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  • Family First

    by Mike Coffey

    I make no bones of the fact I’m not a recruitnik. In today’s atmosphere of being able to know who you didn’t get and (allegedly) why, I prefer to focus on the players Notre Dame does get and how they help the program progress towards a national title. So when players verbally commit or de-commit, I tend to take a talk-to-me-in-February approach.

    Occasionally, though, a recruiting story will catch my eye … or, in this case, seize it with icy tongs.

    Yesterday, highly-regarded high school defensive end Matt Dickerson de-committed from Notre Dame in favor of UCLA. According to the reports, the driving force behind the change of heart was Dickerson’s father being diagnosed with prostate cancer in recent weeks, two months after his uncle died of the same disease. With his mother already disabled, Dickerson felt staying proximate to family was more important at this stage of his life, and decided to change his college destination.

    This news was met with the usual message board upheaval, with Fighting Irish faithful ready to string up UCLA coach Jim Mora for another (this time legal) episode of tampering with a Notre Dame recruit. I can’t join them, though, because I’ve been in Dickerson’s shoes (although a much older pair), and I would ask my fellow Domers to cut the kid a little slack.

    In September of 2012, my 66-year-old mother was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer which had metastasized to her brain. She tried to beat it back with chemo and radiation, and although it seemed to be on the run in March of 2013, it returned in her spinal fluid a month later, and after a four-month stay in hospice, she died in October.

    For those of you unfamiliar with the experience, having a parent diagnosed with cancer is incredibly frightening, particularly when there have been other episodes of it in the family. Even if a treatment plan is in place and the prognosis is good, it feels like someone somewhere has clicked a stopwatch, and time you previously didn’t even think about measuring all of a sudden seems very finite.

    While I didn’t completely stop my life and sit by my mother’s bedside, I did find myself stopping by the house more often than I had previously. I found more excuses just to stick my head in the door and see how things were going. And I was comforted in the knowledge that, should something go wrong, I was close by and could make the necessary adjustments to get where I need to be with little upset. My sister, residing in Canada, certainly lacked that comfort.

    I don’t envy the decision Matt Dickerson had to make, and I don’t blame him for the conclusion he reached. His life isn’t going to stop either, but it has changed, probably irrevocably. Like Mike Gundy, I’m a man, I’m [getting well beyond] 40, and I know what it was like for me. The thought of a 17-year-old with one already-ill parent facing this kind of situation is wrenching, and goes well beyond the impact on Notre Dame football.

    But Bonger, say the frenzied, why isn’t he going to school closer to home if it’s so serious? As I said, his life is changing, not stopping. I didn’t move into my parents’ house when mom was diagnosed, but I made the necessary adjustments to assist them while keeping general positions in life (family, work) as undisturbed as possible. Life is an equation, and while Dickerson’s top priority is his dad, he needs to balance that against the rest of his own time on this planet. UCLA was the best local program that had offered him a scholarship, so that’s where he went. A 30-minute flight versus a six-hour marathon, in this situation, is a no-brainer.

    Hang on, Mike, say the cynical, isn’t this the same thing as the Eddie Vanderdoes situation last year? I don’t believe it is, for many of the reasons Keith Arnold illustrates. Vanderdoes’ use of his grandmother’s diagnosis was a cop-out to further whatever agenda he had in mind, and the NCAA allowing him to play this season remains a disappointment. Dickerson is facing two ill parents and is trying to do the best he can for them given the situation.

    There’s no easy way to deal with a parent who may be leaving you a lot sooner than you’d want. When you have a couple thousand people looking over your shoulder while you deal with it, the difficulties increase exponentially. Matt Dickerson made the best decision he could. It’s time for Irish fans to take the energy spent kvetching about defensive line depth and redirect it towards praying for a family in a tight spot.


    18 Responses to “Family First”

    1. Greg Gibbons says:

      I agree with you. I found it was very hard to go through major medical issues/end-of-life periods with my parents as a 45 and then 54 year old let alone as an 18 or 19 year old.

