Beyond recovery: The story of Adam Sargent and Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- In May of 1997, Notre Dame lacrosse star Adam Sargent drove his roommate's beat-up Datsun to nearby St. Mary's College for an 8 a.m. exam. Sargent ran a red light at the intersection of Notre Dame Avenue and Angela Boulevard, and an oncoming car smashed into the driver's side door.
The collision launched Sargent, who wasn't wearing a seat belt, through the passenger side door and across the street, where he landed against a telephone pole, atop a pile of mulch.
When the 21-year-old Sargent awoke from a fog of steroids and pain medication a week later, he had 48 staples in his head and no feeling from his chest down. For the next three months, he resided in a Chicago rehabilitation center where he began to develop the skills necessary to cope with the paralysis that would leave him bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Sargent had been a larger-than-life figure on the South Bend campus. His personality was so vibrant that coach Kevin Corrigan often entrusted the Irish's most important recruits with Sargent, even though he infamously misplaced one during an official visit. On the field, the 6-foot, 200-pound All-America-caliber defenseman played with such physicality that he was part of a tandem known as the "Bruise Brothers."
"The sadness was very deep and profound," recalled his mother, Roberta, of the time directly after the accident. "And I remember saying to God, 'If you don't give him his legs back, would you give him back his joy?'"
Nearly 15 years later, Adam Sargent still looms as a larger-than-life figure at Notre Dame. And the same spirit that once infused his life as a student and athlete now resonates through the school's administration and athletic offices. It even extends to the BCS title game on Monday night.
Sargent, 36, serves as the associate director in Notre Dame's Academic Services for Student Athletes office. It's a position of such importance that few people spend more time with Fighting Irish football players. And his role is one that's earned national acclaim, as Sargent has played a key part in helping Notre Dame pull off the rarest of double feats: The Irish are ranked No. 1 in both the polls and in Graduation Success Rate, the first college football team to achieve that in the BCS era.
"The dynamic there is so powerful because who he is and his story," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. "But none of it would matter if he were a disorganized, inattentive guy that didn't get it. He's got that, and his story and it makes for, well, the kind of graduation rates that we have."
At a school where the average SAT score of football players is 400 points below that average students, Sargent spends much of his time administering "choice therapy," persuading players that their academic goals should transcend eligibility and challenging them to make mature decisions. Notre Dame faculty athletic representative Patricia L. Bellia calls Sargent part "cajoler-in-chief" and part "drill sergeant."
Sargent's job also includes roles as life coach, therapist and motivator; he tracks players' classes, reports to coaches when any are slacking and arranges tutoring.
"Without Adam Sargent," said star linebacker Manti Te'o, "there would be no Notre Dame football."
Colleagues and administrators say that Sargent has rocketed to the top of his field, and Irish players say they receive a much greater appreciation of Sargent's role in retrospect than in real time. Players joke that he leads the nation in ignored phone calls, and fifth-year senior lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore recalled Sargent "always annoying me." Fellow senior Robby Toma called Sargent "irritating."
But all of the Irish upperclassmen come to the same conclusion of tailback Theo Riddick once they graduate: "I don't know where I would be without him."
The same spirit Sargent once infused into Irish lacrosse practices now permeates the Irish football program. Sargent meets with varied, younger versions of himself daily, so he knows exactly why every Notre Dame football player needs a graduate-level course in tough love. He says he's often least appreciated when he's doing his best work.
"He loves these boys," said Sargent's wife, Jenn, "like a parent loves them."
Athletic director Jack Swarbrick says no staff member is thanked more frequently and vigorously at postseason banquets. Former AD Kevin White called Sargent "the best of the best in my 31 years of administration."
Notre Dame takes pride in the fact that its Academic Services for Student Athletes is separate -- both physically and in reporting structure -- from its athletic department. But Sargent and his co-workers still maintain a bit of the locker room vibe, as Sargent curses enough that a "quarter jar" for swearing recently appeared in the office. Most importantly, Sargent is successful enough that the co-workers and students who deal with him on a daily basis don't think to view him through the prism of his accident.
