Nicholas Sparks is one of the most widely read contemporary fiction authors, and he has the numbers to prove it.

His books have been New York Times bestsellers, with more than 115 million copies sold worldwide, in more than 50 languages, including more than 75 million copies in the U.S. alone. Sparks’ first novel, The Notebook, written in 1996, was made into a film starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. Considered a pop culture icon, the book is based on a true story about a couple in love during the 1940s. Sparks wrote this breakthrough book when he was only 28, completing the manuscript over a period of six months. Since then, he's continued to achieve success in writing, adding 21 more novels to his name, with 11 of them having already been adapted to film. Beyond his writing, Sparks has dedicated himself to philanthropic efforts. In 2011, the author and his wife launched the Nicholas Sparks Foundation, a nonprofit committed to improving cultural and international understanding through global education experiences for students of all ages.

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But before there was Nicholas Sparks, the international megastar of romance literature, there was Nicholas Sparks, the heavily recruited track star who decided to enroll at Notre Dame. And it was during his college years that Sparks would make a life-changing decision.

In 1984, Sparks arrived at South Bend on a full sports scholarship. During his freshman year, he was part of a team that set a school track record in the 4-x-800-meter relay. But the season did not end on a good note for the young athlete, who was forced to hang up his cleats during the summer after suffering an Achilles tendon injury. Sparks, who was majoring in finance, decided to spend the summer churning out his first novel, a book that was never published. Meanwhile, as his injury worsened, Sparks naturally gravitated towards writing as a substitute for athletics. In 1988, he graduated with a major in business and immediately started writing a second novel.

Typically, when someone graduates from Notre Dame, he doesn’t leave the family. At least, this is the case for Sparks. In 2001, sparks were flying around campus when it was announced that a $1.5 million initiative had been established to support aspiring writers. A major contributor to Notre Dame's Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program, Sparks has since provided scholarships, internships, and the annual Sparks Prize, which awards $20,000 to a new graduate of the two-year Master's program, who then can stay at Notre Dame for a year to focus on completing a book. Since its 2001 inception, the Sparks initiative has become a key component of Notre Dame's creative writing community. In 2004, university leaders awarded Sparks with the Rev. Robert F. Griffin, C.S.C. Award to honor his numerous literary achievements that continue to inspire readers and writers worldwide.