Chances are, if you know football, you know the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
For years, the likes of Knute Rockne, the Four Horseman, the Gipper, and Rudy have contributed to the legend of the Irish, making Notre Dame one of the country’s most storied and most celebrated college football programs.
The program has earned renewed prominence this year, earning the top spot in college football for the first time in nineteen years.
But football is not Notre Dame’s only program with a rich history and a winning record.
For nearly 50 years Notre Dame Knights of Columbus have been satisfying the appetites of hungry Irish fans and feeding the needs of dozens of charities at the same time.
A Program Begins
Almost 60 years after becoming the first college council of the Knights of Columbus, Notre Dame Council #1477 celebrated the opening of their campus hall in 1968. That year, looking for ways to serve their community, a few enterprising Knights saw a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of Notre Dame’s football fame.
For years, students at Notre Dame had prepared for the Saturday gridiron contests by tailgating with friends outside of Notre Dame Stadium. One of their foods of choice was steak sandwiches. They had become popular with the regular tailgaters, and the new Knights knew that they had a winner on their hands.
So, the Notre Dame council began selling steak sandwiches prior to all home football games. The goal was to raise enough money to provide some support to the nearby Corvilla Home – a home for people with intellectual disabilities. That year, the Knights sold steak, chips, and a beverage for two dollars. Utilizing a specialized grill with a six by eight foot cooking surface, the council sold a few hundred steaks per game and raised several thousand dollars for Corvilla.
A Tradition Develops
As the smells and fame of their sandwiches spread, Notre Dame Knights saw their sales more than double from 500 steaks per game in 1970 to over 1,200 in 1974. Profits also increased as the council netted around $1,000 per game. Quickly, the steak became a part of Irish fan’s Saturday tradition – with many waiting in line for an hour just to get their hands on the football fare.
As sales continued to grow, the council began assisting more charities. The council used steak sales proceeds to join the Indiana State Council of the Knight of Columbus in supporting Gibault, a home for wayward children. More charities continued to be added as profits increased through the years.
And as the popularity and profits increased, so did the work.
Today, it takes no less than 30 Knights and 200 hours each week to continue the tradition. Preparation begins on Friday as Knights organize inventory and prepare the grills for the next morning. Council members arrive at 8:00 a.m., well before most college students wish to be up on a Saturday, to light grills and begin preparing the steak with their secret blend of seasoning. Others set up tents, tables, and serving lines for their customers.
At around 10:30 a.m., the lines begin to form as hungry Fighting Irish fans start to smell the first batch of steaks coming off the grill. In the early afternoon, the demand peaks as lines of devoted customers stretch down South and God quads.
For the past several years the Knights estimate they have sold a staggering 3,000 sandwiches each game.
But the steaks still live in the shadow of Fighting Irish Football. The council shuts down the grills about a half hour before kickoff, allowing members time to clean up and make it to the game to cheer on the home team.
In total, the council’s steak sales have raised and donated over $1 million dollars to charity. Last year alone, the council distributed a season record $78,000 to 25 charities. The council expects to raise the same amount again this year.
Council Members Reflect
“Steak sales blends lots of things we like to do as Knights,” reflected Dennis Malloy, a past grand knight of Council 1477 and current law student at Notre Dame. The program provides an opportunity for them to be active, to give back to their communities, and to have fun.
Added Past Grand Knight Bobby Thompson, “Many people say they enjoy it [steak sales] more than tailgating before the game.”
But it’s not all steak with Council 1477. “Steak sales are not the only thing we do, but an amazing thing we do,” Malloy said, highlighting the council’s efforts to support campus ministry initiatives, such as the Eucharistic Procession and the council’s close work with the campus Right to Life group in holding vigil over the Cemetery of the Innocents and participating in the March for Life.
Pat Adams, a senior and the current treasurer, finds the charity experiences that stem from steak sales the most rewarding. “We actually have a relationship with our charities and we care about their mission,” he says.
He explained how the Knights prepare, serve, and share a Thanksgiving meal with the residents of Corvilla annually, in addition to assisting them with themed bingo parties and bowling parties. Council 1477 prides itself on these personal relationships with charities rather than being just a supporter with a checkbook.
Continuing the Legacy
But just like their counterparts on the football team, Notre Dame Knights are never satisfied and always want to do better.
“It’s a great program,” said former grand knight Bobby Rauch, “and we’ll keep it going as long as we can, but just as the program’s founders wanted, steak sales should continue to grow and adapt to best serve the community.”
Last year, the Notre Dame council added a program where customers could donate an extra steak to the needy. Called “Going All In for Charity,” fans can contribute an extra three dollars to donate a steak to the hungry and homeless in the community.
The council uses poker chips to keep track of the number of participants and then donates steaks to a local homeless shelter and the regional food bank. In its first year, over 2,500 customers choose to donate a steak to charity. This year, over 3,200 customers have chipped in an extra three bucks, including 950 individuals in the home finale last weekend against Wake Forest.
The council has also recently partnered with the Supreme Council and its Ultrasound Initiative Program to purchase two brand new ultrasound machines for the Women’s Care Centers, one of the most successful crisis pregnancy centers in the country.
The council plans to purchase a third ultrasound machine with funds from this year’s steak sales.
So if you ever find yourself in South Bend on a fall football Saturday, follow the scent of steak sandwiches to the Knights of Columbus building and sink your teeth into a truly unique charitable program. You’ll be happy you did.