Crim: Marcolla’s experience at Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp ‘everything I imagined and more’


Quincy's Rich Marcolla, right wearing No. 54, goes through pre-game stretches prior to the Blue-Gold Game at the end of the University of Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp recently held in Notre Dame, Ind. | Submitted photo

NOTRE DAME, Ind. — It has been 40 years since Rich Marcolla last tossed on a pair of shoulder pads and strapped on a football helmet to play linebacker for St. John Vianney High School in suburban St. Louis.

He, like many of the students at the all-boys Catholic college preparatory school, was a fan of the University of Notre Dame.

“I grew up an Italian Catholic,” he said. “Notre Dame was always in my heart.”

So Marcolla, now 56, was intrigued when he learned a year ago about the Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp, which promises participants a complete Fighting Irish football experience over four days.

It was, to paraphrase Don Corleone in “The Godfather,” an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“I’m always looking for something to do,” he explained. “I don’t golf. I don’t fish. I don’t hunt. I don’t have a motorcycle or a cool car. I don’t buy a lot of things. I like experiences — family, travel and this type of thing.

“I didn’t play my senior year (at Vianney) — there was not going to be a lot of playing time because the guy at my position was going to Mizzou — so I figured I had one year of eligibility remaining.”

Marcolla, a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch in Quincy, was among more than 60 adults from all walks of life who participated in this year’s camp the first week of June.

There were businessmen, mechanics, a correctional officer from California, a blind man and one woman. There was an attorney from Chicago who had never played football and didn’t know the difference between a wide receiver and a linebacker.

The oldest camper was 75, the youngest in his late 20s, with the average age in the early 50s. Most wanted to play, a few just help coach. Some have been coming to the camp, which began in 2003, for years. Others, like Marcolla, were making their first appearance.

“They treated us like a freshman, too,” he said. “We had to sing the school fight song three times, usually at dinners. I didn’t know it. They gave us a card, so we knew the words.”

Participants were fitted for equipment and game and practice jerseys and pants, chose their uniform number (Marcolla picked the No. 54 he wore at Vianney) and listed the positions they wanted to play, were assigned lockers, posed for photos and had dinner with the Notre Dame team the first day.

Participants in the University of Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp receive a locker room speech from Fighting Irish coach Marcus Freeman prior to the Blue-Gold Game at the end of their camp experience. | Submitted photo

The camp featured daily strategy meetings with members of the Notre Dame coaching staff, including head coach Marcus Freeman. There were three non-contact practice sessions at Notre Dame Stadium, unit meetings and breaking down film. Campers studied the playbook, often struggling to remember the terminology from their playing days.

“Coach Freeman spoke to us at least 15 minutes every day,” Marcolla said. “He talked football, but he talked life lessons, too. He’s a pretty inspirational coach. He made me think about what I can do better, how I can be a better leader.”

One day there was a question-and-answer session with Notre Dame support staff that included a presentation on Name, Imagine & Likeness and how it affects recruiting. Campers rubbed shoulders with current Notre Dame players, and Marcolla sought out freshman running back Aneyas Williams from Hannibal, Mo.

Defensive tackle Bryant Young, who went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the San Francisco 49ers, and running back Reggie Brooks were among the former Irish players who were around daily.

Nose guard Chris Zorich, who spent most of his NFL career with the Chicago Bears, went to each locker to hand out beer to campers after the Blue-Gold game finale.

“I’m sitting in the locker room before practice thinking, ‘I’m in the same locker room at Knute Rockne, the same locker room as Joe Montana,” Marcolla said.

After a walk-through morning practice on the final day, participants were bussed to the Basilica for Mass and went to the Grotto of the Lady of Lourdes. Then, wearing matching sweatsuits, they made the walk to Notre Dame Stadium for the Blue-Gold game.

“We walked over to the field just like the players do,” Marcolla said. “On game day it’s usually lined wall-to-wall with people chanting. We had screaming and chants from other family members.”

After getting dressed, campers walked through the famous tunnel past the sign that reads “Play Like A Champion Today” and onto the field for an afternoon flag football game that featured helmets, pads, four quarters with a running clock and a halftime break.

“The game itself was a blur, it happened so fast,” Marcolla said. “It was fast and furious. Coaches would call some plays and pull out a grease board to show us what to do. When men of a certain age are running around you think it’s going to slow down a bit, but once the ball was snapped it was chaos.

“My proudest moment was making a touchdown-saving tackle on a young kid.”

He also got some touches at running back in the second half when the warm, sunny day began to take its toll on some campers.

Although it was flag football, blocking above the waist was allowed, and there were a few penalties whistled for excessive hits.

“A few guys were taking it extremely seriously and some just wanted to be on the field and touch the ball,” Marcolla said. “I didn’t think it would be as physical as it was. I have a few bruises here and there. There were times I’m thinking, ‘Who is doing this at 56 years old?’

“One of the things I forgot about ‘the glory days (in high school)’ is that linemen have stunts to go after linebackers. On running plays, there was a big lineman in charge of hitting me. He outweighed me by 75 or 80 pounds, and he did a good job of hitting me on every play. My wife (Lora) wanted to come down (from the stands) and take out No. 77.

“That said, I loved every minute of it.”

For Marcolla, who was allowed to keep his helmet and jersey, this wasn’t his first fantasy camp experience, having previously attended one staged by the baseball Cardinals. He also ran in the Chicago Marathon in 2022 and plans to do so again this year.

“It was all-access, everything I imagined and more, an experience of a lifetime,” he said of the Notre Dame camp. “I’m so glad I got a chance to do it. I would do it again if I could, but I know my window is closing.”

Whatever it is, there will likely be another experience in his future. You can count on that.

“My wife had some health issues in the fall last year, so our saying now is that we should enjoy ourselves a little more, start having a little more fun and relaxation,” Marcolla said. “Do something you want to do. You never know about tomorrow.”

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