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Football Commentary: Adversity Never Stopped Seniors

Chris Khorey | Thursday, November 15, 2007

Seventeen scholarship football players arrived at Notre Dame in the fall of 2004.

Only seven are still on the roster.

The Class of 2008 has seen attrition is every way imaginable.

Some players had bad luck – like linebacker Abdel Banda, who suffered a career-ending injury.

Some decided playing varsity football wouldn’t be part of their Notre Dame experience after all – like John Kadous and Stanford Interhall star Tregg Duerson.

Some were upset about the coaching change or lack of playing time – like running back Justin Hoskins (now at Central Michigan), quarterback David Wolke (now at Western Kentucky), defensive lineman Brandon Nicolas (now at Colorado) and wide receiver Chris Vaughn (now at Louisville).

And one – running back Darius Walker – opted for an NFL paycheck over his senior season in South Bend.

But even without most of the players they met at Frosh-O, the Class of 2008 has found a way to succeed. They helped the Irish to three bowl games in their time on campus, including two of the BCS variety. And they have done their best to hold the team together during this disastrous 1-9 season.

And now, along with their walk-on brethren and the nine fifth-year seniors, seven recruited scholarship seniors – Maurice Crum, Justin Brown, Terrail Lambert, Leo Ferrine, Junior Jabbie, Darrin Bragg and Anthony Vernaglia – will play possibly their final game at Notre Dame Stadium. (All seven are eligible for fifth years.)

Those seven have seen classmates leave the team, but they stuck it out. They have endured ridicule from fans who called them “not talented enough,” but they never lashed out in the media. Some of them have struggled to get off the bench, but they never stopped working.

Through the biggest wins and the most crushing losses, those seven have remained focused on the goal they originally set out to reach – to bring Notre Dame back to the elite. For two years, the Irish were back in the top 20, thanks in part to them. And while this season has fallen apart, they continue to try to lead the younger players, trying to ensure the program’s future.

For the nine fifth-year seniors, the story is different. They arrived at a Notre Dame that saw a bright future ahead after Tyrone Willingham’s 10-3 first season. Their classmates included All-America receiver Jeff Samardzija and first-round quarterback Brady Quinn.

After BCS bowls in their junior and senior seasons, this group – John Carlson, Travis Thomas, John Sullivan, Trevor Laws, Tom Zbikowski, Dwight Stephenson, Joe Brockington, Ambrose Wooden and Geoff Price – all decided to return for one more year.

Obviously, this season has not gone as planned, but they have all played with heart and tried to lead despite the losses. They are part of the greatest Notre Dame class since the Holtz era, and their contributions will not be forgotten, even in the darkest hour of Irish football.

And it’s important to remember the rest of the senior class – the walk-ons. They joined the team not for a shot at the NFL, but for the camaraderie of their teammates and the chance to wear a gold helmet.

Their best memories aren’t scoring a touchdown or making a sack in a big game, but rather when they put on their green jersey before USC in 2005 or when they intercepted a Quinn pass in practice – or even just playing catch on the field in front of 80,000 people.

They have majors like engineering and pre-professional, but they still find time to learn the opponent’s playbook every week to help prepare their teammates.

Saturday will almost certainly be their last game at Notre Dame Stadium. If they’re lucky, they’ll be able to get into the game for a play or two. Even if they’re not, they’ll be excited to be out there with their friends one last time.

It’s been a long season. But win or lose, all of the seniors will probably linger on the field for a few extra seconds, remembering the good times they had there.

They’ve been through a lot at Notre Dame, and they’ve handled it all with grace and class.

And for that, they deserve a hand.

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Chris Khorey at ckhorey@nd.edu.