My son, Nicholas David “N.D.” Houk, a few minutes after his May of 2022 graduation

By: Phil Houk for Fighting Irish Preview

I’m a Catholic kid who was born and raised in the shadow of the Golden Dome. I came into the world just a couple of years before the “Era of Ara” commenced.

I grew up loving Notre Dame football, and Notre Dame.

I lived in a house three doors down from where Rockne had lived and his yard was my sandlot growing up.  Ara lived about four blocks away and I would look for any excuse to go knock on his door.  Halloween, fundraisers, you name It, I went to the Parseghian’s.  And Ara sometimes answered the door, and always was very kind.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of the excitement around my house on gamedays.  I attended my first game in the stadium in 1970 and my all-time favorite player is Joe Theisman.  I was so much a fan of Joe’s that I carved his uniform #7 into the headboard of my bed.  My Mom who is now 94, still hasn’t forgiven me for that.

I couldn’t get into Notre Dame for either undergrad or law school, all though I tried.  I think I might even have came close, but no shamrock.   So, I don’t have a degree from Notre Dame. But, even after attending Indiana University for undergrad and Valparaiso for Law School, ND never stopped being #1, although I did love cheering on Bobby Knight and the Hoosiers to a national championship when I was in school down in Bloomington.

After law school I settled just down the road from South Bend in Fort Wayne, where for the last 37 years I have served as a Magistrate of the Allen Superior Court. As a pastime that built on my love for football and journalism, I got involved in broadcasting high school and University of St. Francis sports. I’ve been on the radio in one way or another now for over 30 years and for 14 years I did color commentary for USF. During that span USF won 13 conference championships, went to the NAIA national playoffs 13 times and the national championship game three times. I had total access to the program and learned all I could about the game of football and how to tell the stories about a football season

In 1997 I started a weekly during the season radio show on Notre Dame football called Fighting Irish Preview.  The show has now been on the air (and also is a podcast) for 26 years. My partner on the show is Tim Prister, the senior editor of Irish Illustrated.  Tim is America’s foremost authority on Notre Dame Football and I have known him since we attended Mishawaka Marian High School together.  The radio show has branched out with a website I now attend most games, home and away, some practices when they are open and press conferences, as a full-fledged Notre Dame football journalist.

In Fort Wayne my wife Lynda and I have raised a family and have three great kids. Of course they were raised as Notre Dame fans.  We took them to games when they were growing up and we watched the rest on TV.  I always tried to impress it on my kids, that we were Notre Dame fans, because Notre Dame does things differently from most, they do things the right way and because of the Lady on the Dome. That may sound elitist or arrogant, but it is how I feel. 

One favorite memory that I have with the kids is how we all danced around a brand new ping pong table that came a few hours early from Santa on Christmas Eve, 2008. The fun was touched off by a big ND win that night as Jimmy Clausen couldn’t miss and Golden Tate was catching everything in sight in route to a Hawaii Bowl win.

I could tell many stories like that one.

In the back of my mind I had always hoped that one of my kids would attend Notre Dame. I think Lynda would agree with that because even though she was a Purdue grad and I was an IU grad, we had no problem agreeing that Notre Dame would be an excellent school for our children to aspire to.

Our first child AJ, to this day loves ND and he occasionally fills in as a photographer at games for my website. He was a talented football player in high school and he ended up playing wide receiver at DePauw, and got a great education. My next one, daughter Tori might well have gotten into ND, but she was better suited going the big “State” school route and she achieved great success at Purdue.

That left one more chance to get a Notre Dame grad amongst my kids.

On November 20, 1998 child number three and our second son was born.  We named him Nicholas David.  “Nicholas” because we liked the name, and “David” after a favorite uncle of mine who happens to have been a Notre Dame graduate.

If you haven’t figured it out yet……. what are Nicholas David’s initials?   I’ll write them out for you:  ND.

That was no coincidence.

Nick, like my first two kids grew up super smart, and with faith, love and compassion for friends and family.

He grew and developed a love and respect for Notre Dame. From an early age he started building a resume to get into his namesake dream school. Okay, it was also my dream school.

Nick, like his brother and sister, excelled in sports.  He especially was good on the football field. He played quarterback and tight end in high school and grew tall and strong. He also played some baseball and excelled in track. During his senior year he anchored one of the best mile relay teams in Indiana.  

He did four years in student government, was a peer tutor, did volunteer work, he won all kinds of academic honors.  His cumulative GPA was well ABOVE 4.0 and he scored a super high SAT score.

The resume he built for ND was outstanding.  Then in the summer before his senior year, he spent many hours preparing what was a terrific application to attend Notre Dame.  The application was delivered and many prayers were said.

Alas, a few weeks later, Nick was turned down for admission to ND.

We were sad but not upset, we accepted God’s plan.

Despite the disappointment Nick had plenty of great options available to him.

