January 16, 2015

Blind faith: The spirit of a boy and the love of parents are caught through lens of Notre Dame football

The amazing spirit of Mitchell Bridwell, an eighth-grade student at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Indianapolis, and his love for Notre Dame football are captured in the recently released short film, Blind Faith. (Submitted photo)

The amazing spirit of Mitchell Bridwell, an eighth-grade student at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Indianapolis, and his love for Notre Dame football are captured in the recently released short film, Blind Faith. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

The touching moment between Mitchell and Mike Bridwell offers two poignant reminders about the relationship between parents and their children.

First, even a strong child who is deeply loved by his parents sometimes has moments of insecurity.

The exchange between the son and the father also serves as a reminder of the incredible power of a parent’s influence on a child.

The moment is featured in the recently-released short film, Blind Faith, which shows the spirit of Mitchell—an eighth-grade student at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Indianapolis—through the lens of his experience at a University of Notre Dame football game in October of 2014.

In the scene, Mitchell’s father Mike recalls a moment when his son, who has been blind since birth, sadly tells him, “Dad, I don’t like being blind.”

“It broke my heart,” Mike says in the film. “And so I had to share with him, ‘Because you are blind, there are things that are going to be challenging, but that doesn’t mean you can’t overcome them. It’s going to be OK. We’re going to figure this out. And God is going to take care of us.’ ”

Filmmaker Greg Kohs places that moment between son and father in a pivotal place in the film about Mitchell’s reactions to a Notre Dame football Saturday. The film has just shown Mitchell’s look of disappointment after learning that the football team of Stanford University has just scored a touchdown to go ahead of Notre Dame late in the game.

Yet while the joy has momentarily drained from Mitchell’s face on a day that was miserably bone-chilling and rain-soaking, the hope in his heart has still endured.

As Mitchell would say later, he still believed that Notre Dame would come back to win the game.

“Just the feeling of it,” he said. “You just felt it in your gut. You knew something big was going to happen.”

That enduring hope, the film shows, defines Mitchell’s 13-year-journey so far of overcoming the challenges and the odds.

The film follows him to band practice at his school where he plays trumpet.

It also reflects his joy as he plays video games with his friend, Josh.

Yet the best moments capture his interaction with the other members of his family—his older siblings, Luke and Abby, and his parents, Mike and Marta.

The special bond between Mitchell and his parents fills every frame of the film that shows the teenager’s first time at a Notre Dame football game.

It’s there when they visit the Grotto, Notre Dame’s special shrine to the Blessed Mother—a scene that led Mitchell’s mother to say, “Faith is very important to us, and that was expressed in the film. Spending time at the Grotto was very meaningful to us as a family. Our faith plays into our everyday life.”

A humorous dimension of their close connection was on display when the three of them visited the Notre Dame bookstore. As Mitchell tried on a souvenir hat, his mother asked him if he wanted to “see” another style. Without missing a beat, Mitchell responded in a deadpan voice, “You know I can’t see.”

“It showed his sense of humor,” Marta said later. “He’s a jokester.”

And the joy of the experience was there before the game as they walked down the players’ tunnel toward the field where Mitchell touched the artificial turf and savored the pulsating sounds of the drummers in the Notre Dame band.

That sensory response was exactly what Kohs wanted when he started the film project. Yet what he got in the end from Mitchell and his family overwhelmed the 1988 Notre Dame alumnus.

“I’d always wanted to celebrate my memories from campus—the sounds of the band and the crowd cheering, the smells of the tailgates, the sensory overloads that created goose bumps for me,” noted Kohs, who pursued the idea for the film at the request of Ted Mandell, a member of the faculty of Notre Dame’s department of film, television and theatre.

“I thought what better way to do that than to find someone who would appreciate these sounds and smells. I first became aware of Mitchell through outreach that Ted and I had done through the School for the Blind. The principal recognized Mitchell as being one of his outstanding students who comes from a Notre Dame home.”

Kohs paused before adding, “I just had no idea it would be so special. Mitchell has an extraordinary impact on me—and everyone he came in contact with. His personality and his family’s love and compassion went beyond anything I could imagine.”

So did the ending of the game, which Kohs filmed entirely by focusing on Mitchell and his parents in the stands. The filmmaker, who worked for 10 years at NFL Films, never turned his camera to the action on the field during the Notre Dame-Stanford game because that was a perspective Mitchell couldn’t experience.

Instead, his camera captured Mitchell’s deflation when Stanford took its late lead. And it captured Mitchell’s glimmer of hope as Notre Dame marched down the field in the game’s closing minutes. All the while, Mike described aloud the action for Mitchell, including how the game came down to Notre Dame facing a dire fourth down-and-long situation that would decide the game.

As Mitchell focused on his dad’s words, he also listened for the reaction of the crowd. And when it erupted with joy to a Notre Dame touchdown, so did Mitchell and his parents.

It’s a moment that Mitchell, Mike, Marta and Kohs won’t forget—for the same reason and for different reasons.

“Life is busy, and kids grow up so fast,” said Marta, whose family lives in Hendricks County. “Just talking about it will get me emotional. When Mitchell was little, we didn’t know what to expect. And now he’s at a time where he’s very aware of himself. It’s always a balancing act as they go through these teenage years. They want to be strong, but they need you, too.

“Through everything, God makes us promises that he will not leave us. He knows the plan he has for us. It was neat to reflect on this journey of Mitchell and this journey of our family. And God hasn’t left us. He’s kept that promise.”

Kohs kept a promise to himself, and gained a perspective from Mitchell.

“It’s the first time I’ve gone to a Notre Dame football game and I did not see any of the entire game with my eyes,” said Kohs, a father of three. “I felt I was bonding with Mitchell.

“While that last touchdown was gold for the story, what was more important for me was that Mitchell had that amazing moment. I felt in a spiritual way that it was a gift—a gift to Mitchell that he got to experience one of those amazing Notre Dame moments. We were all fortunate to be there for that moment together. I learned so much by being around Mitchell and his parents. I know it will contribute to me being a better person, a better dad, a better husband, a better son.”

For Mitchell, the whole experience was everything he could have hoped for—an opportunity to show the joy of his life, the bond of his family, and the memory of a special day.

“We’re close as a family,” he said after experiencing the film. “We get along very well. We can relate to each other and just talk to each other. I’m just thankful that God was able to put this together, to let me enjoy all these things.

“I now know why God is God. It was a blessing to see.”

(To view Blind Faith, visit the website, www.und.com/FirstTimeFans.)

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