Scott Warden
December 19, 2023 // Diocese

ND Football Chaplain Focused on Winning Souls, Not Games

Scott Warden

As a priest for the better part of 20 years, Father Nate Wills had preached in front of big crowds before. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of his beloved Notre Dame, for example, seats somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 souls when the pews are packed. But this was different.

On the late morning of Saturday, September 23, Father Wills wasn’t preaching from the pulpit at the basilica, nor in the dormitory chapel at Keough Hall, where he is a priest-in-residence. Instead, he was on the set of ESPN’s “College GameDay,” which was in South Bend ahead of Notre Dame’s football game against Ohio State. More than 2.1 million people across the country had tuned in to hear ESPN’s analysts break down the game; but what they got, for a short segment, was Father Wills, dressed in blacks and wearing the white Roman collar, preaching about prayer medals and the life of St. Mark.

Provided by Notre Dame Athletics
Father Nate Wills stands on the sideline at the Fiesta Bowl on January 1, 2022, in Glendale, Arizona. Father Wills told Today’s Catholic that “every time I end up on the sidelines of a game where the crowd goes wild, and I see the guys run out of the tunnel, it’s unbelievable.”

With green-and-gold-clad fans screaming in the background, ESPN reporter Jessica Sims introduced Father Wills, Chaplain of the Notre Dame football team, and asked him about the school’s 100-year-old tradition of passing out saint medals to players before games. The 46-year-old Holy Cross priest told Sims (and the millions watching on television), “It’s a great tradition here at Notre Dame, and it’s just a reminder of the lives of holiness of the saints and that there are so many paths to Jesus.”

Sims asked about the medal for the game against Ohio State, and as Father Wills spoke, viewers were shown a photo of four prayer medals with St. Mark’s image on the front and the words “Pray for Us” on the back. Father Wills said: “Today’s medal is a special one. He was an evangelist, a friend of St. Peter, and somebody who used his gifts to build up the kingdom of God.”

As he finished his minute-long homily, the crowd behind him roared.


While growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, Father Wills said he began to discern a vocation to the priesthood during high school. Like countless Catholic young men of his generation, that seed was fully planted after making a pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Denver in 1993, when Pope St. John Paul II challenged the young people in attendance “to have the courage to commit yourselves to the truth” and to “open your minds and hearts to the beauty of all that God has made and to His special, personal love for each one of you.” Hear the voice of Christ, the pope said. “Hear His voice and follow Him!”

At 16 years old, Father Wills accepted the challenge.

“It just made me think in a different way about how I was living out my faith and the personal ownership of my faith,” Father Wills told Today’s Catholic. It was in Denver where he realized that Christ “wants not only your heart, but something else: a response. So, I began asking, ‘What does that mean?’”

Eric Peat

Unlike many Midwestern Catholic boys, Father Wills didn’t grow up dreaming about attending Notre Dame. But his older brother did. In the mid-1990s, Nicholas Wills fulfilled that dream by becoming a walk-on for the university’s basketball team. It was only while visiting Nicholas on campus that Father Wills fell in love with the school – and the religious order that ran it.

“I looked into some of the diocesan seminaries at the time. It just didn’t hit right for me,” he said. “I thought, ‘Look, if this vocation is true, it’ll be there after college,’ and then I came to visit my brother at Notre Dame, and immediately I was like, ‘Oh, this is the place I want to go.’ It was perfect. It was exactly what I needed.”

“It was guys who were asking tough questions and not taking simple answers about their faith,” Father Wills said about the Congregation of Holy Cross. “Ultimately, the reason I came was because I saw people who were like me. And the reason I think I’ve stayed is because I love the mission and charism of Holy Cross, being educators in the faith. I love the idea of the cross being our hope. And honestly, the people within Holy Cross have encouraged and challenged me to be so much more than I ever could do on my own.”

Father Wills was ordained a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross in 2006. His first assignment was just off campus at St. Joseph Church in South Bend, where he had spent time as a seminarian and as a deacon. Now, along with his duties in Campus Ministry, Father Wills works for the university’s Alliance for Catholic Education, where he teaches in the Remick Leadership Program, a 25-month graduate school
program for aspiring Catholic school principals. He is also Director of the Higher-Powered Learning program, which empowers Catholic school teachers and leaders to use technology and educational best practices to meet the needs of students of all levels of ability.

None of his academic experience, impressive as it is, qualified Father Wills for his most surprising and public role at Notre Dame.


Ahead of the 2018 football season, Father Mark Thesing, Chaplain of the football team, was taking on more responsibilities within the province of Holy Cross, and a new chaplain was needed. He and Father Peter McCormick, Director of Campus Ministry at Notre Dame, sketched out a short list of possible successors. They told Father Wills that his name was at the top of the list, and would he be interested?

