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July 18, 2012
About three miles into it, Mike Anello felt his legs start to go.
The former Notre Dame walk-on had already swam the 1.5 miles that opened last month's Escape From Alcatraz triathlon, cutting through San Francisco Bay's 55-degree water. He'd finished the 18-mile bike race through Golden Gate Park. Now, barely halfway through the closing eight-mile run, Anello felt his quads begin to cramp.
Competing for the St. Baldrick's Foundation, a 12-year old organization dedicated to funding pediatric cancer research that took root at Notre Dame three years ago, Anello had raised $12,000 to fund his charity entry. As powerful as that buildup had been, Anello needed something more to power him over the finish line.
The memory of Xavier Murphy found Anello as he passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, continuing around the Presidio. Murphy was the former Notre Dame student football manager who died after a short battle with cancer last October.
The program honored Murphy during the Navy game later that month. And Murphy's memory pushed Anello to keep running, ultimately breaking his three-hour goal for the June 10 event.
"In my head, I'm talking to him, 'Xavier, help me through this, help me through this,'" Anello said. "He was an incredible guy with a huge smile on his face."
Anello now works for the venture capital firm General Catalyst Partners in Boston. His Notre Dame experience continues to fingerprint his future, beyond a trip to Dublin with five other former walk-ons planned for the season-opener against Navy.
Anello first linked with St. Baldrick's after his senior season, making a spring hospital visit in South Bend to visit children battling cancer. A year later he helped lead a charge that got nearly half the football program to participate in shaving their heads or putting in extensions. That event filled the La Fortune Student Center in the week of Brian Kelly's first spring game.
Anello has led two fundraising events in Boston since while working long hours, raising more than $40,000 for an organization that's already raised more than $30 million this year.
"Working young people just out of college, they get that first job and figure out how everything works before they bring their pet projects in," said Kathleen Ruddy, Executive Director of St. Baldrick's. "Heck no with Mike. He's going to tell them this is something they should be doing."
Getting people to follow, or donate to St. Baldrick's, has never been an issue for Anello, the Orland Park, Ill., product who walked onto the football team as a sophomore. A year later he played himself off the scout squad and into the special teams rotation, eventually earning a scholarship.
By his senior year head coach Charlie Weis called him a "cult hero" when Anello made 23 tackles on kick coverages, including a forced fumble and fumble recovery at Michigan. Anello returned for a fifth year after recovering from a broken leg suffered at USC.
Anello still looks back at the nights after Thursday practices, his father making the drive from Chicago for dinner and a trip to the grotto. Then Anello would head to the stadium, slip inside, walk the steps, get a glimpse of Touchdown Jesus and take a lap around the field.
"That's something I'll never forget because I'm never going to have that experience again," Anello said. "There's not ever going to be a game in two days that I'm going to get to run out for in front of 80,000.
"You couldn't have paid me anything in the world to leave that fifth year behind. There's no place like Notre Dame."
Anello's dedication to the program bonded him to Murphy, the fifth-year senior bonding with the junior manager. Knowing what it's like to take the field when nobody expected it, Anello savored watching the managers strap up at the end of the season for a scrimmage. Murphy took contact and savored those moments, from Anello's perspective.
Two years later Murphy was gone, Anello getting word from former walk-on Nick Lezynski.
"I hadn't even known he'd been diagnosed that fall until Nick reached out and told me what happened, how it happened so fast," Anello said. "I remember stopping dead. Who? No. He was such a healthy, happy guy. That it happened so fast was just tragic."
That memory turned Anello on to the Alcatraz triathlon after he didn't get a spot in the race through its lottery. Working with St. Baldrick's, Anello was one of five charity spots set aside for the organization. Anello admitted he didn't train at optimum levels, but the event's adrenaline carried him until calling on Murphy for the final five miles.
Anello's first inspiration came after the national anthem while waiting to jump from the starting boat just off Alcatraz Island. He spotted a racer with paddles attached to his hands, then realized it was a paraplegic about to attempt that 1.5-mile swim. Volunteers lowered the man into the water.
"I bet everyone told him he couldn't swim. To see him do that, I got choked up right before the race," Anello said. "Goes to show you, put your mind to anything, you accomplish whatever you want. That was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen in my life."
Three hours later Anello ran through Crissy Field toward the finish line.
Mission accomplished for the former Irish football player who defied the odds in Notre Dame Stadium and now works to help children battling cancer do the same.
"As sad as it is, the lesson is appreciate every day you have here," Anello said. "Dream big and if you come up short on the big things, at least you pushed the envelope."
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