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Friday, February 7, 2014
Nic Weishar honors his brother

By Matt Fortuna
ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- Nic Weishar signed his national letter of intent Wednesday to play for Notre Dame. The tight end was one of eight players at Marist High to put pen to paper and make his college decision official during a modest morning ceremony on this city's south side. He was 10 months removed from his verbal commitment to the Fighting Irish, a decision he arrived at through the most auspicious of signs, two falls ago.

Andrew Weishar
Before he passed away, Andrew Weishar got to touch the sign his brother will see in the fall.

On Oct. 12, 2012, his oldest brother, Andrew, died following a nearly three-year battle with colorectal cancer. He was 21. He had introduced Nic to tackle football when Nic was in second grade, ignoring his family's wishes and accelerating the growth of the most promising of the three Weishar boys.

"I still remember his grandfather telling me he thought I was crazy to put him in there," said Don, the boys' father. "Not that it was abnormally young; it was just that we had kind of a rule that we weren't going to play tackle that quick."

Andrew was Nic's biggest fan and his harshest critic. Because they were five years apart, and because they had middle brother Danny between them, the two never really developed a typical sibling rivalry.

Andrew was a two-way lineman at nearby Brother Rice High before he moved on to play defensive tackle at Division III Illinois-Wesleyan, where he earned extensive playing time as a true freshman in 2009. A popular 19-year-old on track to become a starter his sophomore season, he was seemingly on top of the world entering the next semester.

That spring, however, he experienced a number of stomach pains. He began rapidly dropping weight, eventually losing about 50 pounds. Doctors delivered him the harrowing diagnosis. The next two years brought chemotherapy and radiation sessions, surgery, remission and ultimately a re-diagnosis.

Andrew spent much of this time with his brothers, playing a big role in Nic's recruiting process. He accompanied him on most campus visits, offering him dos and don'ts, telling him which questions to ask and how to properly speak with coaches and reporters who would pepper him with questions. Nic always listened.

Time pressed on and trips were made, and soon it became increasingly clear that Nic's choices would boil down to Michigan, Northwestern and Notre Dame. Andrew loved the Wolverines above all others. The boys' mother had played volleyball for the Wildcats, and their grandfather had played football for them. The Irish, for a time, looked pigeonholed at No. 3, the lure of the Golden Dome hardly tugging at the heartstrings of a teenager surrounded by an Irish Catholic community where "Rudy" viewings served as a rite of passage.

I think about him every day, but days like this you really think about him.

-- Nic Weishar on his brother Andrew after signing his NLI

Like everyone else, though, Nic knew the athletic and academic advantages Notre Dame offered. Andrew had told him to think about the schools outside of their football programs, and where he would be happiest if the game was taken away from him. Still, he needed a sign.

When Andrew died in the early morning hours of a fall Friday during Nic's junior year, Nic barely thought twice about playing for Marist that night against Benet. He hauled in 13 catches for 128 yards in a loss, drawing admiration from all corners.

"That morning he had called and he said, 'Coach, I'm playing in the game. My brother would want me to play in the game,' " Marist coach Pat Dunne said. "And Nic came in and it was one of those things where it put everything in perspective. It doesn't mater if you're a player on the team or a coach on the sidelines or a fan up in stands -- you truly saw what strength and courage is in him and his family that night."

The following Monday, a visitation was held at Brother Rice, where Danny also went to school. Friends and family poured into the basketball gym throughout the six-hour gathering. Among the flowers, pictures and decorations left by visitors lay a 5-by-6-foot banner that read "Play Like A Champion Today," just like the one outside Notre Dame's locker room. Plastered on the bottom in the same blue lettering was "#Weish4More," a hashtag that went viral throughout the south side during Andrew's final days. "He was looking for direction from his big brother up there, and I think Andrew literally told him where to go by doing that," Danny said.

That, the family said, served as the tipping point. Nic pledged to the Irish last April. And since they said their goodbyes to Andrew, the Weishars have pledged to pay it forward, honoring Andrew's lone request from his final days, when the outpouring of affection, they said, numbered in the thousands.

There were the nearly dozen friends who took Andrew on a trip through Europe three summers ago, documenting highlights from London to Dublin to Amsterdam on a YouTube clip that his family likes to watch when in the mood to reminisce.

There was Cancer for College, a nonprofit championed by actor Will Ferrell that provides college scholarships to cancer patients, an award Andrew had received before learning he would be unable to return to school.

Weishar
The Weishar family continues to honor the legacy of Andrew, establishing the Andrew Weishar Foundation.

That charity is one of the beneficiaries of what is now the Andrew Weishar Foundation, created by the family in hopes of alleviating the financial burden of families stricken with cancer. Last September, they hosted the first annual "WeishFest" (pronounced "Wish"), a 10-hour festival at a local 3,200-seat minor league baseball stadium, which featured performances from three local bands. This year's event will take place Aug. 9, with country music star Rodney Atkins headlining the show.

Nic wears a blue wristband (the color that represents colorectal cancer) at all times that reads: "Andrew, Our Fighting Hero. Faith. Courage. Strength." Danny serves as the foundation's CEO, juggling responsibilities as an economics major at the University of Illinois, hoping to spread the word and help the name grow. His mother, Jean, jokes that the junior has become so immersed in honoring Andrew that he needs to spend more time hanging with his friends and enjoying his college experience.

"Most parents are probably looking at me like, 'Oh my gosh, you're telling your kids to go and have fun?'" she laughed. "We're blessed. I really feel that I buried an angel, and he's holding both of them and my husband and I also."

Nic counts Parade and U.S. Army All-America honors on his résumé in addition to boasting the state's career reception record (263). And his imminent move to Notre Dame will only help his platform. His Twitter following, at just more than 2,500, is sure to grow among the Irish faithful. A four-star prospect, he could develop into the next-in-line at a place that has earned the moniker "Tight End U" for all of its recent NFL success at the position.

As he faxed in his signature to South Bend, Ind., on Wednesday, the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder thought about the dream he was living, and how his plans of honoring Andrew's word were only just beginning.

"I think about him every day, but days like this you really think about him," Nic said a few minutes after signing. "And I just know he's super proud of me, and this was his dream as well. He always wanted to play Division I college football. I think if he was able to see me sign he'd really be excited for me. I'm happy that I can carry on his legacy and just continue to spread how he lived his life and hopefully be able to help others in the process."