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Mike Anello: Scrappy walk-on becomes special teams star

Douglas Farmer | Friday, November 20, 2009

Originally Mike Anello saw walk-on tryouts as a way to avoid the freshman 15, not as a way to end up speaking to thousands of fans before the USC game this year.

“At the end of [my senior] season [in high school] I was talking to my football coach, and I decided I’d try walking on the football team [at Notre Dame],” Anello said. “Worse comes to worse it would keep me in shape for another nine months.”

The Chicago-suburb native barely even played football in high school, only seeing the field his senior season. Rather, he shined on the wrestling mat, where he learned the skills that helped him work his way onto the Irish football team in the spring of 2006.

“The wrestler mentality of just really pushing yourself so hard and just going beyond your limits helped me out so much,” he said. “Everything we have done here has been a lot easier than what I did in high school in wrestling.”

Irish coach Charlie Weis agreed with Anello that his wrestling background helped him on the football field.

“[Anello is] a guy from Chicago, came in here a little rugrat wrestler … Everyone told him he couldn’t play football,” Weis said. “He comes out, walks out on the team, ends up being a pain in the butt on the scout team, a real nuisance.”

While Weis used “rugrat,” Anello sees more of a competitive aspect to the matter.

“When I came here I was just like I’ll try walking on the team just to see, stay and compete and everything like that,” he said. “Once I got out there and started competing, I said, ‘You know, I might be able to make some hay with this and actually provide on the field and make some plays.'”

And make plays Anello did, at first only in practice to his coach’s frustration, but before long he made it to the field on Saturdays.

“[He’s] one of those guys where every time you go around he is blowing up a play then you are getting mad because he is blowing up a play,” Weis said. “Next you thing you know you put him on the punt team … The one guy making plays was Mike Anello.”

After spending 2006 on the sideline, he cracked the depth chart in 2007, and earned notoriety in 2008. Opposing teams had 72 returns in the 12 games Anello played in last season, and he was a part of the tackle on 23 – nearly one-third – of those returns.

In the season opener against San Diego State, the then-anonymous special teams player made four solo tackles. The following week Anello sparked the Irish victory over Michigan with three more tackles, an early forced fumble and the ensuing recovery to set up the Irish to take a 14-0 lead. The play occurred directly in front of the Notre Dame student section, and Anello was no longer an unknown.

“It was incredible. I talked to my mom and dad every week and it seemed like every week we were like, ‘Can it get any better?'” Anello said of his instant fame. “The next week it would get better. It was an incredible experience and it literally changed my life.”

Again, it was the wrestler showing through in Anello that made him into a special teams stud, as he always looked for the chance to make plays when chasing down a return man.

“I just can’t wait to get down there [on returns],” he said. “As long as they don’t call for a fair catch you are licking your chops getting ready to get after him.”

Anello finished last season with 23 total tackles in 12 games. A broken leg suffered on his first play against USC kept him out of the rest of that game as well as the Hawaii Bowl.

Despite not being able to play in Hawaii, Anello still enjoyed everything about the bowl-game experience, especially the first postseason victory for the Irish in its last 10 tries.

“I had a metal rod put in my leg with a screw on top to keep it secured so I couldn’t really do too much in Hawaii. … But just being there with all the guys and getting that big monkey off our back, to finally get people off us, felt good,” he said.

After the two games on the sideline, especially the USC game, Anello had two games circled on the schedule for this season — Michigan and USC. The week before the USC contest, he was casually talking with Weis about certain aspects of the rivalry and how important it was for the fans to understand the true meaning of it when Weis said Anello should be on his toes during the pep rally that week.

“[Weis and I] had just been talking earlier that week and there were some things that I wanted to make sure everyone knew what was going on with the situation; we had to get the crowd up and there were a few other things I wanted to get across when [the captains] were speaking,” Anello said. “He told me not to be surprised if he called me up there, and I was hoping it would happen.”

It did happen. After Rocket Ismail had coaxed the crowd into a frenzy with yells of “This is not a game!” and “Let’s go get it!” Weis handed the mic to Anello. The walk-on was not fazed by the Notre Dame legend’s antics beforehand and topped the pep rally off promising the throngs of Irish fans “a victory lap around campus with the goalposts on our shoulders.”

“That was an awesome feeling, looking out over that crowd of people,” Anello said a few weeks after the pep rally. “I never could have imagined I’d be in that situation with a chance to speak.”

The first time Anello saw the Irish play the Trojans he was certainly not in a position to speak to the Notre Dame masses; he watched the game from the stands with every other average freshman.

“It’s incredible to be in the stands for a game. I was there for the USC game my freshman year when the Bush Push happened, and that was a lot of fun,” Anello said. “But running out of the tunnel is really something you’ll never understand until you do it. It’s an incredible experience.”

While Anello repeatedly referred back to sprinting out of the tunnel in front of a full stadium, he has never been satisfied with that alone. In 2006, the season the then-sophomore spent on the sidelines watching the Irish, he only thought about playing in the game, even as a walk-on.

“I would always be out and people would ask if I played for Notre Dame, and I could only reply ‘Kinda,'” Anello said. “I wanted to be contributing; I didn’t want to just be a part of it.”

Yet again, the wrestler inside showed through his pads as Anello turned his sideline status into motivation of the strongest kind.

“I’d walk off the field on Saturdays after not playing and take that to heart and use that as motivation to push myself in the off seasons and during the season to find a way onto the field,” he said.

Success on the football field was slow to find Anello, a problem he never had in the classroom, where he earned a 3.937 GPA.

“For me it is basically the student life. I don’t really get noticed at all,” he said.

Such excellence on and off the field has already earned the walk-on numerous job offers, which he has narrowed down to two possibilities.

“I might try the pro day depending how everything finishes up for me,” Anello said. “But if I don’t do that I’m going to head out to Boston to work for a venture capital firm.”

Weis said Anello may want to hold off on any plans involving a desk job for a bit longer yet.

“He’ll end up in somebody’s camp this summer,” Weis said. “He’ll be one of those pains in the butt to get rid of because he’ll be one of those guys on kickoff team and on punt teams that’s down there involved in every play.”

Weis already sympathized with whoever is debating cutting Anello in the summer, as Weis knows the feeling from a few years ago.

“You going to want to look at him and cut him just by looking at him,” he said. “Then about halfway through you are going to say what are we going to do about this guy?”

Summer training camp or Boston desk job, Anello said he’ll thank the past five years for much of what he has become.

“The easiest way to put it is life changing,” he said. “From day one when I got out there it has just been incredible.”

The most incredible part of it all for the seemingly average student, shorter than six feet and weighing less than 200 pounds, has been something that only the far-from-average every get to do, and Mike Anello surely has proven himself to be more then he looks and to be much more than average.

“Running out of the tunnel and seeing 80,000 people filling the Stadium, I still get the mental image in my head,” Anello said. “It is an unbelievable experience.”