How a “special side” of Notre-Dame allowed eight footballers to take a May trip to Italy

Nowhere else than Notre Dame.

The phrase or an interpretation of it is used year after year and has become familiar to any student, alumni, or fan of the university. Used to attract national and international talent to a small school in northwest Indiana, the statement succinctly encapsulates one of the most unique universities in the country, especially when it comes to the presence of top academics and high level athletics.

In May, eight Notre Dame football players were able to put this mantra to the test, as they embarked on a two-week trip to Italy as part of a study abroad program.

“It’s one of those teams that’s so special at Notre Dame,” senior linebacker JD Bertrand said. “There aren’t many (sports) programs in the country where they allow you to study abroad for two weeks and be able to (immerse yourself) in a different culture.”

Kevin Bauman, Eifert Griffon, Isaiah Foskey, Ramon Henderson, Rylie Mills, Drew Pyne and Xavier Watts accompanied Bertrand during the crossing of the Atlantic. The group was in Milan from May 16 to 27 and enrolled in the “Design Thinking International Immersion” course.

“Located in the beautiful city of Milan, students will use their ethnographic research skills to understand unmet consumer needs by immersing themselves in the culture of Italians,” said the description of the class on the Notre Dame website bed. “The foreign language and setting provide the perfect environment to really immerse yourself in the wearer’s proverbial footwear.”

What did the course involve in practice? The group took four hours of lessons a day alongside students from the Università Cattolica, in Milan. The final project focused on improving museum experiences on the corporate side, something beneficial for all players despite an array of majors.

“We worked on a consulting project for our local museum and gained real-world practice in consulting,” Bertrand said. “We met with consulting and design companies, presented our ideas and let them critique them. (We have) this real world app.

Foskey said trips to museums that complement the class were definitely his favorite part of the program. Each group traveled to different locations around town, providing the students with a variety of takeout options in the end.

The trip was not Bertrand’s first encounter with the Italian language. He took eight Italian credits in six weeks last summer. He took 11 more this summer.

“Writing was a lot easier just because I could use Word Reference and stuff to get started, but learning to speak in six weeks was a struggle,” Bertrand said.

The experience also wasn’t Bauman’s first introduction to Italian culture, although it was his first chance to see the real thing. The maternal side of the family is Italian, so he was raised on stories about those roots.

“Growing up, I was always like ‘I can’t wait to go to Italy,'” Bauman said. “I finally got this opportunity, and it was the best two weeks of my life. The culture was something unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was a dream come true. Kind of surreal.

Outside of class, the group was largely on their own to explore the country. They went to Florence for a weekend and were constantly surrounded by Italian delicacies.

“It was the best food I had ever eaten in my life,” Bauman said.

The trip provided that piece of cultural immersion, but it also allowed teammates to deepen their connections off the football pitch. Bertrand and Foskey, who are very close friends, stayed together in a small hotel. Keep in mind that Foskey is likely a 6-foot-5, 265-pound NFL first-round pick, while the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Bertrand isn’t too short himself.

“They would turn off the air conditioning at night and we would sweat like crazy,” Bertrand said with a laugh.

The group has also made many Italian friends, and they suspect that these relationships will continue for a long time.

“We always talk on WhatsApp,” Foskey said. “It’s quite fun.”

Perhaps more important than class, food or cultural immersion was the opportunity to get away from football. With a daunting season ahead where many players want to make positive impressions ahead of the April NFL Draft, the trip allowed them to relax and learn in a different environment. Football might as well not have existed.

Like other universities, this group is unable to spend a full semester abroad to study in a foreign country while in college. That comes from being a Division I athlete. But perhaps unlike other universities, Notre Dame not only allows its student-athletes to take trips like the Italy program, it encourages it. This is evident in one of the program’s favorite recruiting pitches: “four for 40.”

These eight players bought into that idea when they made a promise to Notre Dame, and they got to live it.

Promise made. Promise kept.

About Juana Jackson

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