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Dropping the Hammer

Joseph Monardo | Wednesday, November 6, 2013

It is almost hard to reconcile the two demeanors of Prince Shembo. The intense emotion he displays on the football field and at pep rallies is a far cry from the laughing, joking, story-telling Shembo present when a single flashbulb replaces stadium lights and a single recorder replaces a sound system. 

The focused intensity remains, but an unmistakable sense of levity joins it. 

Perhaps no story is more indicative of the two dimensions of the same personality than the oft-repeated saga of Prince Shembo’s stolen bike seat. What turned into an excited, angry (albeit exaggerated and contrived) accusation of the Michigan football team in front of a crowd of thousands at last year’s pep rally the day before the Irish hosted the Wolverines on Sept. 22 began as a true story. 

“I was here, actually, looking at film, Purdue I think. … And I left … and my seat was gone,” Shembo said. “It’s not just the seat was gone. It’s the fact of the matter that my legs were completely sore. Like, my legs were sore before I even got on the bike. So I had to ride my bike standing up. My legs were shot and I felt like I was about to catch a cramp. And I was just so frustrated because I was in so much pain. I was like, ‘Who took my bike seat?’ … And I never found it again.”

While Shembo’s more famous retelling of the story represented the height of his intensity, during his more recent retelling a smile was draped across his face. And each time, Shembo was being completely genuine.

The 6-foot-1.5, 258-pound outside linebacker came out of Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte, N.C., listed as a four-star recruit by some recruiting services. While originally pegged as an inside linebacker or defensive end by some, Shembo has developed into a dynamite outside linebacker for the Irish. Going into his freshman year, Shembo said he was not worried about where he would line up. 

“Honestly I was just trying to play wherever,” he said. “Just get on the field and contribute, to be honest.

Though listed as an inside linebacker, Shembo began to solidify a spot on the outside of the 3-4 defense before the season even started and saw action in all 13 games in 2010.

“I remember actually we started in the summertime, and with the older guys they say pick your position, and I picked the position I felt more comfortable, that outside rush linebacker,” Shembo said. “And ever since then, I guess they told coach and I was playing there from then on out. … When I first got here, I showed a knack for getting to the quarterback, so they kept me there.”

Shembo has accumulated 129 tackles in 47 career games. Fifty-one of those stops came as part of last season’s dominant defense. And, true to his word, Shembo has also shown the ability to wreak havoc in the backfield. He has 22 career tackles for loss, 17 of which are sacks. Although he has plenty of them, Shembo said gaudy statistics can be elusive. 

“When you get the quarterback, you know when you see it, just their eyes get so big,” Shembo said. “And this big excitement and he just throws the ball. And you are just like, ‘Aah. Let’s go do it again.’ 

“I remember one game, I think it was Michigan State, when I was getting back in the backfield all the time. And the ball was always thrown right when I get there. Like I beat the O-line with the quickest move possible – ball thrown. I got frustrated and stomped on the ground, almost hyperextended my knee. … But then I just start to realize, ‘Look man, I’m just gonna continue to bring it, just play as hard as I can. Whatever happens, happens.'” 

Although he spends plenty of time bringing opposing signal-callers to the ground, Shembo said he never engages in competitive banter on the field.

“I’m not really big on smack talk,” he said. “Honestly I say ‘What’s up, man.’ I talk to him every once in a while. But as soon as they start to be disrespectful, it’s over, man. I won’t say anything but I’m going to bring it every time.”

As he has developed both as a pass rusher and as an all-around player, Shembo has looked to some of the best for examples.

“I’m very big on watching guys in the NFL and seeing how they do things,” he said. “So I keep a good eye on them. See how their footwork is here, or how they get off the ball here or how they use their hands here. 

“Tamba Hali of the [Kansas City] Chiefs, a very big technician. I try to look at guys who are my size. You got Tamba, Robert Mathis [of the Indianapolis] Colts, you know, so a couple rushers like that.” 

Growing up a fan of both the Carolina Panthers and the Baltimore Ravens, Shembo began from an early age to emulate one of the best linebackers in NFL history.

“The first DVD I received when I was little had Ray Lewis on it,” he said. “I was like, ‘Who’s this guy? He’s passionate, he works hard.’ So I was like, ‘You know what, he says hard work.’ So I started working hard from there. And that’s just been my niche. Just hard work.”

Shembo has had plenty of role models ahead of him with the Irish, as well. He cited mentors including former Irish linebackers Kerry Neal and Darius Fleming, who graduated in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Shembo also joined former inside linebacker Manti Te’o as a starting linebacker but said he learned more from Te’o about how to conduct himself than position-specific knowledge.

“There’s not much I can really take from him because we are all different people, but one thing that Manti did say is always play as passionate and as hard as you can,” Shembo said. “And he always told me that he likes the way I work and that hard work just rubs off, and that passion rubs off.”

Now a veteran himself and one of the most game-tested players on the Irish defense, Shembo has embraced his role as one of the unit’s emotional leaders.

“When there’s something that [younger players] got to work on, I tell them,” he said. “Like, ‘No, no, do it like this,’ or ‘Do it like that.’ Not even just football, but just like spiritually, as well. Get the Bible, read a couple of verses, stuff like that. And then if there are any questions, I’m willing to answer them. If they need anything to go over, I’m willing to help.”

Shembo is sharing the field with younger players along the Irish front seven this season, in part due to multiple injuries. Freshmen Jaylon Smith and Isaac Rochell and sophomores Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara are just a few of the Irish underclassmen logging significant minutes on the defensive line or as linebackers. But Irish upperclassmen look to Shembo to lead them, as well.

“He brings a lot to the table, and he’s definitely a great asset to our defense and our team,” Okwara said. “He’s a great leader on and off the field. He’s definitely a role model for me.”

While Shembo’s leadership role may have grown in his final year with the team, he said his personality and approach to the game have always been the same.

“The thing about me is I’ve never tried to change the person I am,” Shembo said. “When you try to change, that’s when things just go wrong. You know, I’ve continued to be the same person. … Everything just comes out naturally. I’ve always continued to work hard and lead by example. And that’s my biggest key: Lead by example. I’m not going to listen to a guy who says this and does the complete opposite. So that’s what I wanted to demonstrate.”

Shembo has helped lead the Irish back from a 3-2 start and into their final three regular-season contests with a shot at a BCS bowl game, despite the rash of injuries. Notre Dame has rattled off four consecutive victories, two of which have come with impressive defensive performances. In back-to-back weeks against USC and Air Force on Sept. 19 and Sept. 26, Notre Dame allowed only 10 points and held each foe scoreless in the second half.

“I think we’re playing better than we did in the start,” Shembo said of the defense’s recent performances. “We are starting to get a better understanding. You can even see it in [freshman outside linebacker] Jaylon [Smith], he’s improving, Romeo’s getting a lot of playing time, a lot of the young guys are playing. So just getting that experience. And once they get comfortable, man, that’s it.”

The Film, Television and Theatre major said his only remaining goals are to close out his senior season with no more losses and to finish up his degree. With contests against Pittsburgh and physical foes BYU and No. 5 Stanford, the Irish will need plenty of intensity to collect three more wins. Luckily for them, they have just the guy for the job.

“Intensity is just natural,” Shembo said. “I was born with it.”

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu