By Khrystyna Stetsiv
A few months ago, no one outside of the Loyola community had really ever heard of Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt. Now her name is known across the world.
The 98-year-old nun, who has been the chaplain of Loyola men’s basketball team since 1994, became the face of Ramblers and an internationally-known mascot during the 2018 March Madness NCAA Tournament.
While Sister Jean is most famous for guiding the Ramblers into the Final Four for the first time since 1963, she has achieved many other successes during her long career.
She entered the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary convent (BMV) in 1937 and has been part of the Loyola community for almost six decades. During those years, she taught courses, worked as an academic advisor and held various leadership positions.
Father Michael Garanzini, S.J., former President of Loyola said, “Her care for the students on and off the court made her a sought-after counselor. Because she is always direct and truthful, students appreciate her wisdom, as well as her prayers.”
Worship, Work, and Win
Sister Jean at all the team’s games whenever possible and if she can’t attend in person, she makes sure to watch them online. Even when she broke her hip in November, following the games and the team’s progress was still her priority.
“I like to watch the games play-by-play rather than just the highlights because that tells me who has the ball and what he does with it,” Sr. Jean said. “I like to follow the game all the way through.”
After the games, she writes individual emails to all players, saying what each did good and what needs improvement.
“I could see that they were getting better, which was very thrilling to me. I never dreamed that we’d get as far as we did,” she said.
Before each game, Sr. Jean first prays with the fans. She welcomes both teams, prays to God that they have no injuries and that the referees judge the game honestly and justly, and tells the players to follow what the coaches have taught them.
She ends the prayer with a now famous quote, “And at the end of the game when the buzzer sounds, let the scoreboard indicate that Loyola has a big ‘W.’”
When the opposing team’s fans jokingly say that Sr. Jean prays a little more for Loyola, she replies, “If you were dressed in maroon and gold, you would pray for the Ramblers too.”
Sr. Jean then says a different prayer with only the Loyola team. As a former basketball player and coach herself, Sr. Jean’s support goes beyond spiritual guidance. After researching the opposing team online, she gives Loyola “a little scouting report” and tells them which players they should look out for and why.
She once even wrote a game lineup for an opposing team, and the coach followed her advice by putting those players on the court. She knows God, but she also knows the game.
And she knows the team members, on and off the court.
“When you watch them on the court, you know they are going to play with and towards each other,” Sr. Jean said about Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson, who have been friends and players since third grade.
“With that kind of movement, they have encouraged the team to give the ball to whoever is ‘hot’ that night or who can make the best basket,” she said. “They don’t care who makes the points as long as we get them. I’ve seen that develop over the season, and it’s really wonderful to see how unselfish the team is.”
Leading Ramblers to the Final Four
As everyone was predicting NCAA outcomes in their brackets, Sr. Jean also wrote down her expectations.
She made a “Cinderella” bracket with Loyola at the top, as well as a “realistic” bracket with Virginia as the winner.
When Loyola moved on to the Elite Eight by defeating Nevada with a buzzer-beating point, Clayton Custer told Sr. Jean he busted her bracket.
“I’m glad!” she smiled. “Go ahead and break it some more.”
Sr. Jean warmly recalled the ceremony after Loyola’s thrilling victory over Kansas State, when the team cut down pieces of the basketball net as souvenirs.
“I have a piece of that net here too,” she smiled and pointed to her windowsill.
Porter Moster, the men’s basketball team coach, said, “She lights up every room she goes into and is like a comfort blanket for our program. She’s always smiling and has an energy about herself. I connect with that.”
Despite being a No. 1 Loyola fan, she has enough love, warmth, and faith to share with the opponents too.
She said in St. Antonio the Loyola team shared a boat ride with people from Michigan and talked to each other as though they had been friends for years.
Sr. Jean said she made a lot of friends with the opposing teams.
“I talk to everyone because, after all, we’re not enemies – we’re playing a game,” she said.
Brightest Star of March Madness
As Loyola’s team was winning games, Sr. Jean was winning the hearts of people all over the country.
“I have no idea how this whole thing started…it just kind of happened,” she said about her sudden, instantly growing fame. “Reporters increased in number. Each time, there seemed to be more people and they had more questions to ask me. That always made me happy because they were excited about Loyola.”
Sr. Jean began stealing the spotlight in newspapers and on TV, with reporters waiting for her after every game. She appeared on Good Morning America and has been featured by numerous news media, including New York Times, Chicago Tribune, CNN, and countless others.
“It was just remarkable, and I couldn’t believe it,” Sr. Jean said.
Only a few weeks into the tournament, Sister Jean has been mentioned in over 20,000 media stories, according to ESPN. Loyola’s “secret weapon” is now known all over the world, according to Father Garanzini.
When Sr. Jean was told about a press conference before the Final Four game, she expected a few people with a few questions. Instead, a huge room packed with reporters was waiting for her.
“I wasn’t nervous, and I was happy to talk to them,” she said. “They scheduled the session for 15 minutes, but I told them I could stay for an hour if needed!”
With her face printed on shirts and socks, Sr. Jean merchandise has been breaking sales records. According to Everyday Money, Loyola Ramblers merchandise sales went up 500 percent before the Sweet 16.
With almost 17,000 items sold, Sr. Jean’s bobblehead is the best-selling bobblehead ever, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. A share of these sales’ profits will be donated to the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Loyola’s Athletic Fund.
The socks, seen all over the games, have Sr. Jean’s favorite design.
“It’s good for Loyola and for my congregation,” she said about the merchandise proceeds, none of which she wanted for herself.
When Sr. Jean corrected a reporter that called her a national star by saying, “Oh no, international,” the remark was picked up by countless other newspapers and became one of her famous quotes.
And it wasn’t an empty statement – Sr. Jean is being featured in newspapers and receiving emails from all over the world, including Germany, Canada, Mexico, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
“Loyola is being mentioned all over the world, and that’s very important,” she said.
While Sr. Jean was always known around Loyola, her newfound fame doesn’t fall far from that of a Hollywood celebrity.
“Oh my gosh, it’s Sister Jean!” people whisper and take pictures as they spot her familiar letterman jacket with a gold-and-maroon scarf.
Noor Abddelfattah, Loyola student, said, “She really is sweet Sis Jean. Whenever I am working as a tour guide and we bump into her, prospective families get so excited to see the international sensation.”
Not the End of the Line
Sr. Jean always waits for the team by the court, whether a win or a loss. So when the Ramblers lost to Michigan in the Final Four, she was there to comfort them.
“I’m so proud of them, and I know that they had put their whole heart and soul into the games,” she said. “We should be proud and hold our heads high because coming to the Final Four is an honor. When they came home, people reinforced all that.”
Loyola’s men’s basketball team left the tournament about a month ago, but fame and recognition continue for the team, as well as for their 98-year-old star.
Sr. Jean still gets hundreds of emails and dozens of interview requests daily and she replies to as many as she can. She keeps a busy schedule, often fitting multiple interviews and events in one day.
She also had the honor of throwing the ceremonial first pitch before the Chicago Cubs home-opener at Wrigley Field.
“Sr. Jean’s jogging days may be over, but nothing else has changed in her 50 plus years as a Loyola Rambler,” said Garanzini.
Even after the Cinderella team left the big dance floor, the magic continued for them and for their Fairy Godmother, Sister Jean.
If you’re ever in need of Sr. Jean’s inspiration, wise words, or just a kind smile – she’s always here.
“I just love talking to people, sharing my faith, and sharing fun – and it’s exactly what I do,” she said.
“We knew how much of a blessing she was to us for years, but to see her get the national spotlight during the NCAA tournament was fun,” said Moser.