the heartbreak and all of my questions about my faith led me to a better path. I learned that when a lofty dream falls to the ground and shatters, it marks a spot where a buried blessing can be found. God’s plan for me was to learn a new perspective on athletics and life so that I could teach others, with their own lofty dreams, where the right path is, and that fulfillment can come in many unexpected ways. As a young man, I had a clear vision of what my life should be, but God had a better plan. I just had to let go and trust that He knew the way.
This article is based on an address given by Frank Allocco at De La Salle’s Lenten Prayer Service on April 19, 2011. As a high school athlete, Allocco won all-state honors in football, basketball, and baseball, and was scholar-athlete of the year for the class of 1971. He has been head basketball coach of De La Salle High School (Concord, Calif.) since 1997. Sports Faith International inducted Allocco into its Hall of Fame as 2012 Coach of the Year. This national award is presented each year to an outstanding coach who is a role model for Catholic students.