    2. Well said.

    3. Fran Brezette says:

      Your Uncle Raleigh told me about your mom a few weeks ago. I have fond memories of your mother from her early days at St. Marys. Most recently, I got to spend some quality time with her at Bill O’Hearn’s funeral a few years ago. She was a fine lady. I have lost both of my parents and I continue to miss them every day. I know you feel the same about your mother. May she rest in peace.

    4. Eric Johnson says:

      Well said Mike…spot on. Thanks,

    5. ND Chicago says:

      Mike, first of all, sorry for your loss. I am fortunate to still have both of my parents, but I know when I lose them it will be two of the most difficult things I will have to endure on this earth. I know when they’re gone, no matter how much time I’ve spent with them, I will be wishing I had more. All of us who visit this blog have a tremendous passion for ND and its athletic teams, but at the end of the day we all know what’s most important; family. I think sometimes people lose sight of how difficult it can be for young people to move 2,000 miles away to attend school at a place where they, more than likely, don’t know anyone very well. When you add in the unfortunate circumstance of a sick parent that makes it extremely difficult. I don’t blame this kid one bit for wanting to be closer to home given his situation. My prayers, and I’m sure all of ND Nation’s prayers, will be with Matt and his family. Thanks for maintaining the blog and giving us a place to vent, share, and remind us why ND isn’t like everywhere else.

    6. Sad Warrior says:

      Matt Dickerson has shown more courage and honor than any of those who disparaged his decision. We applaud this brave young man. Pray he will stay safe.

    7. Great points Mike.

      I just wonder why Dickerson didn’t choose Stanford or Cal? Both are great schools and both are MUCH easier (and cheaper) to get to then UCLA. Stanford is literally a 20 minute drive from his parents from door. Cal is 30-45 minutes. You could even use BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train for something like $4 to get to Cal.

      While my prayer go out to the family, I still think parts of this dont make complete sense. Mora’s history doesn’t help my confidence.

      • Mike Coffey says:

        Both are great schools, but (a) I’m not sure he had a Stanford offer to accept, and (b) Cal is an awful football program. As I said, there’s a balance to be achieved here.

    8. Geoffrey '73 says:

      Thank you for the article. I have to read a lot before I come across a gem like this.

    9. Kevin Aitken says:

      I tried to make up 10-30 years of time close to and visiting my mother after her stroke. Three months latet she was in heaven. This kid is definately the right king of guy.

    10. Kevin Byrnes says:

      110%. In 1969, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. In about 1975 my dad had an offer that would have taken us all (a very south-side embedded family with scores of extended relations within a range of one block to a couple of miles) to Georgetown, KY, with a raise and company car. She was mad at him for not taking it…but you know why he stayed in Chicago. She was surrounded by family for all 14 years of cycles of treatment, remission, and relapse, until she ended her marathon in 1983.

      You assessment of this young guy’s decision and what weighed on it cuts to the heart of the matter, and exemplifies the approach that should be taken with most of this young recruits.

    11. Thank you for saying what needed to be said.

    12. Wow. Off seasons are certainly not dull at ND.

    13. Your article was compelling and i am sorry for your misfortunes. I don’t blame this kid for backing out on his commitment. However I do think there are problems in paradise. This de commitment, daniels out for a semester, the tight end declaring for the draft while only projected to be a second round pick at best, atkinson leaving and more. it does make me wonder if Kelly has control of his team and if he is really liked. I get the sense has some major issues. This is the second off season full of mostly negative news and we are coming off a season where we played down to our competition. While I don’t think one kid changing his mind for sound reasons is an issue it seems to me that the majority of news that has been coming from the program is on a sour note

    14. John Meany says:

      Good story about your mother. Mary would have been proud of you. Your eulogy was also very good, and as I believe you said at the time, it was her words.

    15. Great article and spot on. College football is not life and death. I think the kid made a good decision and deserves credit not scorn.

    16. The sky is in deed not falling, at first I was a bit upset about the decommittal, then I heard why he did it I can understand. Best of luck to the kid, hope everything works out for him.

    17. Here, here.