Former Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis busted his chops, Jersey-style, because he quickly realized Sargent didn't want to be treated differently than anyone else. So when Sargent broke the news to Weis that he got engaged a few years ago, Weis immediately fired back, "Is she blind?" Sargent has limited use of his hands, so Weis would tease him for being lazy at lunch when he unwrapped his sandwich for him. Weis stressed that players didn't look at Sargent as a rolling cautionary tale.
"My eyes are of a parent with a kid with special needs," Weis said, referencing his daughter, Hannah, who is globally developmentally delayed. "I'm inspired by fact that the players looked at Adam with respect, like he was completely normal. Even though he was an athlete and had a freak injury, he never used that as a crutch. He wasn't acting any different than anyone else."
And that's the way Sargent wants to be treated. He doesn't tell his story unless he's asked, and he doesn't use his experience to motivate players or seek special treatment. He's reciprocated the embrace of the university. Along the way, he's become part of its identity.
"The accident had a part in shaping who I am, obviously," Sargent said. "But that's not what drives who I am. It was a defining moment in my life, but it by no means defines me."
Corrigan can pinpoint the moment when he knew Sargent would be okay. Corrigan visited Sargent repeatedly during his three-month rehab stint in Chicago. On one trip, he brought along his five-year-old son, Will, who was at that impressionable age where his father's players loomed as heroes. Like any parent, Corrigan worried how little Will would handle seeing Sargent immobilized.
Will walked into Sargent's room. Without hesitation, he popped up on his hospital bed and began chatting.
"It didn't mean anything to him," Corrigan said of Will, who is now a sophomore midfielder on Notre Dame's lacrosse team. "To him it was Sarg. I felt better from that point. It's Sarg. He's just not going to be walking."
Sargent said that the hardest part of his recovery was leaving the rehabilitation center, where the quest to return to normalcy is normal. Back in Rochester, he completed outpatient rehab and continued to confront a lifetime of re-learning simple tasks. Suddenly, basic things like the weight of a door, the shape of a doorknob and the cracks in the sidewalk became obstacles. Sargent's strong upper body and use of his arms allows him to wheel around, but he needed to develop a new awareness of the height of tables, the width of aisles and the location of bars underneath tables. He quickly discovered "what it meant to be a minority in this country."
After a few months at home, Sargent went back to Notre Dame in the spring semester of 1998. His girlfriend at the time found a suitable apartment with a spacious enough bathroom, wide enough doors and flat carpet that made it easy to wheel around. Sargent craved independence, and he achieved it thanks to hard work and a close-knit group of friends who offered help when needed. One of the biggest challenges Sargent encountered upon his return to Notre Dame was managing the reactions and emotions of others who were seeing him for the first time.
"It was something where you could see the sadness in their eyes," he said, "and it becomes your responsibility, in a lot of ways, to make them feel better about it."
His identity transformed from student athlete to former student athlete. His focus shifted drastically from athletics to academics, as his post-college plans before the accident had revolved around becoming a ski bum in Colorado for a year.
"So much of what I dealt with was like a recognition of our own mortality that 22 years olds don't, thankfully, normally have to face," he said of his return to campus. "It wasn't a momentary thing, it wasn't brush with something. It was my life now. I was dragging around a body that didn't work well."
Sargent had always been a decent student, the kind of athlete who liked to attend class lectures and realized he needed tutoring to compete. And even before the accident, Sargent would return home during the summer and on breaks and notice the difference between his mindset and that of many of his friends.
"I was growing in ways that my buds who were not in college or in other places weren't," he said.
That growth only accelerated when his focus shifted from weekend parties to becoming independent in his new body. He admits that he would've never have gotten a sniff at a school like Notre Dame without athletics, and suddenly he became even more grateful for the educational opportunity it provided.
"I came back with a very acute sense of urgency related to preparing myself for the rest of my life," he said.
Sargent graduated with a double major in history and anthropology and was accepted into a graduate program at Virginia. Even before the accident, Sargent was considering some type of educational career path. So when an internship opportunity opened up in the Academic Services for Student Athletes office, Sargent decided to sample a career before the absorbing the expenses of graduate school.
That internship led to a job, which led to a passion and, indirectly, a way for him to show his appreciation for the place that provided him with an education and nurtured him in a time of need. Notre Dame, the lacrosse program and alumni across the country overwhelmed the Sargent family by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for everything from medical costs to a customized van.
"I was forced to grow up very quickly and recognize not only that life is finite and fragile, but that there's no guarantees," said Sargent. "If I had not had the foundation of education that Notre Dame provided me, my guess is that I would have had very different options available to me."
Former Notre Dame linebacker Brian Smith's academic career arc is a testimonial to the depth of Sargent's influence. Early in Smith's career, he hated Sargent. "Whenever you would see Adam call," Smith said with a laugh, "you check your phone and put it right back in your pocket."
Sargent didn't think Smith was a serious enough student to partake in a summer program in London after a professor complained about his goofing off in class. Smith was irate with Sargent for reporting him late for study hall, which led to the former being forced to participate in grueling 5 a.m. "breakfast club" punishment workouts.
But by the end of Smith's academic career at Notre Dame, he'd taken Sargent's advice to heart. In his junior year, Smith took a course with the professor who had led to his London junket getting cancelled. The professor wasn't happy to see Smith's name on the class roll, but Smith took one of Sargent's challenges to heart -- he pushes players to become closest to the professors they like the least.
Smith ended up with an A- in the class. And while driving a teammate to an airport in Chicago, Smith actually decided to pick up one of Sargent's calls. "You crushed it this semester, congratulations I'm so proud of you," Smith recalled Sargent telling him.
Smith got picked up late this season by the Buffalo Bills, but remains a fringe player. To this day, he lights up when recalling that call from Sargent.
"That was one of my most proud moments," he said, "at Notre Dame as a student."
Sargent's role at Notre Dame is a critical one. NCAA schools spend tens of millions of dollars each year on shiny academic centers, robust staffs and dozens of tutors to ensure their athletes can remain eligible. At Notre Dame, the mission is slightly different. Sargent meets with all recruits when they visit, and he stresses that Notre Dame isn't for everyone -- that there are no puff majors and the academic component is very real. Colleen Ingelsby, a senior academic counselor who shares overseeing the football team with Sargent, said, "Eligibility is the basement -- we're not even talking about that. Guys will come in here and say, 'I just want to get Cs.' It's like, 'Come on, what are you getting out of here?'"
Early in his career, Sargent had a transformative moment. Still the same chatty and social Sarg, he developed strong relationships with all of his students. A female swimmer came into his office one day to tell him about a friend who'd committed suicide.
"I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, she came to me,'" Sargent said. "At that point, I knew it was time to develop my skills more than I had."
Sargent took a two-year masters program in counseling at Indiana University-South Bend, specializing in mental health. He completed the program while working full time, and he paid for it on his own while developing an entirely new skill set.
Sargent's advantage early on in his career, while working with the hockey and lacrosse teams, was that he'd once been a student athlete. And the same free spirit who was flighty enough to lose track of a recruit found himself keeping track of athletes just like him.
"You can't BS him," laughed Corrigan, who gleefully recalls Sargent giving him quite a bit of guff as a player. "There's nothing they're doing he doesn't really understand. At the same time, he's smart as hell and people smart."
The counseling degree provided Sargent with a way to better reach kids by challenging them to focus on their role in their academic issues. This occasionally prompts a deposit in the swear jar. But Sargent stresses that he relies a lot on his counseling background and rarely uses his own life experience.
"What we do here is not a social engagement," he said. "Maintaining good rapport is critical, but this is not a social endeavor. I'm not here to make small talk and chuckle. This is about getting to the core of the issue as quickly as possible. Counseling is asocial -- you get to the crux of what isn't going well and it's uncomfortable."
Sargent's blunt style resonates well with coaches. Weis thought enough of Sargent that when he couldn't attend his wedding, he called the reception hall and picked up the bar tab. Sargent meets with every recruit -- and his family -- when each comes on campus; he's with kids from the first time they step on campus to the time that they graduate. Kelly points out that when a Notre Dame recruiting class is signed, Sargent deserves a lot of the credit for pitching the academic aspect.
