A participant completes the 110-yard sprint portion of the Workout Challenge on the ND football field.
A participant completes the 110-yard sprint portion of the Workout Challenge on the ND football field.

When Charyl McKenna greeted visitors at her husband John’s viewing last June, everyone received the same message.

“I told them, don’t send flowers, just make a difference in the world for another kid,” she said.

Notre Dame High School’s Catholic Athletes for Christ chapter has done just that since its founder’s passing, with the latest example coming March 12 on ND’s Lawrenceville Campus. That’s when CAC co-directors Sean Clancy and Jim Treacy, along with strength and conditioning coach Frank Quartocci, staged the inaugural Coach McKenna CAC St. Patrick’s Day Workout Challenge as an event to honor the memory of the Notre Dame legend, who passed away at age 67 on June 21, 2021.

The challenge incorporated strength and conditioning, which Mr. McKenna coached prior to Quartucci, along with Christian values. The $25 entry fee went to a scholarship fund in McKenna’s name, and $2,500 was raised among the 90-plus participants.

Click HERE for a Photo Gallery of the Workout Challenge.

“I think John would have been very happy,” Clancy said. “His saying about ‘Strong mind, strong body, strong spirit – we hit all three of those on Sunday.”  

Charyl was an honored guest and the official starter for the competition.

The celebration drew nearly 100 people including the Notre Dame student body, their parents and members of the surrounding community.

“Coach McKenna’s legacy lives on in each of us,” junior football player Declan MacCabe said. “Everyone had a great time at the Workout Challenge. This was so important for our school and CAC community to come together and push our physical limits. I know Coach McKenna would be proud of all of us. Not only for participating in the Challenge, but for all the charity work CAC has done in the past year.”

The Challenge took place after the 9 a.m. Notre Dame Athletes Mass, which is celebrated once each athletic season. Because of the weather the day before, the list of workouts had to be altered, with Quartucci and Treacy doing some quick work to adapt to the frozen conditions on the cross country trail and the stadium bleacher stairs.

The new lineup started with what Clancy estimated to be a 1/3-mile run, which began in the middle of the track, trailed out through the back parking lot, and wound around to the back end of the track by the scoreboard. From there, each competitor ran a 110-yard sprint in one direction on the football field, then turned around and did 25 yards of lunges, 50 bodyweight squats and a 45-second plank. That regiment was repeated four times.

“He was such a great role model,” senior football player Joe Meidling said of Coach McKenna. “He was a coach who truly cared about making you a better person before making you a better athlete. He had a positive and old-school attitude that rubbed off on everyone. Everything he did, he was always looking out for others before himself.”

Meidling was the day’s overall winner, followed closely by freshmen Will Renda and Cam Bailey. The top girls’ time was turned in by junior lacrosse player Sammy Renda, Will’s older sister.

It’s only fitting Meidling came in first after listening to Charyl McKenna talk about her visit with him during the morning.

“He had written his college entrance essay about how John impacted his life,” she said. “He sent it to me and made sure he came up and saw me that day. He’s a gem. What a wonderful young man.”

Meidling felt the fundraiser was a perfect way to remember McKenna and contribute to his growing scholarship fund (for which the disbursement is still being decided).

“Coach McKenna would've loved that event,” Meidling said. “We all know he was there with us, blasting [the song] ‘Red Dirt Road,’ cheering us on. It was great to have Mrs. McKenna there too. The amount of people there really shows how many lives Coach McKenna touched.”

MacCabe is one of those lives.

“The most impactful thing Coach ever said to me was ‘Just be you,’” he said. “He always challenged me, to be a better me academically, athletically and personally. It was great to see 90-plus of my fellow athletes come out and win a challenge for Coach McKenna.”

Clancy and Charyl McKenna were also impressed by the turnout

“I didn’t really know what to expect because it’s the first time we’ve done it,” Clancy said. “We got 72 to our Polar Plunge. I thought we’d get a number around there, and we had 90-some people register. Certainly, the weather was not nice on Saturday; we had to change what the events would be Sunday morning. Coach Frank and Coach Treacy did a great job of adapting and it turned out great.”

Charyl McKenna added, “I was quite impressed with the athletes. I wasn’t going to do it at that age in that cold and everything else. There was no way. I was quite impressed with them. It’s a tribute to John. I was so incredibly proud of them all.”

Asked what her husband would have thought of it, Charyl McKenna said, “He would have had tears. If you make the difference in one life, then you’ve done well. If you can touch that many lives, then you’ve done awesome. I think everyone was a winner. Somewhere in the Diocese, there’s a child that’s going to need that money.”

As someone who admired McKenna so much that he used the coach’s inspiration to try and get into college, Meidling could not have been happier with how it played out.

“This definitely was the best way to honor Coach,” he said. “A tough workout that pushed everyone out of their comfort zones is exactly what Coach would want. I know this event will never die and will only grow in the years to come.”