“I said, ‘Two things: First of all, I’m honored; that’s really kind of you to ask,’” Father Wills said. “‘And second,’ I said, ‘I need you to know: I don’t know that much about football.’ He said, ‘Nate, we don’t need you to call plays. We pay a lot of people a lot of money to know everything there is to know about football. We just need you to bring them to Jesus.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, I can do that. That’s the priesthood.’”

Eric Peat

Griffin Eifert, a Bishop Dwenger High School graduate and Notre Dame walk-on wide receiver, told Today’s Catholic that Father Wills is “one of the most approachable guys on the staff. You’d think as a priest it would be kind of intimidating for other guys who aren’t Catholic. But he goes up to guys, and guys go up to him who aren’t Catholic. He’s just really been there for us, and we can talk to him about anything.”

While his flock might be bigger, stronger, and faster than a typical congregation, the players, coaches, and staff members under Father Wills’ spiritual care are all seeking the same answers to the same questions as everyone else who is engaged in their local Catholic communities.

“These are really smart kids who have come here to Notre Dame for a reason,” Father Wills said. “They’re great players, but they could have gone anywhere to play. Often, one of the reasons they’re here in particular is they want to grow in their faith. … Both coaches and players reach a level of either notoriety or excellence or privilege where they realize, ‘Wait, I’ve reached this level, and I’m still not finding happiness like I was promised. There’s something else. There’s something missing. What is it?’ People here will be glad to say, ‘It’s Christ in your life; it’s embracing living for Our Lord and living for others. It’s giving your life away in service and in love that is the source of ultimate happiness. It’s hearing the word of God and receiving Him in the Eucharist at Mass.”

This part of the job has changed for Father Wills through the years. Under Coach Brian Kelly, the team-only Mass ahead of home games was held on Friday nights at a variety of locations across campus. After he was hired as head coach ahead of the 2022 season, Marcus Freeman brought back the traditional game-day Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart for players and staff. While he was enthusiastic about the change, Father Wills said there was a lingering question in his mind about whether he might need to alter his preaching style given that the Mass was being held just hours before kickoff.

“I had no idea what I was supposed to do in terms of preaching,” he said. “I asked Coach Freeman when we moved Mass back to game day, ‘Does this mean I have to get the guys fired up?’ He said: ‘Absolutely not. There are many hours before they actually hit the field. Keep doing what you’re doing, which means preach the Gospel.’”

“I think my role is to just remind them of this fact: You are more than what you can do on Saturday,” he said. “You are a beloved child of God before and after you’ve ever stepped on the field, and there’s nothing that you can do in your life to change that identity. … Because football will go away. Football will not always be there in your life. And there’s so much more to you and to the world.”


Father Wills knows that, as much as he’s enjoyed his time as part of the Notre Dame football program, his time on the sideline will eventually come to an end. He’ll conclude his sixth season as team chaplain on Friday, December 29, when the 15th-ranked Irish play No. 21 Oregon State in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. Before, during, and after the game, through his prayer, his preaching, and his actions, he will continue to bring his flock to Christ.

“Every time I end up on the sidelines of a game where the crowd goes wild, and I see the guys run out of the tunnel, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “And the fact that the last thing we do before we leave the locker room is pray the Our Father together is amazing. Coach Freeman, after he gets the team fired up, he looks over at me and says, simply, ‘Father Nate …,’ and then it’s my time. That’s ridiculous.”

As he recounts all the “ridiculous” moments he’s had as chaplain, he tells the story of his appearance on “College GameDay” back in September, with 2 million sets of eyes watching him preach.

“If you told me five years ago that at any point in my life I was going to be on ESPN GameDay, I’d say, ‘Nah, you’ve got the wrong guy.’ The fact that they let me basically evangelize for a minute straight, that was an amazing privilege. I was so nervous; I just hoped I didn’t screw it up. But you know, it’s amazing to see the impact that has had. For example, I got an email from a guy in Utah who happened to be watching the segment while he was getting ready for the funeral of his brother, who died suddenly, tragically. He thought it was pretty neat that there was a priest talking about his faith on ESPN. Then he heard me talk about the medal and St. Mark, which was his brother’s name. In his email, he said, ‘You know, this is an amazing moment where I think God is just telling me it’s going to be OK.’ He shared all this with me.”

“That’s a moment where I’m like, ‘Who the heck am I?’ I’m not worthy to do this,” Father Wills said. “I am not worthy to stand in persona Christi. I am not worthy to be on this altar in front of all these people, many of whom are way holier than I am.”

“I often think about the incredible privilege it is to do what I do, and I’m humbled to do it. I know it won’t last forever, but I’m grateful to do it while I can.”

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