"I think his story talks about what we talk about with our kids, 'Notre Dame is going to take of their own,'" said running backs coach Tony Alford. "And he's living proof of that. I'd say that Notre Dame has taken care of him, but he's taken care of them, too."
The joy that Roberta Sargent prayed would return to her son has not only come back, but can be quantified in the joy that he brings to others.
Sargent met his wife, Jenn, online through Yahoo's dating site about four years ago. On their first date, the staff at Papa Vino's, a local Italian restaurant, began shooting them dirty looks as their dinner passed the three-hour mark and they cleared off the empty tables around them. Neither wanted to leave, as Jenn insisted it "felt like a minute."
The couple was engaged within five months and married near the one-year anniversary of that first date. As Jenn introduced her friends to Adam, one after another repeated the same thing, "You spend two minutes with him and don't realize that he's in the chair."
Jenn added: "The accident is an enormous part of his life and changed a lot of things for him. In typical Adam fashion, in the very best ways."
The joy can also be seen in the Coleman-Morse Center, where Sargent's few-octaves-too-high volume can be heard echoing throughout the building's first floor. His boss, Academics Services for Student Athletes director Pat Holmes, occasionally reminds him to close the door because of the confidentially of their subject matter.
"I've never seen a day that he doesn't come ready to work," said Holmes, "and ready to bust someone's chops."
The atmosphere in Academics Services for Student Athletes is so tight-knit that it's almost hokey, with Sargent referenced exclusively as "Sarg" by his co-workers and the players. Sarg and Colleen are so close that Jenn serves as the nanny for the Ingelsbys' twin three-year-olds, Will and Kate. Colleen is married to Notre Dame basketball assistant coach Martin Ingelsby, whose job comes with an inherently inconsistent schedule. Colleen says she's unsure how she'd juggle her own hectic job and family without Jenn, who has a complete understanding of Colleen's schedule because of Sarg. That leaves the Sargents and Ingelsbys in contact about 18 hours a day.
"It's odd," Colleen said. "From the outside looking in, people are probably like, 'You guys are crazy.'"
But it works. Colleen and Sarg share responsibility for the football team, and the Notre Dame players describe them as a good-cop, bad-cop tandem. Still, both deliver the same message, just in different ways. "Colleen is like the mom, and Adam is the jerk," said Weis.
Collen and Sarg communicate so much throughout the day that they often joke about cutting a hole in the wall of their adjoining offices to avoid all the back-and-forth screaming. They sheepishly admit they could start a scholarship fund if they religiously deposited quarters in the swear jar.
When Sarg and Jenn recently decided to adopt, Colleen wrote the following about Adam in her recommendation: "He is honest, open-minded and reflective. He is strong, sincere and values integrity. He listens. He works tirelessly to support the students he works with, holds them accountable and cares for them deeply."
The same realization that Corrigan had in that Chicago rehab center 15 years ago, when his son climbed on Sargent's hospital bed, has happened over and over again across campus. After a few minutes with Sarg, his spirit, energy and joy overtake any thoughts about that the accident changed him.
"He's one of the best human beings I've ever met," said former Notre Dame basketball player Zach Hillesland, who interned in the Academic Services for Student Athletes office for a year. "He's so wise and grounded, he had a keen understanding and awareness of the process of growing up."
That's because Sargent grew up fast and yet still maintains a sincere appreciation for exactly what his students are going through. He insists they don't care what he's gone through.
"Self-disclosure is highly overrated in terms of generating incentives in others," he said. "Students don't' care about my life. They don't. People don't care about that I learned this lesson, so you should learn it."
Many Notre Dame administrators beg to differ. They say that Sargent -- simply by living his life every day -- offers enough of a lesson. And nearly 15 years after his life nearly ended in a freak accident, Sargent is still bringing joy to the place that nurtured his recovery.
"I don't know the man that Sarg would have become," Corrigan said. "But I can't imagine he would have become any better of a man than he has."
He added: "I have a hard time to think of him without Notre Dame, or Notre Dame without him."