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Derry Herlihy: Former rugby player grasps chance as a walk-on

Sam Werner | Thursday, November 11, 2010

New jersey number, new skill set, new persona — just another week for senior Derry Herlihy.

As a member of Notre Dame’s scout team, it’s Herlihy’s job to mimic opposing players that the first team defense needs to prepare for.

“They’ll give us a jersey number of someone on the other team, and we’re that person for a week,” he said. “I’ve played H-back, running back, wide receiver. But it’s a lot of fun because you’re doing something a little different every week.”

That ability to play multiple positions gives Herlihy a unique role.

“I’m kind of a hybrid, like an X-factor,” he joked.

Herlihy made his first attempt at walking on to the team his freshman year, but didn’t survive the final cut. Instead of giving up, the Houston native returned a year later to fulfill his goal.

During the interim, Herlihy took his talents to the rugby pitch, joining Notre Dame’s club rugby team in its first season returning to Division I.

“Rugby is a man’s game,” Herlihy said. “You have to be a [grown] man to play rugby.

“It definitely toughened me up a little bit. Hitting someone with pads on is a piece of cake after you do it without any pads.”

Herlihy returned to football full-time in 2009, and said that the main feeling when he made the team was “relief.” After two rounds of tryouts, the 10 or so remaining walk-ons had to survive five weeks of 5:30 a.m. “workouts from hell,” according to Herlihy.

“I was really excited when I made the first cut in tryouts,” he said. “Then after that it was a constant worry of how did I do today? Who was watching me? Am I going to get cut? It was relief [when I made the team], because by that time all my friends thought I was on the team, so I didn’t want to have to tell everybody, ‘Oh, I got cut.'”

It’s those friends, though, that helped define Herlihy’s four years at Notre Dame. He said the connections he made during his first year in St. Edward’s Hall have held strong up to this day.

“Most of my friends are guys that I lived with freshman year, guys that I lived down the hall from freshman year,” Herlihy said. “You always feel like you’re a part of something greater than yourself.”

Another Notre Dame subculture of which Herlihy is a proud member is the Walk-On Players Union, more commonly known as WOPU Nation. An unofficial club formed by the walk-on members of the team, Herlihy called WOPU “one of the coolest things [he’s] been a part of at Notre Dame.” He said the walk-ons hang out together outside of practice and keep in touch through a “pretty hilarious” e-mail thread.

While WOPU was created in good fun, Herlihy said that it has forged an important bond between the non-scholarship players.

“When [a member of WOPU Nation gets] on the field, every single guy rallies around those guys because they’re representing us,” Herlihy said. “They represent all the hard work we do; we go through everything together. When those guys get on the field and get a chance to make an impact for Notre Dame football, it means something to every single guy in WOPU.”

Herlihy has only seen action in the Blue-Gold Game, but that alone, he said, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“I think I got three carries for about one yard in the spring game,” he said. “But … just lining up on the field wearing the Notre Dame uniform playing in Notre Dame Stadium is a special thing — something that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.”

Upon graduation in May, Herlihy — an economics and political science double major — said he will begin working in sales and trading for Deutsche Bank in New York. For now, though, he said he’s just trying to enjoy his time as a Notre Dame football player.

“There’s a million people that would give a ton to be in our place, putting on the gold helmet and representing Notre Dame,” Herlihy said. “So if you have the chance to do that, you’ve got to take advantage of it.”