New Hesburgh Doc Shows How Notre Dame Became Known for Much More than Football

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What if I told you there was an actual, real life human being who rubbed shoulders with all the most important American historical figures of the late 20th century like Forest Gump?

Now what if I told you that person found himself helping write and rewrite history as it was happening because he was a savvy political operator with a penchant for bridging the divide between bitter enemies? You would probably want to learn more about who that person was, and that’s where “Hesburgh,” the new documentary opening at the Music Box Theatre on Saturday, comes in. 

Hesburgh profiles the life of long-time president of the University of Notre Dame and America’s most well-known priest—Rev. Theodore Hesburgh.

(Watch the trailer, buy tickets here)

There will be a Q&A with Director and Notre Dame alumni Patrick Creadon on Saturday, April 27, after the 2pm & 7pm showings at the Music Box. In addition, former Chicago Bear, Notre Dame All-American, and current Chicago State Athletic Director Chris Zorich will participate in a Q&A on Saturday, April 27, after the 7pm showing only.

All Notre Dame fans know all about “Touchdown Jesus” and “First Down Moses,” and many know the building upon which these two outdoor art installations reside- the Hesburgh library, just across the quad from the Knute Rockne gate/north end zone of Notre Dame Stadium.

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The man affectionately known as “Father Ted” was one of the most influential people in this country during the latter half of the 20th century, but a lot of us don’t know who he really was. (A lot of people also don’t know that Notre Dame originated the “Fighting Irish” mascot from the time that the students chased the Ku Klux Klan out of town in 1927).

It’s well past time for edification.

Hesburgh opens with a shot of the library and the Jesus mural, and then it begins telling us the story of a man who took over the university at the age of 35, at a time when the school was known for almost nothing else except college football. 

Hesburgh scoffed at this idea and vowed to change it. 

Richard M. Nixon came to South Bend to watch and root for USC against the Fighting Irish and on this trip he formed a bond with Hesburgh that would last until they butted heads on issues of civil rights towards the end of Nixon’s presidency.

Nixon was for civil rights when he was a Senator, but totally flipped while President, relying on the “southern strategy” to stay in office, making sure he appealed to bigoted segregationists. The film shows Nixon, on his infamous tapes, telling his aide: “I thought it was well to hit Hesburgh,” as Father Ted was continuing to fight for civil rights and progress in racial relations.

Nixon then forced Father Ted, who had chaired the U.S. Civil Rights Commission for 15 years, to resign. For a time, Hesburgh was basically the moral conscience of America on this issue, but he was also so much more than that.

It was under Hesburgh that Notre Dame football ended their policy of not going to bowl games, and they used the revenue earned from such postseason games to fund minority scholarships. The school also finally went co-ed under his watch. 

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If he were alive today, his bipartisan leadership would serve us well in these increasingly divided times. Creadon and Christine O’Malley did an amazing job documenting the challenges and triumphs of one of the most influential leaders in American history. 

Hesburgh is a big, ambitious film just like Father Ted was a larger-than-life, transcendent figure; so big that we need a second review article to cover more ground.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, a former writer for NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com, regularly appears as a guest pundit on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation

He also contributes sociopolitical essays to Chicago NowFollow him on Twitter and Instagram. The content of his cat’s Instagram account is unquestionably superior to his.

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  1. […] is a long, over-arching film, and that's why we needed a second review article (this first is over at this link) to try and get more of the material covered. It makes sense that extra space is required as Father […]

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