By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Thomas Aquinas was a 13th century Italian priest, philosopher and theologian. He once said, “to one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” Avery Wythe, a 19-year-old from Port Republic, never imagined that philosophy could apply to a college football stadium — until she set foot on the campus of Notre Dame University.
She has a difficult time explaining to friends what it’s like to be on the field when 80,000-plus screaming fans welcome the Fighting Irish into Notre Dame Stadium. If you haven’t been there, it can’t be explained to you. If you have, no explanation is necessary.
Wythe, a former three-sport star at The Pilgrim Academy in Egg Harbor City, is now a sophomore at Notre Dame, and while she wasn’t skilled enough to be a big-time Division I recruit in soccer, basketball or softball, she’s closer than most will ever get to perhaps the most storied college football team of all time. She spent the spring semester of her freshman year trying out to be a student manager for the football team, and was selected to be the wide receivers manager this past fall. She toils several times per week at practice, making sure equipment is ready and drills run smoothly, and spends home games on the field assisting coaches with the white board — all while soaking in one of the best college experiences a teenager could dream of.
“I’m thankful for my years in high school and it was a great time, but now Notre Dame feels like my home. I absolutely love it so much. I’m a football manager and I spend a lot of time with the football program. The spring of my freshman year I spent trying out, so I had to get up early, go to practice and shadow a current manager and observe all the things they had to do. They evaluate your work ethic, if you pick up on things quickly, if you have some type of athletic ability — that sort of thing — and if they feel you are qualified, you can get hired for your sophomore season. It’s pretty competitive,” Wythe said. “This season, I was the wide receivers manager, so during practice when they were working with their coaches I would make sure they have the right equipment, before practice I was given an outline so I knew what practice would look like. I was pretty clueless about football coming into it, I’m not going to lie. I was never really against it, but I was never a big fan. I went into college knowing I wanted to manage a sport, but I never thought it would be football. But, right away, I was hooked. I’m a part of something bigger than I am, and it’s a great feeling to be involved.”
Wythe has never been one to shy away from a challenge, and always has been deeply involved with her schools and community. She began studying dance at an early age, played three sports in high school along with a slew of other activities, and was even named 2018 Miss Atlantic County, beating out about a dozen other girls for the honor despite racing back home for the weekend competition following a Notre Dame football workout.
“I came into it giving my all. That weekend was a whirlwind. It was sort of a last-minute decision to compete. I wasn’t intending to compete, but I decided I wanted to about two weeks before the competition. But airfare to get home was too expensive, so my parents called and said they would come out and pick me up. The following week, I had two papers due, one in a foreign language, and an exam — I spent about 24 hours in the car that weekend, but it was definitely worth it. I was writing papers in the car. When I won, I was grateful, and you never expect to win. I was competing with all these other highly qualified girls who are intelligent and passionate about their communities,” she said. “Pageant girls do get a negative stigma. I try to combat that, like when people just think we are beauty queens I try to tell them otherwise, and that it’s about being intelligent and having the heart to serve your community. I’m fighting to combat that stigma, so I try to spread awareness about what it really is about.”
“She’s always had a heart for being involved in the community. I’m not surprised she won. She was first-runner-up two years ago, and she didn’t get to compete in it last year because of school. She made a go of it this year, and was successful. She was very busy with football, but she went and picked out her gown about 30 minutes before she had to be on the football field at a dress shop in Indiana. Then she picked out her interview outfit and opening number dress in about 15 minutes at a Macy’s in Indiana, and I stayed and paid while her dad rushed her back to football practice. After practice, we got in the car and drove back home,” said her mother, Patti. “We’re very proud of her and excited for her. When we went to the first game this year to see her out on the field, I did think to myself, never did I think my dancer girl, scholarly type would be out on a football field with all those big guys. But, I didn’t put it past her, because she’s very motivated.”
Since an early age, Avery has been involved in so many activities that it’s been difficult for her parents to keep up, Patti said. And during her high school years, the intensity of those activities was ratcheted up several notches. At Pilgrim she played three sports all four years while also attending five dance classes per week as well as being involved with theater and choir. Her resume was already impressive before she even stepped foot onto Notre Dame’s campus. She had a 4.0 GPA every year of high school and won two national awards for science fair and one for art.
She also won the Miss Atlantic County pageant despite having less than two year of pageant experience, and at Notre Dame she’s a double major in film television and theater. She’s also looking to pick up a journalism minor, and maybe international peace studies as well. You know, if she has the time.
“I’ve always tried to do as much as I could to make sure my resume was in top shape, but I also loved doing all the things I did. I love trying new things and building on the skills I have,” Avery said. “I’ve been really involved with the special needs community — I started a dance class for special needs kids called Dancability, and I also volunteered with Field of Dreams and Hoops-for-All — and since I was involved with those things, I realized the Miss America Organization would be a way for me to have more of a voice and more of an influence in my community, and would be a way to greater promote the program that I started, and my platform — Show You Care — which is for special needs advocacy. I knew the exposure would help me be a voice in my community. Plus, the Miss America Organization also promotes leadership skills and confidence in public speaking.”
