MISHAWAKA

Finger holes? These guys don’t need no stinkin’ finger holes.

Troy Niklas, a sculpted 6-foot-7, 260-pound junior tight end, picked up the 14-pound pink ball like a grapefruit, effortlessly launched it like a whiffle ball, one-bounced it toward the pins two first downs down yonder, and exploded his target.

Bowling with the Irish is a completely unique experience.

About 30 Notre Dame football players broke up the routine of a lazy Sunday morning at Strikes & Spares for a really good cause.

They were part of Notre Dame’s maiden voyage into the realm of Uplifting Athletes, Inc., a charitable organization of 20 college chapters across the country that gives direction to high-profile athletes who already have a built-in forum.

The Irish football team’s relationship with Sam Grewe, who will be a freshman at Northridge High this fall, served as the impetus for Sunday’s event, which attracted about 30 Irish fans willing to pay $100 each to bowl with the players.

That money will go toward cancer research.

“Just getting a chapter off the ground was the most important thing,” said Andrew Milmore, program coordinator for Uplifting Athletes Inc. “The first one is always the toughest. After that, they can really grow.”

Grewe, a top-notch athlete at his middle school in Middlebury, was diagnosed with bone cancer in his right knee more than a year ago.

Adopted by the Irish before last year’s run to the BCS National Championship Game, Grewe went through his surgery and  chemotherapy while a regular visitor to team meals, practices and games.

He wasn’t able to be there Sunday because of a family vacation.

“I had dinner with Sam last Tuesday,” said Irish junior linebacker Joe Schmidt, who has developed a special bond with Grewe. “He’s cancer free; he beat it. His hair’s growing back, super soft.

“With Sam, you gravitate toward him. He’s got that type of personality that you want to be around. It was easy for me to be friends with him.”

“(The relationship with Sam) was an awesome thing to be a part of,” said junior safety Matthias Farley. “You see a kid who had everything going for him (before the cancer surfaced), yet he remained so positive throughout the whole situation; so strong.

“We go out and battle people on the field, but it’s not life or death. Knowing Sam puts everything in perspective and really impacted me.”

Young men who face challenges in the classroom and on the football field every day, had a chance to have a couple hours worth of summer fun.

Several freshmen got their first exposure to this side of Notre Dame football. Safety Max Redfield abandoned the power game and went to the two-hand roll with plenty of success. Receiver Torii Hunter, about eight months removed from a serious leg injury, was mobile enough on his approach, but didn’t have much bend in his delivery. Linebacker Jaylon Smith is a physical specimen, even in a bowling alley, and walk-on cornerback Jesse Bongiovi, whose father, Jon Bon Jovi, had a concert at Soldier Field in Chicago Friday, seemed comfortable between the gutters.

This time next month, these fellows will be battling for playing time and getting ready for an encore from a 12-1 campaign. Sunday was a time for fun — and to give back.

“I see the platform we have as Division I athletes, and I see a great opportunity,” Schmidt said. “Also, there’s a responsibility to give back and to use that kind of influence in a positive way.

“(The platform) is a difficult thing. It’s a great power, but you’ve gotta be really careful about it. At Notre Dame, we harbor the type of community that gives back.”

“(I understand) what sort of a platform (athletes) have and what kind of an impact we can have if we all come out and do something like this,” Farley said. “There’s good and bad that comes with (that platform). A lot of scrutiny comes with it. Everyone’s always watching. You make sure what is seen as a very positive thing is important to myself, the team and the culture of Notre Dame.”

Those folks even notice that finger holes in a bowling ball are more aesthetic than functional.

“It’s all about torque and spin,” Farley said. “You’ve just got to whip it, I guess.”

Brute force has its place - in football and bowling.