Molly Shawhan

Big brother prompts her major in service

He turned 24 years old recently, the big brother with cerebral palsy who doctors once predicted would be gone by the age of 2. So, to discover why former University of Notre Dame women’s lacrosse player Molly Shawhan is the way she is—why no cause is lost, no chance to serve is wasted, no idle hour goes unfilled—you must always, always, always begin with Tommy.

“He’s my hero,” she said. “My whole life, I’ve seen how we take for granted some things, like being able to talk, or being able to walk across the floor. I think of that because my brother can’t do those things. So any time I see someone in need, I want to help. I just love giving back to someone who needs it.”

That explains the hours spent in Relay for Life, and Habitat for Humanity, and working as a baby sitter in a homeless shelter. The walk for diabetes and the Christmas party for cancer patients. That explains going to Uganda to reach out to people living in hardship, helping girls learn independence by teaching them sports, building a school, carrying water. But only after working three jobs one summer—coaching, tutoring, waitressing—to earn the money for the trip.

That explains the leader she was for her Irish lacrosse team, which had 20 underclassmen her senior season. 

“If you’re looking for a smile, you could get it from Molly. When you’re working hard, she’s going to be your first cheerleader,” coach Christine Halfpenny said. “Basically pulling along a young team, she was an incredible example as a leader—how you treat your teammates, how you help make them better.”

That explains the handwritten additions on the margins of the nomination form for the national Yeardley Reynolds Love Unsung Hero Award, which goes to a college women’s lacrosse player each year. Shawhan was nominated in 2013, and then again in 2014. When someone brought her the 2013 letter to update, she had so many new activities to add that she needed space on the side and at the bottom. It looks like the amended draft of a term paper.

That explains Best Buddies, where she helped brighten the days for a girl with cerebral palsy. There was the time the girl had a cup with no straw, and others could not understand why she wasn’t drinking. Molly knew. Molly knew that cerebral palsy can take away the simplest things, such as a thirsty child sipping juice, so she went over to help her. Molly understood, because of Tommy.

And that explains why every return visit to Notre Dame campus must include a stop at the Grotto.

“I always go there the first thing, to pray for my brother,” she said.

When Halfpenny first arrived at Notre Dame, she asked each of her veterans what inspired them most. “The first word out of her mouth,” Halfpenny said, “was Tommy.”

Shawhan graduated from Notre Dame in 2014 with a degree in psychology. But, then again, since nothing is done halfway—this is the athlete who competed in five different sports in high school back in Olney, Maryland—she had lots of majors. She majored in lacrosse, as a frequent starter on defense for the Irish. She majored in service activities. She majored in everything but sleep.

“A nap here or there,” she said. “But I think when you find something you enjoy doing . . .”

Her coach noticed. “Molly is built to operate on a jam-packed schedule,” Halfpenny said. “I think she gains a lot of her energy by being around other people. Even when she was busy, she would find things to do.”

Besides, if fatigue ever crept in, her mind went to one place. 

“Whenever I’m running or playing a different sport, in the back of my mind is, ‘You’re doing this for your brother. Part of you is running because he can’t, and he would love to.’”

There is obviously a direct route from the Shawhan home in Maryland to northern Indiana. Father is a Notre Dame graduate, mother a Saint Mary’s College graduate. When it came time for Kirk and Mary to wed, the ceremony was at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, on April 18, 1988. Hence, the family punchline from Mary: “We always say when we go back to campus, we’re returning to the scene of the crime.”

Duke earnestly recruited Molly, and she considered Durham. But Notre Dame was impossible to turn down. Besides, her mother joked, they’d save money because they already owned a bunch of Notre Dame sweatshirts.

“I was very torn,” Molly said. “But I started thinking, ‘Notre Dame has been at the top of your list since you could say, ‘Go Irish.’”

Good choice, huh? “Those,” she said, “were the best four years of my life so far.”

Brother Danny is now at Notre Dame. Younger brother Jack is 13. Any early bets on college preference? And while Tommy was never a student, probably nobody wears Notre Dame apparel more proudly, starting with the jacket with No. 27 on it. Molly’s number.

Halfpenny became very accustomed to seeing one particular smiling face at Irish lacrosse competitions. 

“He was everywhere,” she said. 

“When we played at Ohio State in the horseshoe and it was snowing, he was there. I guarantee you, when we beat Northwestern Molly’s senior year, and it was for the first time in 11 years, Tommy was probably the first one to know.”

It was also Tommy’s idea for parents in the stands to shake hands, even from different teams. He’d point to two of them, they’d shake.

It is a 10-hour drive from the Shawhan home to Notre Dame. The Toyota Sienna that carried the family to South Bend so many times finally succumbed to a transmission problem. It was on its second engine and had 425,000 miles.

But the most fulfilling travel the Shawhan family enjoyed was not just road trips to Indiana, but also pilgrimages to France. When Tommy was born to such a dire prognosis, Kirk and Mary headed to the fountain at Lourdes to bless their son. Mary was pregnant with Molly at the time, so there was much praying to be done—not only for better news for Tommy, but a healthy second child.

Four years later, they returned to Lourdes, with Tommy, 6, and Molly, 4. Even now, Mary’s voice breaks when she tells of standing in her hotel room one night, doing laundry while the rest of the family slept, praying one more time that somehow Tommy could walk.

“I heard this voice that said, ‘I’ve given you the best I have. Why do you keep asking me for more?’” And then she realized her son might not walk, but he was alive and gifted in so many ways.

The family brought back two jugs of holy water from Lourdes. Nearly two decades later, it is nearly gone. “We’re down to a trickle,” Mary said. “We keep saying we’ve got to go back.”

The day the Shawhans dropped off their only daughter at Notre Dame, Mary gave Molly a small bottle of Lourdes water. Molly blessed herself with it before every game, a reminder of how fortunate she was. The water is gone now, but she still carries the bottle in her backpack.

Brother and sister grew up to be, in their mother’s words, “great buddies.” Molly would help push Tommy around at his T-ball games, and about the only time they fought was for control of the television remote. When it came time for Tommy to go to his senior prom, Molly went with him. When Molly left for college, they could Skype. Maybe he couldn’t talk, but he certainly could smile, and that is what his sister wished to see, 600 miles away.

Meanwhile, Molly sought to take advantage of every minute at Notre Dame, from classroom to playing field to service activity. The Uganda trip was unforgettable, part spent in a city, part spent in remote countryside, where indoor plumbing and electricity were only rumors. But then, how many can say they Bungee-jumped into the Nile?

What she remembers most is one little girl.

“She was about 9 or 10. We were going down to the well to get water, so I’m carrying these two things of water and I’m dying. Meanwhile, she has it balanced on her head, and we’re walking up the hill. I have to stop and take a break, and she’s just waiting for me, patiently.

“The last day, I was walking with her and we were holding hands, and we had to separate. I remember her looking at me and saying, ‘See you.’ It just broke my heart. I hope she remembers me, because I’ll never forget her. I wanted to do so much more for her.”

There it is. Her one regret from Notre Dame. “It was like I didn’t do enough here.”

Not enough? Are the days still 24 hours in South Bend?

Now she is in Corpus Christi, Texas, working two years on an Alliance for Catholic Education project, teaching science and math to seventh- and eighth-graders at an impoverished school. She was describing what she played in college to her supervisors one day, and they picked up her stick by the wrong end. But, then, you try explaining lacrosse to nuns from the Philippines.

And the future? “A little fuzzy,” she said. Maybe medical school. Maybe teaching.

“She has to find her passion,” her mother said. “I think she’s still exploring that. Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be in service.”

And this prediction from Halfpenny.

“I have no doubt she’ll be making a difference in the lives of so many young people, because that’s what drives her. There’ll never be another Molly Shawhan.”

Tommy can’t say that. But the guess is you can see it in his eyes.