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Holtz’s Heroes bring legendary coach’s selfless and compassionate spirit to the Lehigh Valley at Irish Legends 2024

From left: Bethlehem Catholic principal Dean Donaher, Woodstone general manager Tony Cruz, Woodstone owner Bruce Lack and Holtz’s Heroes Member Mark Napierkowski. (Derek Bast for the Morning 첥Ƶ)
From left: Bethlehem Catholic principal Dean Donaher, Woodstone general manager Tony Cruz, Woodstone owner Bruce Lack and Holtz’s Heroes Member Mark Napierkowski. (Derek Bast for the Morning 첥Ƶ)
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Players come and go but a teammate is forever.

That is one of the more iconic of legendary Notre Dame football head coach Lou Holtz’s many one-liners that he relayed to his players in his 11 seasons leading the Fighting Irish and one of the staples of the Holtz’s Heroes Foundation (HHF) that recently took its mission to Woodstone Country Club in the Lehigh Valley at Irish Legends 2024.

Although Holtz couldn’t attend the event physically, the 20 former players and over 200 people who attended the dinner and golf outing between Sunday, June 2 and Monday, June 3 carried on that mantra in his absence with an event that supported the community and Bethlehem Catholic High School.

“It’s just a real blessing for our whole school. A lot of the people – faculty, students, parents – they’re all Notre Dame fans. Not everyone but a great majority of them,” Bethlehem Catholic principal Dean Donaher said. “I didn’t have the opportunity to go there but I’ve always rooted for Notre Dame and there’s so many people like that who are out there. To have an opportunity like this to really feel a connection with the school is just amazing.”

“The good that will come of it from financial support that we’re going to be able to offer some of our students … it’s just a real blessing to get everyone pulling in the same direction and to let people know you’re not forgotten,” Donaher said.

Providing scholarship dollars for Catholic students, especially those in need, is one of three pillars of service for HHF along with feeding the hungry and supporting the families of Notre Dame players who have passed away. Tony Cruz, the general manager of Woodstone Country Club, was blown away by the kindness shown by Notre Dame and the effort put in by Bethlehem Catholic to make the event so successful.

“Something like this, and I swear it comes from Lou Holtz … you can see what he instilled in these players 30 years later and it has been a weekend that I wish would last forever,” Cruz said. “These gentlemen have been so polite to my staff, so caring, so thoughtful. I credit it to Lou Holtz because these guys do.”

“These guys [from Bethlehem Catholic], they’re calling, emailing, having meetings and there’s so many different moving parts. Picking people up from the airport, setting people up in hotels … it’s like corralling cats,” Cruz said. “I’m telling you these guys are putting in 20-30 hours per week leading up to this tournament and it’s all just volunteering and not once did I hear any complaining. Everyone did it with a joyous heart. That, to me, that’s a credit to what they’re doing.”

The work paid off as the event helped raise over $150,000 with donations still coming in and over 1,500 items that were donated to three local charities, the Cay Galgon Life House, STAR Ministries and Catholic Charities of Allentown.

All-American running back Reggie Brooks, who serves as the executive director of HHF, recapped the event that he believes ran a lot smoother than his golf round on Monday.

“I have to thank Bruce [Lack] and Woodstone Country Club for hosting us. This has been a phenomenal outing. It’s about the relationships and building community where we are. We’re all over the country and to have so many of our guys spread across the country focused on doing what’s best for their community and being a good citizen,” Brooks said. “It’s not going to money that we leave behind for our legacy, it’s not going to be fame, it’s going to be the relationships that we build with not only our family but also those in our community.”

One way Woodstone and Holtz’s Heroes were able to do that was by keeping the tournament intimate and prioritizing intimate relationships on the course rather than packing it in and maximizing profits.

“Normally we put out for 144 players plus the celebrities, and they try to jam in as many people as possible and raise as much money as they can,” Cruz said. “In this particular event, they really maxed it out at 100. They wanted it like that because they wanted to keep it intimate and they actually thought of the people paying money to play and meet these players.”

The dinner on June 2 was forced to go a bit off script when Holtz, who was unable to travel to the event after suffering a fall in his home, made sure to make his presence felt to the many Fightin’ Irish fans in attendance via a Zoom call. Holtz’s Heroes member alum and current development director at Mercy School for Special Learning, Mark Napierkowski, detailed how everything worked out to be mutually rewarding despite a last-minute audible much like Holtz’s improvised two-point conversion call to defeat Penn State in the “Snow Bowl” in 1992.

“We were rewarded with the satisfaction of knowing that he was proud of us and grateful and he was rewarded knowing that the mission of the organization is strong enough to go forward without his physical presence,” Napierkowski said. “I think the best way I can describe it is mutually rewarding.”

His “funny and heartfelt” speech that lasted around 20 minutes led into a five-man panel from the 1988 national championship team headlined by former Phillipsburg star and Notre Dame captain Ned Bolcar.

The two-time All-American linebacker was joined by Wes Pritchett, Reggie Ho, Tony Rice and Tim Grunhard who all discussed the tremendous impact Holtz had on them and how he assembled the unstoppable championship team in 1988.

“They all kind of told their story of how Lou Holtz captivated the family and how they trusted him to do right by their son,” Napierkowski said.

Brooks noted last month that Holtz always used to say if the players give him four years that he’ll take care of them for the next 40. Many of those players are seeing the fruit of that promise now that it’s nearly 40 years since his debut and Irish Legends 2024 exemplified that with a small event that made a huge impact at Woodstone Country Club.

“He always talked about doing the little things the right way. You can’t do the big things until you do the little things. This was a culmination of a lot of guys coming together and sharing their experiences but also sharing their talents, time and treasure with other people and letting them know that I’m no better than you, you’re no better than me, but when we work together, that’s where the power and strength lies,” Brooks said.

Derek Bast is a freelance writer who can be found on Twitter/X at @derek_bast or reached by email at derekbast11@gmail.com.

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