Father Nathan Wills
A very common phrase around football is, “Faith, Family, Football”, a mantra said and believed by players and coaches alike. The root of that statement is faith, which is critical to young men who make the choice to attend an institution founded on that principle like the University of Notre Dame. What many people may not realize is that there is someone to help guide this core statement for the players. Father Nate Wills is Notre Dame Football team’s Chaplain. You may recognize him by his knack for finding the camera (or the camera finding him), on game days. I was fortunate enough to sit down with Father Nate and talk with him about his experiences leading up to and acting as the chaplain for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
As some of you may know, I was part of the ACE (Alliance for Catholic Education) program at Notre Dame. Part of that program involves summer classes in South Bend, led by some incredible teachers. One of those teachers was Father Nate. I found out that he had grown up around my mother’s family in St. Paul (shout out the Schneemans) and we bonded once those dots were connected. Fast forward 2 years, and my fiancee and I were looking for someone to preside at our wedding. I contacted the ACE program to see if any Holy Cross priests would be available on my special day. They recommended Nate, who led my wife Annie and me through Pre Cana and celebrated our wedding in September (he even shouted out OFD during the homily). We’ve stayed in touch ever since, and is one of my favorite people to connect with any time I am in South Bend.
But enough about me, let’s get to Father Nate, the reason you clicked on the article : )
The Journey from Student to Priest
Like many, his journey to Notre Dame was actually rather simple. He went to South Bend to visit his brother Nick, who was a walk-on basketball player for the Irish.
“I grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota and I went to Catholic schools all my life and I visited Notre Dame in part because my older brother had come here. I fell in love with the campus and was really excited...”
He felt a strong sense of connection to his faith in South Bend. Even prior to coming to Notre Dame, he recalled attending World Youth Day, in which the Pope said, “Jesus Christ expects great things from young people”. The young Nate looked around and realized the Pope was talking to him. He described an intense calling, sharing that it was both empowering and scary. However, as he began to express his calling to others, many of the fears and doubts quickly subsided.
“How would I use my life and my gifts to praise God and serve the lord and serve others? I didn’t know, but I just kept coming back to....priesthood? Maybe that was where God was calling me. I seemed to hear things at mass differently than some of my classmates. The priesthood seemed like a really beautiful way to live your life. I don’t know when I started telling my closest friends, but I thought they were gonna like, point and laugh. Instead they were supportive and were like, yeah, I can totally see that!”
This calling and confirmation from his friends and family led him to join the Congregation of the Holy Cross at Notre Dame, and ultimately being asked to act as the Chaplain for the football team. I had to ask if this was always part of his plan as a former student. While it definitely was not (and he even joked that he wasn’t a HUGE football fan) he felt so humbled when he was presented with the opportunity. His lack of, “football knowledge” concerned him when Father Pete MCormick, CSC, and a director of Campus Ministry, asked him to fill that role. He detailed the interaction with much fondness.
“When he asked, I remember saying two things. First of all, I really honored - thank you for asking, it’s a really kind thing to do, but second, Pete, I don’t know that much about football? Pete just laughed and he said, “Nate, here’s the thing. We pay a lot of people a lot of money to know everything there is about football. We don’t need you to call plays, you just need to bring them to Jesus.” Father Nate responded, “And I was like, alright, I think I can do that.”
Without further hesitation, he accepted the role with open arms and looked forward to the newfound responsibilities as the football chaplain for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Transitioning to, “The Chaplain”
The former chaplain, Fr. Mark Thesing, CSC showed Fr. Nate the ropes for the first two years of his work, but since last year, Fr. Nate has been the sole chaplain for the Fighting Irish football team and he describes his own unique approach to this role:
“I try to meet them where they’re at, and I feel like part of my role is to continue to remind them that they’re more than what they can do on Saturdays. At the end of the day, before football and after football, their identity is a beloved child of God and nothing that they say or do can change that. And if they stay grounded in that, I think it helps them to weather the storms of life, win or lose.”
I found his approach to be both relatable and inspiring. He was ready and willing to simply, “be there” for players. Almost none of us can understand the mental aspect of being on a national stage and at the end of twitter rants from adults around the world each week. Nate was able to take all of that out of the equation and approach them as someone who isn’t asking anything from them, but asking what he can do for them. It struck me as familiar, as I had the late (and great) Father K as Football chaplain during my time at The College of the Holy Cross. There was significant comfort in knowing someone associated with football didn’t really care about how you played.
