Late afternoon on a Friday, Tommy McNamara, a senior on the Notre Dame lacrosse team, was most of the way through a “great ham and cheese sandwich” inside The General Deli & Cafe in South Bend, Ind. As he talked to a friend, he said, he noticed a young man walking around, not sitting. Going outside, coming back in.
What McNamara, a Haverford School graduate from Villanova, saw next, he said, got him flying out of his chair.
That young man, he said, “just books it up front by the cashier,” grabbed a purse from a woman, and bolted out the door. McNamara immediately followed, giving chase, first getting around some fencing in the front, following to a side alley, to a street behind.
“He had a big gain on me,’’ McNamara said. “There are moments I don’t see him.”
What started as a sprint that Friday before Thanksgiving turned into more of a cross-country race. The teenager didn’t know the guy giving chase was conditioned for this kind of running. McNamara found out this guy he was chasing was pretty fast himself.
“This whole time, adrenaline is going pretty crazy,’’ McNamara said. “I’m yelling to him, ‘Stop. I’ll give you 20 bucks if you don’t take this purse.' "
This all continued for five minutes, McNamara estimates, maybe a couple of minutes more. Finally, he said, the teenager stopped.
“Hands on his knees,’’ McNamara said. “We’re both pretty tired. Both of us out of breath. I said, ‘Yo, dude, take this 20 bucks.’ As I’m talking, up close, I said, ‘Are you in high school?’ ‘Yeah, I’m in high school.’ He could not have been more than 15 or 16.”
McNamara started talking about how he’d had friends who have made poor decisions: “I’m telling you, there are a million ways to deal with difficult circumstances. This is not the way to go about it.”
“First thing he said, ‘I’m sorry,’ " McNamara said.
McNamara said he gave the youth his phone number, put it into his phone. At this point, McNamara had the purse, he said. He told the teenager that if he ever needed to reach out, “I’ve got like 50 teammates who would have your back.”
McNamara left him and walked back to the restaurant. When everybody saw him and saw the purse, “the whole place cheered.” He gave the purse back to the lady, in her late 60s, he estimated. She checked through the purse. There were her car keys, her checkbook.
“Where’s my wallet?” she said.
“The whole place [went] quiet,’’ McNamara said.
She saw the wallet.
“The place erupted again,’’ McNamara said.
A priest in there came up and gave him a blessing at his table. One customer, “particularly grateful,’’ wanted to know what he was planning to do with his life. He’s a political science major with a business economics minor.
“Believe it or not, I was trying to figure that out,’’ McNamara said, telling of the lunch conversation that had been interrupted.
Because he had redshirted a year with an injury, McNamara will have a season of eligibility left after this one, so he’s thinking about staying and going to grad school. He’s been a second-line midfielder the last couple of seasons.
“You could say I”m like the sixth or seventh man in basketball, in the game 35 or 40 percent of the time,” he said.
Maybe his place within the team is better understood by noting he was selected to be the team bagpiper before last season, leading the team out for games playing the bagpipes, as is tradition.
He knew how to play the bagpipes?
“Yeah, no,’’ McNamara said. “No way. I had to practice from YouTube. It’s a player-run tradition. It took me 10 months to learn. I got it just in time for the first game.”
McNamara didn’t like hearing from a few people how he shouldn’t have run after the purse-snatcher, that he could have put himself in danger, the thief could have had a gun, etc. He was glad his parents didn’t have that reaction.
“My mom, it touched her. She’s always somebody who does a lot for other people,’’ McNamara said.
As life happens, the tale can’t be wrapped in a bow with a feel-good ending. A cafe employee noted that the police later saw the teenager nearby. McNamara said he later saw a Facebook post about how somebody had identified the teenager and he had been detained. McNamara tried to figure out if there was anything more he should do. He asked a Notre Dame employee he knew who knew South Bend police to check on it. A message came back, to essentially stay out of it.
The youth hasn’t reached out to him. McNamara wonders if he should talk to a criminology professor about whether there’s something else to be done.
In the meantime, he’s the team bagpiper again, tasked with leading the Irish out for every lacrosse game, home and away. He’ll play on.