SOUTH BEND, Ind. –Marcus Freeman asked Joe Ciszczon to lead Notre Dame’s practice table staff up the steps to the football auditorium floor last December. Just two weeks into his first head coaching job, Freeman believed his players needed to put names to the faces of those serving their meals. So, with the entire team seated in the auditorium during the preparation for the Fiesta Bowl, each server introduced themselves.
Ciszczon went first. But Joe Ciszczon didn’t need such an introduction, short of help pronouncing his last name (suh-ZAHN).
Long before Freeman’s exercise, all the players knew Joe. No name tag needed. They knew the 88-year-old waiter who makes the best pans and tells even better stories. They knew the guy who lived four of their lives, who grew up watching Frank Leahy coach and sneak around the stadium. They knew the man who came from a first-generation Polish-Catholic immigrant family of 13 siblings. They knew the man who would give Freeman advice on how to improve Notre Dame’s defense.
“When I get older, I kind of want to be like Joe, in a way,” defensive end Alex Ehrensberger said. “He is relentless in his attitude and his state of mind. Whatever it is that gets him down, he carries on in life. Never lower your head. He keeps this spirit of a thirty-year-old. Maybe even a 15 year old.
Spending a minute talking with Ciszczon is spending an hour learning about his career as an engineer, how he grew up on a farm near Mishawaka, how he helped build the original St. Pius Church in Granger and how he’s shaken the hand of every Notre Dame head coach since Ara Parseghian.
Ciszczon did not attend Notre Dame, twice turning down school chances because the timing did not fit his career path. He is part of the soundtrack of the football program, always optimistic whatever the circumstances. It offers accessible parking spaces for the youngest members of the training table staff. He does not tolerate complaints. When he suffered from stroke-like symptoms last winter, he returned to work a week later. When the Gug closed due to inclement weather, it instead served at the North Dining Hall. It engages engineering majors in their classroom work. He is particular in his food preparation as he has mastered the art of the breakfast pan.
“No matter how bad the day might have been on the field or how hard the day was in class, Joe, he always has a smile on his face. He’s always excited to see the guys,” center Jarrett Patterson said. He likes to talk. I think he had a story about meeting (former president of Notre Dame) with Father Hesburgh? I can’t remember the details. He saw a lot of great people here at this university. .
A single meal shift typically lasts five hours, and the workload of boot camp can push a 40-hour week. Ciszczon also serves Sunday meals during the season and called the food “six-star” after wins, featuring tomahawk steaks and king crab. During the regular school year, Ciszczon’s work schedule is closer to 25 hours.
“People say, ‘Joe, why are you working?’ Because I’m having fun,” Ciszczon said. “I like hanging out with guys. They appreciate what we do. And the bigger they are, the more polished they are.
On the current roster, Ciszczon considers Blake Fisher and Ehrensberger among his favorites. It’s common for players to seek out the Ciszczon Action Station – basically a prep area for the meal of the day, whether it’s breakfast pans, rice bowls, stir fries, quesadillas , wraps, etc. Fisher will lean on the glass to strike up a conversation and shout Ciszczon as he leaves. When Michael Mayer passed by one day, Ciszczon berated a colleague for not knowing the All-American.
The connection to Ehrensberger runs deeper since the defensive end gave one of Ciszczon’s grandchildren some of his practice gloves when Ciszczon brought the high school football player to the practice table. Our Lady went so far as to get Ciszczon’s grandson into summer soccer camp.
“It wasn’t a big thing for me, but it was nice to see it was a big thing for him,” Ehrensberger said. “I think it’s important because everyone in this program has their role. Each person is equally important to the success of this team. It starts with the people at the practice table and goes through the fellows, goes through the extras, the coaches, whoever it is. This mindset of treating everyone equally with the same love and respect is important in life. It’s something we want to defend as a team.
Ciszczon began serving food at Notre Dame in 2015, responding to what amounted to a request for help from his wife Julie Anne because he had too much energy and not enough plans. There was only a limited amount of firewood to split in Ciszczon’s pile of commercial-grade logs. Ciszczon started working on the training table for sports other than football, moved to North Dining Hall and has been working with football since 2019.
He considers Liam Eichenberg his favorite player on this run, for his sensible left tackle attitude and his ability to put people in their place. Ciszczon calls Eichenberg by the nickname “Ike” after Dwight Eisenhower. One was a general and president, the other an offensive lineman. Both, according to Ciszczon, protect people. Eichenberg made a point of stopping at Ciszczon Station as much as he could during the practice table.
Last winter, Ciszczon slipped on ice while trying to clear his driveway. He suffered a chest injury and missed a few weeks of work, although he snuck into the Gug to see the team. During this recovery, Ciszczon’s training table colleague Jake Eigenheer contacted Eichenberg, asking if he would record a video wishing Ciszczon well. Eichenberg returned something within 20 minutes. Then he called Ciszczon to talk about how he was doing.
“It’s not cool that this guy is a pro and takes the time to do this with an ordinary person, you know? Ciszczon said. “And so I don’t forget those things. It’s like the current guys. I am here thanks to them. I like hanging out with you guys. It’s funny. It’s fun to come here.
As for Ciszczon’s favorite head coach, Freeman has already gotten away with that title.
During Freeman’s early days as defensive coordinator, he would often come late to the practice table, asking if the staff had food left. If players or coaches come after Ciszczon has cleaned up and put away the equipment, he has no problem bringing it out. He did it for Freeman, whose order of omelets is well known: egg whites, vegetables, no meat, no cheese.
“When Marcus arrived, we personally cooked for him,” Ciszczon said. “He was always late. Then I found out it was because he worked with the players. It didn’t bother me at all because I’m here to serve.
When Brian Kelly walked away after last season, Ciszczon recalls the atmosphere at the practice table being tense and the players keeping quiet about what had just happened. When word started leaking Freeman would be the guy, Ciszczon didn’t hold back.
“They started talking about how they wanted Marcus,” Ciszczon said. “I said, ‘I’m with you! “”
After Freeman was named head coach, he introduced his wife Joanna to Ciszczon around the practice table. They talked about where Freeman’s younger children went to school and what Mass times they attended on weekends. Ciszczon said he would sometimes see Freeman’s family on the pews behind him and wave to them.
Freeman made sure the practice table staff received Christmas presents for the first time last winter. Ciszczon received a gift card to Corndance Tavern and saved it for his 88th birthday on January 21, the birthday he shares with his wife (January 21, 1934). When they arrived at the restaurant, Joe and Julie Anne were led to a private wine cellar. Someone from the football center had called ahead to make this happen.
The night was a lasting memory for Ciszczon, who has no plans to stop working with Notre Dame’s football program. He’s having too much fun making omelets, frying pans, and whatever else the football program needs. He’ll even craft take-out bags for midnight snacks, specifically in the containers players choose to carry food.
In every way, Ciszczon is here to serve Notre Dame football. Work keeps him young. While time may seem like a precious resource for an 88-year-old on the go, its true value is how much Ciszczon can keep giving to help others.
(Photos courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics)