From the ferry anchored at the edge of Alcatraz Island, former Notre Dame special teams player and cornerback Mike Anello (FIN ’09) looked back across the bay to San Francisco, now seeming pretty darn far away.
A one-and-a-half mile swim was not enough to raise his hackles. But factor in choppy, 55-degree waters and a strong current that pulls swimmers off-course toward the Pacific, and you have a good old test of character. Oh, and when Anello finally made it to shore, he would join 2,000 other triathletes in biking 18 miles, and then top it all off with an eight-mile run.
The 2014 event wasn’t Anello’s first Escape from Alcatraz. But this time was special. Anello’s teammate Asaph “Ace” Schwapp (FIN ’09) had died in 2013 from non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which raises money for childhood cancer research, Anello created the Tough as Ace Hero Fund. Then he coaxed former quarterback Evan Sharpley (ND ’10) and four Domer alums to jump into the bay with him.
Anello likes to quote Irish punter Eric Maust, who described Schwapp this way: “His arms were like legs, his legs were like small children, but his heart was what impressed so many people who had the fortune of knowing him.” Anello also organized St. Baldrick’s head-shaving events in Schwapp’s honor in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco in 2014 that amassed more than $50,000 in addition to the $50,000 the Alcatraz triathletes raised. “We wanted people to come share their stories about Ace, not let him pass without giving him credit for the lives that he touched,” Anello says. “He was such an incredible individual.”
Anello himself is known widely as an incredible individual. A 5-foot-10, 170-pound walk-on player as a sophomore in 2007, he garnered little notice on the field — at first. Then, squaring off against Michigan in his senior year, Anello tore down the field as part of special teams coverage, recovered a fumble on a kickoff which led to a Notre Dame touchdown, forced another fumble on a fourth-quarter kickoff and made three tackles. The title of “the real-life Rudy” was born, and has stuck, but more for his tremendous spirit than his athletic prowess. At a recent photoshoot in the stadium for the magazine, fans and current players alike gathered around Anello, just to shake his hand. He’s that kind of guy.
Currently at Harvard Business School for an MBA, Anello has been involved with St. Baldrick’s since 2008 when he agreed to have his head shaved at Notre Dame’s first Bald and Beautiful event. (Head-shaving challenges have been the signature fundraiser for St. Baldrick’s.) Anello watched a preschooler named Lauren run around the room that day with a huge smile as if the cancer she was battling was the furthest thing from her thoughts. He made up his mind then to put his muscle into the cause. The next year he arrived with more than 50 teammates.
When Anello’s first job following his ND graduation took him to a Boston venture-capital firm, he decided to start an event there. Since he knew only two people in Boston, he thought he’d be happy to raise $5,000. Instead, he exceeded his goal seven-fold. Over the years, he’s brought in more than $350,000 for childhood cancer research.
When Anello completes his MBA next spring, he expects to head out to the San Francisco-Palo Alto area. Expect a surge in shaved heads in Northern California in 2016. You heard it here first.