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O Captain, my captain

Pat Leonard | Friday, November 4, 2005

At first glance, this is the story of two men.

One is a Division I football player with 261 career tackles and a knack for making the big play. He’s in his fourth year playing linebacker, and he hits as hard as some of the pros.

The second is a college student, quiet and reserved, who does his best thinking with a pen and a pad of paper. He attends bonfires to recite poetry and does community service.

It’s interesting that at second glance, the two men are the same person. It’s fitting that fifth-year senior Brandon Hoyte – multi-talented and respected – was named Notre Dame’s defensive captain when coach Charlie Weis took over for the 2005 season.

“He may seem quiet to everyone else, but once he puts the pads on, puts the helmet on, he’s a different person,” Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn said Wednesday.

Quietly, Hoyte (5-foot-11, 235 pounds) has become a forceful leader for the Irish defense. Having played behind and alongside departed linebackers like Courtney Watson, Mike Goolsby, Rocky Boiman, Tyreo Harrison – even living with Derek Curry – the Parlin, N.J. native has grown through experience and inexperience, in-game situations and in a red-shirt freshman season.

Going into the fall, Hoyte made the preseason Butkus Award watch list to honor the nation’s top linebacker. He was named a Lott Trophy quarter-finalist last week in honor of on- and off-field performance.

But Hoyte – the player and the poet – doesn’t lead a double-life. He just lives a complete one.

“Anything you would ever ask for in a model football player, student-athlete and person and captain is what he is,” defensive coordinator Rick Minter said Wednesday. “He’s our coach on the field, make no mistake about it.”

Erik, remember me?

On second-and-eight, from its own 32-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Tennessee lined up in the shotgun. Volunteers coach Phillip Fulmer would regret the play call.

Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge fumbled the snap, and as he scrambled to recover, Hoyte steamrolled into the backfield and drilled Ainge, falling to the turf hard with the orange jersey beneath him.

Ainge had a separated right shoulder. Notre Dame had the momentum and, eventually, a 17-13 road win in Knoxville, Tenn. On Nov. 6 of last season, Hoyte made his presence known with a devastating and nearly season-saving hit.

“You don’t just hit people to tackle them,” Hoyte said following the game. “You tackle them so they won’t get back up.”

The Irish would lose to Pittsburgh the following week, eliminating the possibility of a strong finish to the season. But Hoyte had set the tone of how the Irish defense should play – and of how Hoyte would become their leader.

“I think [I lead] first and foremost by producing on the field,” Hoyte said. “You can say what you want, but you have to produce.”

Hoyte leads the team in tackles this season with 56 (33 solo). He has four sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss – five more than the next closest player, defensive end Victor Abiamiri. Hoyte is averaging eight tackles per game and is on pace to shatter his previous season-high of 74 (2003 and 2004), But he always shifts his concentration away from previous accomplishments when he discusses his football career.

Following last season’s 6-6 finish, for example, Hoyte said outright he did not play his best and that he was glad he had another year to rectify it. Now, with only four regular season games and a possible bowl berth looming on the horizon of his days wearing No. 39, Hoyte refuses still to give a final evaluation.

“I’d say [I’m] not finished because the season’s not finished,” Hoyte said Wednesday when asked to assess his career’s progress. “Game to game, I see myself getting better.”

A way with words

Hoyte strives to improve in other endeavors, as well, but they present different obstacles. In football, for example, you can’t run out of ink.

Hoyte writes poetry in his spare time and even recites it publicly, proving that when people or teammates label him as “quiet,” they don’t mean he keeps to himself. They mean he is thoughtful and both soft- and well-spoken.

“He’s one of those guys who I think is obviously quiet, I wouldn’t say soft spoken,” Quinn said, searching for words to accurately describe his co-captain. “But at the same time when he speaks I think everyone listens because of … his passion.”

The linebacker’s passion and empathy have rubbed off on the people he has worked with off the field ever since he arrived in South Bend.

On Oct. 5, Hoyte joined a group of fellow Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students for a bonfire at the soccer field behind Angela Athletic Center. Hoyte recited two original poems to the group. He has been writing poetry since junior high school.

On April 28, Hoyte was the featured speaker for the Literary Council of St. Joseph’s County’s eighth annual Luncheon for Literacy.

“He was wonderful to work with,” said Brenda Green-O’Connell, the council’s executive director. “He’s such a generous person.”

In a nationwide sports atmosphere of scandal and debate, athletes like Hoyte seem to bridge the gap of understanding. His tendency to mingle with any person – athlete or non-athlete – makes him a natural favorite of those he runs into, those he has class with and those he takes snaps with. The only question remains: how many people in the world can knock a quarterback out of a game and also write poetry regularly?

“I would say it’s a normal person [that can], to be honest with you,” Hoyte said, laughing at any hint of abnormality in the situation.

“I just like having fun, and that’s my way to have fun and my way to get away. I get away from life when I get onto the football field, and I get away from life when I write poetry.”

Closing out

Getting on with life after Notre Dame should not be any more difficult for Hoyte.

Whether he continues a football career or puts his 3.35 GPA to use, the man on the weak side of the Irish linebacking corps has set himself and the Irish up perfectly.

On the field, opposing players have criticized Hoyte’s speed. He is not the tallest player, either. But his vocal leadership and hard hitting have helped Notre Dame’s defense – with 16 turnovers in seven games – earn some deserved respect.

“We don’t take him off the field,” Weis said Tuesday. “He’s earned our trust as the most dependable guy we have in all situations.”

So maybe, as the saying goes, Hoyte is not a warrior poet at all. He is, instead, a poetic warrior, writing his final verse.

The Volunteers are in town, and Notre Dame’s defensive captain has three home games remaining to close out what has been – but what he won’t yet admit to be – a memorable career, on and off the field.

“I don’t think you can ever sell yourself short with effort,” Hoyte said. “I think that’s one thing I’ve learned over the years playing this game is that sometimes effort beats talent, sometimes effort beats smarts.

“And I hope that at the end of the day people say, ‘You know, what? That kid plays really, really hard.”