Nick enrolled at Indiana University as a direct admit to the Kelley School of Business.  Choosing the Kelley School of Business at IU was an easy decision.  IU had offered Nick a great package including significant scholarship money, and the Kelley School is recognized as one of the best business schools in America.  Nick continued to have a love for Notre Dame, but it looked like attending school in South Bend was not going to be in his cards.

Nick knocked it out of the park at IU.  He busted the curve on some big exams and even notched a perfect score on one of them.  By his sophomore year Nick was doing so well that he was on the Kelley School’s “radar”.  He had been particularly showing proclivity in his accounting classes and was offered a no application necessary admittance into a one-year Master of Accountancy program that IU had.  Nick called me and Lynda about this and it was a thrill, a validation of his outstanding academic accomplishments, and a recognition of the potential that Nick possessed. The IU Master of Accountancy program was a top 20 ranked program nationally and upon completion of the degree Nick would be qualified to sit for the CPA exam. 

A bit of inspiration hit me and while talking to Nick, I did some quick research. I typed the words “Master of Accountancy Notre Dame” into Google.  On short order I found that indeed ND offered the same degree through the Mendoza School of Business and it just happened to be the #2 ranked program in the country. 

Hmm…. maybe that Notre Dame dream was still alive.

Nick was immediately interested in the ND program and on short order inquired about it. He soon had befriended the ND business school recruiter, who indicated that Nick was an excellent candidate for the program.  I would like to think that at this point ND, upon hearing of Nick’s outstanding work at IU was beginning to get an inkling about what they had missed out on when they denied him admission.

In the spring of his junior year at IU, Nick formally submitted his application for early admission to Notre Dame’s Master’s of Accountancy program.  Only a select group among the already select would gain early entry admission.  We felt pretty good about his chances at getting in this time.  That doesn’t mean the prayers didn’t go up.  They did and it wasn’t just me and Lynda, just about anybody that had ever known Nick and his dream, expressed support.

In the middle of August 2020, Lynda and I were having lunch at a little restaurant while on vacation in north Michigan.  My cell phone went off and it was Nick calling.  I answered and told him I was with Mom, and put him on speaker, ”What’s up Nick?” I asked.

“Dad I got in, I’ve been accepted to Notre Dame.”

I was overwhelmed with emotion.  I was literally speechless.  Lynda had to take over the call.

The waitress actually stopped by and asked me if everything was okay.  I choked out the words, “lunch is great, and we just found out our son got accepted at Notre Dame.”  Happy tears of thanksgiving and pride in our son flowed.

Nick’s experience at ND for the 2021-22 academic year was like a chapter out of Rudy.  In many ways it exceeded our dreams.  Nick would call us frequently to discuss some of the amazing class subjects he was covering or the experts who were guest lecturers at times.  He lived just east of campus in a townhouse with three other students in his program.  He made lifelong friends. He continued his habit of high academic achievement.

He sent me text messages about hanging out with Jerome Bettis, and seeing Peyton Manning on campus. He regularly would report running into football players while on the way to class…. Kyle Hamilton, Jack Coan, Michael Mayer…. He played intramurals, including “Bookstore Basketball”.  He went to basketball and hockey games and lacrosse matches. One night he sent us a breathtaking photo he had taken of a snow covered Grotto. 

Oh, and he attended football games.

During the fall of 2021 while Jack Coan and Kyren Williams were leading the Irish on the field, the fans were back in the stadium after the pandemic and the media, including myself was back in the press box.  I recall pregames sitting up top and looking across the world’s most beautiful stadium to the student section, and knowing that Nick was there embracing the ND football experience, to the hilt.  The words: “extreme vicarious enjoyment” come to mind.

For one academic year Nick lived his dream and yes, mine as well.

In May of 2022 Nick graduated from Notre Dame, magna cum laude.  At his diploma ceremony he received the prestigious Brother Cyprian award for his outstanding academic achievement.

Not surprising Nick had his choice of offers from the big four accounting firms.  Just after graduation he started studying for the CPA exam and in a few months, on the first try, passed all four phases. In September of 2022, he started working for Price Waterhouse.

Mission accomplished!  Nick, through perseverance and hard work nailed his dream of attending Notre Dame and reaping the valuable benefits the experience had to offer.

But that is not the end of the story, in fact this Notre Dame story has two significant footnotes.

During February of Nick’s Spring semester, I was diagnosed with cancer.  Fortunately, it was at a treatable stage, but as told to me by my family physician who I’ve trusted for over 30 years, the “cure” would entail a “bumpy road”. 

The prescription was 7 chemotherapy treatments and 35 head and neck radiations over a seven-week period of time. 

I took the news of my new reality in stride.  Fortunately, I had tremendous support from my family especially Lynda, AJ, Tori and Nick and friends, and I had a strong faith to sustain me.

I started treatments in mid-April.  Looking at the calendar I knew that Nick’s graduation would fall after I had endured five chemotherapies and 26 radiations.  I was told that if it was even possible for me to attend the graduation ceremonies at all, I would surely be in a wheelchair.

My desire to be a full participant in that Notre Dame graduation pushed me to find a way to prove  that prognostication false.