Mass and Medals
Outside of his openness to others and unstructured approach to the players, there are rituals and routines that he goes through on a weekly basis. He says weekly Mass, and while not mandatory, he sees near perfect attendance. While attendance was great, he immediately realized the response rates didn’t match the number of players present. He thought that maybe they just weren’t into it or he was doing something wrong. That is until former Irish player/assistant Tyler Platz had a great idea. Together, they printed out response sheets for the players as they realized they just needed a play sheet.
“The responses went up 400 percent, and I realized the players wanted to be engaged. Throughout this, I can tell that players are just curious about their faith. They also bring a level of commitment to their faith and dig deep.”
The power of these moments of prayer and community makes you realize why so many parents come away from Notre Dame game days and visits so high on the Irish. One of the most powerful rituals Father Nate inherited from generations of Notre Dame sports chaplains is handing out a unique holy medal each week. Before each game, Fr. Nate blesses and then gives out a small medal with a different saint’s image on it. He tells a little about that saint’s life and how they might look to their example of holiness on their own spiritual journey.
Personally, I think this is one of the cooler rituals across Notre Dame Football, but until recently, not many people knew about it. That is, until he started posting the medals each week on his Instagram account, @praylikeachampiontoday. Each week, he features a unique player holding the medal and Fr. Nate says something about the life of the saint. I would also be remiss not to highlight the incredible pregame video Father Nate put out before the Wisconsin game. As you can tell, he has a great sense of humor as well as a strong sense of compassion and love for the team. Enjoy.
On Personal Relationships
In addition the medals, the Masses, and the prayers, Father Nate also finds himself in a position to, “be present”. I asked him to highlight some of the personal relationships he has has formed with players and how some of those arise. His answers were fascinating and stemmed from a lens of curiosity. He delved into how Notre Dame football players are, by nature, not, “normal” college guys. He said this with all sincerity, and I took him to mean it as a huge compliment.
“They approach everything with a different level of commitment, and I think many of them bring that level of commitment to their faith as well and really want to dig deep and to know like, alright, how am I going to be better? They’re always trying to get better in every aspect of their life....and I think that it’s inspiring for me to see because I think they want more of a focus on Christ.”
Fr. Nate dove into stories of some players and coaches challenging themselves to read the Bible from cover to cover, and of others becoming Catholic during their time in South Bend. He was in awe of their commitment, and made himself available as a resource to turn to for any of their questions. He has had individual meetings with players and coaches alike, and stated how much he enjoyed their curiosities. One story, in particular, is worth sharing. Father Nate was helping a member of the staff make the journey towards Catholicism, and a former player, Tommy Kraemer, was this coaches’ sponsor. He described Tommy as, “one of the most thoughtful guys I’ve ever met”
He shared an interesting and ironic interaction:
“I remember we were playing Navy and Tommy was on crutches at the time with an injury. He crutched over to me and he said, “ Hey Nate, I was just thinking about is the morality of joining the military. Can you be catholic and join the military? Because like, what if you have to be in combat”
Nate dove into examples of Saint Francis and Joan of Arc, but the fascinating part was NBC filmed the two talking on the sidelines, discussing Tommy’s injury. Father Nate laughed and mentioned, “You know, NBC viewers will never know that Tommy was initiating a deep moral theological conversation about selective conscientious objection and drone strikes and it was, THE most Notre Dame thing ever”.
The Final question I asked him was what has surprised him most in his role, and his answer will hopefully help provide a unique perspective on the athletes he serves.
“I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but I think I have a new appreciation for all of the different forces, challenges, and pressures on our student athletes. They live a normal students’ life, but there’s all these other things happening, and people often want things from them, right? Whether that’s “can you sign this or can you call my friend? Can you leave a voicemail? Can, you…you know, blah blah blah”. I don’t envy a person that is 18 and trying to figure that stuff out, you know? There are a lot of people who are going to continue to tell them you should do this or you should do that in their lives. I really do have a great appreciation for the guys. There’s also just so much personal stuff going on in people’s lives and they have to find ways to deal with it all. And it’s so challenging seeing the way that they work through the whole year.”
As fans, this can be lost on us. Father Nate doesn’t see the players the way we see them. He sees them as people who are both very different from others, while also being just the same. His role is providing them somewhere to turn, someone to talk to, someone to ask questions, and most importantly, someone who isn’t judging them. He knows them by their names, not just by their numbers.
Having known Father Nate for the last 6 years, I may take his kindness and perspectives on life for granted. He is both approachable, thoughtful, and intentional with his words and actions. The football team could not have a better man and spiritual leader and to help guide them. Next time you are on campus, he’s not too hard to spot at over 6’2, shake his hand, or just say hello. He is as Minnesota “nice” and he is humble. However, the impact he is making as the Chaplain of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will stretch for generations.