“I didn’t expect to see her out on a football field, throwing the ball and catching it with the guys like that, but she’s always been involved in so many things,” Patti added. “She did a soccer camp when she was little and seemed to enjoy it, then she got into dance for a while, and around fifth grade she got really into sports and made it her goal to play a sport in each season.”
The fact that Avery is now a student manager for one of the most prestigious college football teams in the nation isn’t all that surprising to her father, Scott. He’s been watching her reach goals and take on challenges for nearly two decades now.
“She’s never afraid to try new things. She was literally involved in everything (at Pilgrim). Besides sports she did hand bells, the choir, drama, fine arts — she didn’t leave anything on the sidelines. She got involved in everything there was to get involved in. She’s very goal-oriented, and she’ll do everything she can possibly do to reach her goals. When she got to Notre Dame, she didn’t hesitate to jump in with both feet,” he said. “Don’t tell her ‘no.’ If you tell her she can’t do something, she’ll prove you wrong.”
Patti said she sometimes has to try to corral Avery’s enthusiasm to be involved in so many things, but, Avery has been able to keep her grades very high despite sacrificing a lot of sleep.
“They have their annual sign-ups for clubs for freshmen, and she texted me and said ‘I don’t know what to do, I signed up for 30 clubs, but I can only do about three of them.’ I said, ‘yeah, you can’t do everything.’ Then, later on, she wanted to sign up to be a tour guide, she did a hip-hop dance program during her first year, her dorm was involved in flag football. She also got selected to be in a broadcast journalism program,” Patti said. “We were like, ‘be careful that you don’t sign up for too much.’ But, somehow she makes it all work. She stays up late and gets up early. Sometimes she’ll forget that we’re not in college, and she’ll text at two in the morning. But we’re all proud of her. She has an older brother, and we all wear our Notre Dame gear and enjoy going out to visit.”
Everyone knows about Notre Dame football, even folks who aren’t avid football fans. And when the Wythes run into somebody who is an college football fan and mention that their daughter attends Notre Dame, they aren’t surprised anymore when a random person will burst out singing the school’s fight song.
“It’s exciting. I do enjoy football — I didn’t really watch college football until she went to Notre Dame, I was always watching NFL games. It’s surreal to see her out there,” Scott said. “When it comes up in conversation with people, they are taken aback because of the history of the school. We don’t really brag about her and don’t throw Notre Dame out there. We’ll just say our daughter is away at school. If somebody asks where, we’ll answer the question and then it just snowballs from there.”
“Notre Dame was always at the top of her list,” Patti explained. “She did check out some other schools, and got accepted to UNC-Wilmington and Seton Hall and was on the waiting list at Dartmouth. But, since about sixth grade she made it a goal to get accepted to Notre Dame.”
Avery said she had no idea how big a deal Notre Dame football was — until the Friday before the first home game during her freshman year.
“You start to notice it on Fridays when the fans start coming in, and our 8,000-person campus erupts to 100,000 people, there is tailgating, student-run tailgating, pep rallies, music. I knew college was going to be great, but I never thought it would be like this. I feel like I’m part of a movie. There is so much tradition, and it’s so much different than anything I ever expected. It’s far surpassed any of my expectations. College is stressful, and I have a heavy course load, but walking around campus relieves some of that stress. I get to walk past ‘Touchdown Jesus’ and I get to walk by the golden dome. Just being able to see these landmarks, I have to remind myself that I actually go to Notre Dame. It gives me the motivation I need to be the best version of myself and striving toward the goals I’ve set for myself,” she said. “I love everything I’m involved with right now. I love being on the football field, I love being in front of the camera when I’m studying broadcasting, I love giving tours and telling people about my experience at Notre Dame and how awesome the school is. My friends are all very like-minded. We all put our academics first. First and foremost, I’m at Notre Dame to receive an excellent education. I don’t have a 4.0 — it’s a lot tougher in college — but last semester I did have straight A’s and I was on the dean’s list.”
Simply being a Notre Dame student is a thrill for her, Avery said, but actually being a part of a football program with a history that includes Knute Rockne, Joe Montana, Ara Parsegian, Rudy Rudiger and the Four Horsemen, well, it’s going to be tough to top that, no matter where her career path takes her after graduation in a few years.
“I graduated from a very small high school and I’m from a very small hometown — Port Republic has about 1,500 people — so being at Notre Dame makes me realize I am part of something that’s much bigger than myself, and there is so much time-honored tradition at Notre Dame. It gives me goose bumps. It’s so hard to describe. It’s spine tingling,” she said. “Notre Dame is a small school and has that close-knit community feel, but it’s big enough where I meet a new face every day. There is so much instilled in the students that what you’re doing is not about yourself, but it’s about others. Regardless of the field of study you’re pursuing, they are always encouraging us to use our talents and time to serve the community, serve other students on campus and to reach out across the world and serve. On my first visit, I was hooked. I spent $100 at the book store buying Notre Dame gear, and when I came home my parents were like, ‘I guess this means you are going to Notre Dame.’
“This has added immensely to my college experience,” Avery said of being a football student manager. “Notre Dame is this Mecca of college football, everybody knows Notre Dame football, and I get to tell people I’m a part of it. I’ve met some managers who have graduated, and they say this is the best time of your life and to really appreciate it, because when you’re gone, you’ll miss it.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays