When the Sugar Bowl was over in New Orleans, News Year Day, 1981, the Georgia faithful converged onto the field with uncontrolled glee. Pandemonium prevailed and those in Red and Black swooned to the pure ecstasy of the moment.
None of the aforementioned addresses what was taking place in the opposing locker room, where Irish eyes were not smiling. The Notre Dame Captain, John Sweeney, a native of Chicago, felt that his team was capable of a better performance—not knowing that one day he would take up residence less than an hour from the UGA campus and that two of his sons would become Bulldog swimming lettermen.
The sports writing legend, Grantland Rice, the same purveyor of poignant phrase and who named Notre Dame’s famous 1924 backfield the “Four Horsemen,” once typed these lines: “For when the one Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He writes not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.” It was as if the great journalist had John Sweeney in mind when he wrote those words.
When the game is over, it’s over. You have to deal with the results and move forward. John Sweeney has done that. He was always wired to play his best, but when the final whistle blew, he would not a let a downturn of any negative consequence compromise the rest of his life.
When the Sugar Bowl ended, so did his football career. He was not driven to play in the National Football League. He had always focused on becoming a medical doctor and was well on his way to that objective. Altruism would be his partner, family would be his life.
When he saved a life, there would be no plaque for the wall. When he developed an innovative concept that made a difference in the practice of medicine, he would not receive the recognition a football coach gets when he develops a new drill that gives him the edge on the competition. But few successful professionals enjoy the fulfillment that has propelled and sustained this All-American boy.
“It is a privilege to help people,” Sweeney says. “In medicine you get to know people, develop relationships with them and help them with their problems. There is nothing more satisfying than performing an operation that is going to help someone.”
That would not be possible, he notes, if people did not put their faith and trust in him, confirming that the outcome in surgery is far more critical that the outcome of a football game. The Irish football captain is still leading and winning on the medical front.
The NCAA should take note of this man’s benevolent view and showcase the man and the message on campuses everywhere. After all, this august body seeks to underscore attitudes which relate to the essence of scholarship and citizenship. Let Sweeney’s message resonate in the halls of high schools and on campuses wherever amateur football is played.
He remains the consummate Notre Dame man. He can’t wait to return to South Bend in the fall, those October days, Granny Rice wrote about. He appreciated his coaches on the practice field, but he had the same regard for the professors who ushered him to a medical degree on one of the most storied campuses of the American education system. Sweeney is the doting alumnus who speaks from the heart.
“I could not be where I am today without Notre Dame. To play football at Notre Dame and to receive a degree there is something special for which I am both proud and indebted. I met my wife, Patty, at Notre Dame, and we love to reminisce about the school and its traditions with all our friends.
“When people visit Notre Dame, they walk away with a sense of respect that they didn’t have before,” Sweeney says.
When he returns to campus for a big game, he is not into tailgating but enjoys the spectacle of the day. “I enjoy watching people. I like the bands and appreciate their preparation. It is fun to sit in the stadium and enjoy seeing the teams warm up. Never got to do that when I was playing.
“The cool thing about Athens Saturday will be watching Notre Dame in white jerseys, and pants and gold helmets. Just appreciate the simplicity of the road game uniforms.”
Sweeney is the chairman of surgery at Emory University School of Medicine. He makes his home in Snellville, choosing residency in Gwinnett County because of the opportunity for his kids to participate in a variety of sports.
He has come to love the four seasons he experiences each year from living in our state. He and Patty have seven children and, as matriculates, they have been all over the map: Texas A&M (Allyson); Georgia (Conor and Aidan); Auburn (Keenan), Notre Dame (Keenan, Graduate study); Notre Dame (Tegan) and Missouri and Auburn (Devan). Reagan is still at home.
Having played the game at a high profile institution and being a highly placed physician at one of the most outstanding medical schools in the country, it is only natural that he would have questions about football and concussions come his way.
Like so many, he does not have a definitive answer. He leads with the fact that his son Keenan played at Auburn, and he was not worried. “Perhaps rules changes should be considered,” he says. “Obviously, we should deter players from using their head as a weapon.” He understands the basics of the game, however, which causes him to ask if people “would watch it without the speed and contact of the game. Would people take the time to go watch a flag football game? Probably not.”
A couple of weeks ago, John and Patty drove over to Athens for a meeting of the Athens Touchdown Club. He and Frank Ros, Georgia captain in 1980, spoke, each recalling the Sugar Bowl game in New Orleans. Each praised the other for professional achievement, Sweeney in medicine, Ros as a businessman (who rose to a position of vice president at Coca-Cola).
Grantland Rice would have given each of them high marks for their post-graduate careers.