Mendoza School of Business

Play Like a Champion Today: How Jake O’Leary honored his father’s dying wish

Jake O’Leary, MBA ’19, and his father, Michael, ’72, were always close. When they weren’t playing catch in the front yard of their Seattle home or watching Notre Dame football games together on Saturdays, they were sailing around Puget Sound on Michael’s boat, the “Shillelagh.” “Pretty much everything we did revolved around sports or boating,” Jake remembers.

In the summer of 2002, when Jake was in middle school, his father was diagnosed with colon cancer. The diagnosis was devastating, but it brought them even closer together—and brought his father a new lease on life. “Once he was diagnosed, he retired from his job as vice president of finance with Gaco Western and he became a little bit more loose and less serious about life.”

In the fall of 2003, Michael wanted to bring Jake to see his alma mater. “We came for the first football game of the year against Washington State,” Jake recalls. “We went to the Grotto, Mass in the Basilica, and he gave me the tour of campus. We sat in the bleachers on the field right out of the south end zone for the game. I remember the game went into overtime and Washington State missed a field goal right in front of us that would have tied the game. The Irish ended up winning 29-26. It was super cool just to be there as close as we were.”

Michael O’Leary passed down his love of Notre Dame to his son Jake and they attended Notre Dame football’s 2003 season opener.

Words of wisdom

In June 2005, Jake came home from playing basketball with friends to find a box waiting for him. “Like any kid, I was super excited,” Jake remembers. “I opened it up and it was a Play Like a Champion Today sign. I knew what it was at the time, but I didn’t really know what it meant. I could only apply it to sports. My dad sat me down and talked about how he wanted it to be a way I approached life day to day, that no matter what I was doing, to do it to the best of my ability.”

Just three months later, on Jake’s first day of high school, his father passed away. “Throughout high school I had the sign hanging right outside the door that I would walk through every day to go to school. During high school there was naturally a lot of grieving and depression. I can’t really say that I was able to live up to the sign’s message then.”

But once the worst of Jake’s grieving had passed, he would.

Living life to the fullest

An only child, Jake wanted to stay close to his home in Seattle so that he could be with his mother, Val. He attended Seattle Pacific University, her alma mater, majoring in marketing and international business. He graduated in 2013 and started his career with PACCAR, as a supply chain analyst for the heavy-duty truck manufacturer. Two years later, he took a job at Boeing as a procurement analyst.

But he felt life had become a bit stagnant, so he decided to make a change. “My wife was working a stressful job at the time and I was trying to make the decision to put roots down in a corporate setting or do something fun and take a risk while I still could,” Jake says. “I thought about the sign and about my dad. He would have wanted me to enjoy my youth because that’s what he started doing after he was diagnosed—he started living life to the fullest. So my wife and I both left our jobs and backpacked through Europe for four months.”

Jake describes their time together in Europe as “the best four months of our lives.” They returned to the states, and Jake started working at Amazon. He also applied to the MBA programs at the University of Washington and Notre Dame. He was accepted into both.

“I just started thinking about how backpacking through Europe was my wife’s dream and attending Notre Dame was my dream, so why not do it? It’s something my dad would have wanted. Besides, there’s not many 28-year-olds who get the opportunity to live out their childhood dreams. To not do it would have felt like a mistake.”

From Seattle to South Bend

Jake and his wife packed up their bags and moved from Seattle to South Bend—and away from their families for the first time. Jake’s experience in the MBA program and at Notre Dame has managed to live up to even his loftiest childhood dreams.

“Notre Dame has met every expectation I could have imagined,” Jake says. “I’ve walked where my dad walked, studied in the Hesburgh Library where he studied, and even got to experience a 12-0 football season.”

The sign stayed home in Seattle—it was too precious to “rattle around a U-Haul” on their cross country journey—but the sentiment stayed with Jake. “When I get nervous about something, I remember the sign and what it means to overcome and prevail in spite of fear or adversity.”

Fourteen years after his father’s death, Jake earned his MBA from Michael’s alma mater, joining a long line of Notre Dame fathers and sons over the course of the University’s history. He will return to Seattle to be close to his mother, who has been his champion through it all.

“My mom is the strongest woman I’ve ever met,” Jake says. “Supporting our family like she did during my dad’s cancer journey was truly amazing. I owe so much to her. The greatest thing she’s ever done for me is the way she’s empowered me to make decisions about my life and love and support me in those decisions.”

Spoken like a true champion.