He Roots for the Irish - They Root for Him
A year ago, Rudy Chapman was like any other sports-crazed 5-year-old kid.
He loves hockey, began playing just last season — and he particularly loves the University of Notre Dame hockey team.
His interest in the Irish came in great part through the influence of his father, Tony, who named his son after the former Notre Dame walk-on football player whose life story became a movie.
That interest in hockey moved his father to build a miniature ice rink on the side of their Goshen, Indiana, home about 30 miles southeast of the Notre Dame campus.
Rudy attended his first Irish hockey game when he was 2, saying, “I want to be one of those fast guys.”
One of his prized possessions is a photo taken with some Irish hockey players when his parents brought him to a Skate With the Irish event at the Compton Family Ice Arena after a Notre Dame home game versus Michigan in early January.
His mother, Laura, says he’d rather watch SportsCenter on ESPN than cartoons.
But something happened to Rudy as the calendar flipped to 2018.
Says Laura, “Back in December (2017) he had a fever and pain and we were in and out of the doctor’s office. They thought he had a virus, and so he took some steroids around Christmas — and that seemed to help.
“But a few days after that the back pain came back, so we pushed to have an X-ray done because we were concerned that maybe he had a fracture. He loves hockey and he’s on the ice all the time — and we thought maybe something had happened.”
Eventually Rudy endured extensive testing at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. On Jan. 23, after a tumor biopsy, doctors diagnosed him with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that began in his ribs. He has endured a year’s worth of treatments since then — including late April surgery to remove three ribs where the tumor lived, eight rounds of chemotherapy during the summer and most recently radiation.
Following that January biopsy, Rudy struggled to keep his eyes open in recovery — until his dad turned on the Notre Dame-Wisconsin hockey game. Suddenly Rudy was awake and energized as he watched wide-eyed. When the family arrived back in Goshen the next Friday, Rudy and Tony sat on the couch, watching the Irish play at Minnesota.
Within days the Notre Dame hockey office received multiple messages describing the youngster’s illness and his love for the Irish.
The Notre Dame team invited Rudy and his family to attend an Irish home game. They came Feb. 23 for the Notre Dame-Michigan State matchup, met head coach Jeff Jackson in his office before the contest and visited the Irish locker room postgame.
About that same time, Irish players Dennis Gilbert and Bo Brauer led a delegation of Notre Dame players to Rudy’s home where they presented him with a hockey stick and autographed jersey and spent time with him on his mini-rink.
That same night, Rudy grudgingly admitted goaltender Cale Morris qualified as his favorite Irish player, whispering that news to his mother so as not to offend the other Notre Dame players seated around his dinner table. He selects Chicago Blackhawks veteran Patrick Kane as his top NHL player.
He sat a few rows behind the bench a few weeks later when his Irish met Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, and after the Notre Dame victory he again could be found in the winning team’s locker room.
Friends of the Chapmans flew Rudy and his family to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to see the Irish play in the NCAA East Regional. Before the games Rudy made encouraging signs for Brauer, Gilbert and Morris and made sure his mother emailed photos of them to the hockey office. His mother notes that during floor hockey action over that weekend Rudy referred to himself as “mini Cale Morris.”
The Chapmans flew on the team charter to St. Paul, Minnesota, for Notre Dame’s appearance in the 2018 NCAA Frozen Four. After the Irish defeated Michigan in the national semifinals, NCAA officials brought an enlarged bracket into the Notre Dame locker room — and Rudy placed the Notre Dame card onto the line for the national championship game.
When the Irish hockey team was recognized for that NCAA runner-up finish on the field at the Notre Dame-Ball State football game in September, Rudy made a stirring, surprise appearance, running out of the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel and then being hoisted into the air by the Irish players.
Adds Laura, “He’s a fighter, he’s a strong kid. He’s always loved hockey. He’s memorized all the guys on the team — he knows their numbers and he knows their names. He loves watching the games, and it’s been fun to watch him just to see how much he enjoys it.”
Rudy’s lone sibling is 20-month-old Lucy, who already has been challenged by her older brother to learn the names of the Irish hockey players from a game program.
“We live in a small community, but we’ve had so many people bringing us meals and dropping off cards and praying for us — which is what we really needed,” says Laura.
“They love him so much and they are constantly wondering what they can do to help. A few friends of mine had gotten together and were writing scripture and putting cards all around the house.
“Some days, when it’s hard, you notice one. It’s a little reminder and it’s helpful.”
The Chapmans’ First United Methodist Church in Middlebury organized a fundraiser last winter. The Irish hockeyteam contributed an autographed hockey stick and autographed jersey. The jersey sold for $4,000, and the stick for $2,700. The individual with the winning bid for the stick donated it back to be auctioned again and that happened four times overall, with the final winner giving the stick to Rudy. Including donations for the meal and sale of wristbands, the event raised more than $32,000.
A group of Irish hockey players spent most of a day with Rudy over the summer — playing street hockey, baseball, basketball, soccer and even throwing water balloons.
“We settled in and learned how to navigate our new normal,” says Laura.
“We are taking things one day at a time. We are going to pray our way through this.
“And we have been overwhelmed by the love and support we continue to receive from the Notre Dame family, especially the hockey family.”
Meanwhile, all the Chapmans keep rooting for the Irish.
Says Tony, “This team has been an inspiration for Rudy.”
Actually, it may be the other way around.