By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Finally, it is college football season once again.  I have waited almost eight months for the season to begin, and yet, it is tinged with some sadness.  The conference realignment – and the collapse of the Pac 12 – has made this season bittersweet.  Almost all of the traditions and rivalries will end this season and the Pac 12 teams will scatter to the winds.  Or the Midwest.  The advent of NIL (name, image, likeness) has forever changed the landscape of college sports.  The notion of a “student athlete” has been reduced to a money grab.  A few months ago I suggested to a friend that the major colleges stop providing academic scholarships to the big-time sports stars so that deserving students who actually want to attend college for an education might use those slots.  The major conferences in football and basketball could develop semi-pro programs, intended for the sole purpose of providing a pipeline of players for the pros.  No pretense of attending those pesky classes would be required, just play ball and collect the money. Regardless of how all this shakes out, college football has changed forever and we either go with it or give it up. I’m not ready to give it up.

Last week, buried in the headlines about conference realignments, was an uplifting story about Sister Jean, the team chaplain for the Loyola Ramblers men’s basketball team.  The sister turned 104 on August 21 and she is still going strong. The Sister was born Jean Dolores Schmidt, in 1919, the same year as our mother.  She was raised in San Francisco, so I like to imagine that Sister Jean and our mother crossed paths at some point, although I suspect Sister Jean was much more serious than our mom, who loved a good gin rickey when she saw one.  Sister Jean attended St. Paul’s High School in the beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral in SF and played on the girl’s basketball team.  After graduation in 1937 she entered the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary convent in Iowa.  She eventually returned to California to further her education, earning BA and MA degrees.  She taught school in California until 1961, when she moved to Chicago to teach at Mundelein College. She was hired by Loyola in 1991 when it merged with Mundelein.  She planned to retire in 1994 but was asked by the administration to stay on as the team chaplain to the men’s basketball team to help student athletes keep up their grades so they could maintain their eligibility to play. Imagine that.

Sister Jean cheering on the team in 2018

She steadily provided counsel to the students and cheered on the basketball team without fanfare. In 2018 she became a household name when the team made a Cinderella run to the national semifinals — the farthest Loyola Chicago has made it in the NCAA Championship Tournament since 1963. Sister Jean’s spirited antics on the sidelines attracted national media attention and won over the hearts of viewers across the country.  Afterwards she quipped, “It only took me 98 years to become an overnight sensation.” In March 2021, after getting vaccinated against COVID-19, and at the age of 101, Sister Jean traveled to Indianapolis to watch Loyola beat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and eventually make it to the Sweet Sixteen.

Sister Jean celebrating her 104th birthday

Today Sister Jean still keeps the door to her office open for students to drop in and chat. She is still active as the team chaplain, emailing scouting reports, encouragement and advice to each of the players after every game. And she still opens every home game with a prayer, in which she urges the refs to make good calls, the players to share the ball and God to nudge the Ramblers to a big W. Last year, at the age of 103, she published a book, Live with Purpose!,  filled with her trademark sense of humor and good-natured observations about her century of life.  On her birthday last Monday, she celebrated with the students and CAKE!  I love this woman!  Today she will throw out the first pitch at the Cubs’ game against the Brewers at Wrigley Field and on August 31, Sister Jean will be honored with a block party at Loyola’s Water Tower Campus.

What’s not to admire about a woman who lives her life with joy, cheers on college sports teams and eats cake?  She is my new role model.