Two weeks into the treatments I attended and covered that year’s Blue Gold game. While watching Drew Pyne struggle for most of a game that was dominated by the defenses, I did pretty well.  It was great to see my media pals, most of whom were aware of my circumstances. The treatments however were most definitely starting to take their toll.  Growing fatigue, skin irritation, and loss of the ability to eat normally were my main issues.

Some private doubts about my ability to attend ND graduation ceremonies did at times creep into my mind-but every time that happened I offered up a prayer to Our Lady.  You know who I’m talking about, a/k/a “The Lady on the Dome”, I asked for her aid. 

She did not fail me.

With Our Lady on my side and a lifetime of love for the University driving me, Lynda and I fought the cancer with all we had.  My focus was to be at that graduation, standing on my own two feet. To accomplish that we prayed, asked Notre Dame friends to pray for me and followed every bit of advice my Doctors had, to a “t”

And we did it.

On the weekend of May 14-15 , I attended every graduation event scheduled and I was standing (sometimes with a little help) on my own two feet.

The graduation ceremonies at Notre Dame are over the top.  From the Baccalaureate Mass to graduation in the stadium to a wonderful diploma ceremony, everything was first class.

Five Chemotherapy and 26 radiation treatments didn’t stop me from attending Nick’s graduation.

I have a short video that was taken by Lynda during the diploma ceremony shortly after Nick had walked the stage and received the Brother Cyprian award. Nick had to walk right in front of his family as he returned to his seat. The video starts with a view of me in the seconds before Nick was to walk by, I was so proud at that moment, it is indescribable. But, I was also miserable.  My head was pounding, I was worn down so much that I could barely hold my head up, by that point it had been a long weekend. Then Nick comes into the frame of the video and I hold my arms out. He did the same and walked over to me. I gave him a hug and told him how much I loved him.

N.D. had graduated from Notre Dame.

I am now in full remission as to the cancer I was fighting and I feel that I owe much of the credit for my successful battle to the power of Notre Dame, and that Lady on the Dome.

My cancer battle and the motivation Nick’s ND graduation provided me is footnote #1. But like I said, there were two footnotes to Nick’s ND story. 

Footnote #2 occurred the week after the graduation.

I was physically wiped out after making it through the graduation weekend, so much so that by Tuesday after, my chemo treatments had to be temporarily suspended due to my weakened condition.  And then, on the Monday after graduation, my father, James E. Houk, age 97 passed away.  Fortunately, his passing was not unexpected and while at home in South Bend for Nick’s graduation, we had all been able to say goodbye.

Purple Heart recipient, battle stars, my Dad had served in the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II, and he was a lifelong Notre Dame fan. He was hugely instrumental in creating my own love for Notre Dame.   Late in his life I had asked my Dad what his earliest memories were of Notre Dame football.  He went on to describe in detail his recollection of listening to the 1935 ‘Game of the Century’ upset victory over Ohio State on the radio.  “I was 10 years old and we were listening on the radio, that Andy Pilney was something else in the second half but then he tore his knee up and had to watch the winning play from a stretcher!”, he described to me with a glimmer in his eye.

My hero Dad and I went on an Honor Flight in 2015, it was his 90th birthday

As plans for my dad’s funeral in South Bend were in the works, my condition worsened and I started running a fever.  On Wednesday morning after graduation I was admitted to the hospital.  My immune system had been all but wiped out by the chemotherapy and radiation, and I had pneumonia.

I laid in the hospital for 5 days and was forced to miss my Dad’s funeral (fortunately I was able to “be there” via live streaming and Facetime).  But I did write my Dad’s obituary and a eulogy which was delivered beautifully by my oldest son AJ. I authored these two tributes while laying in a hospital bed packed in ice in an effort to reduce the fever I was running.

Notre Dame our Mother, Pray for Me!

It all came together as I contemplated what should be in the opening of my dad’s obituary. Here is what I wrote, “James E. Houk, 97, peacefully passed away with family around on May 16, 2022, just a few hours after learning his grandson had graduated from Notre Dame, a source of great pride.”

Thus, the culmination of Nick’s hard work and perseverance to accomplish his dream of obtaining a degree from the University of Notre Dame had one last payoff.  Nick knows, and I know that one of the last things my Dad learned in his earthly life was that Nick’s Notre Dame story had a happy and successful ending.

As the philosopher once observed, “The roads to our dreams have many detours.”  No one knows what God’s plan is, but working hard and persevering is always a good idea. After a few detours, Nick Houk achieved his dream and earned a degree from the University of Notre Dame.

As another philosopher once said,   “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”

Go Irish.

Nick’s Graduation. (L-R) AJ, Lynda, Nick, Me and Tori.

Editor’s Note: For more on Phil Houk’s Notre Dame journey see I’ll Always have 2019 (Part 1) and (Part 2). For more on Nick Houk’s journey see In Search of George Gipp: Epilogue

ByPhil Houk

For over 25 years, bringing you the glory of Notre Dame football.

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