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Former safety shines as reliable linebacker

Jack Hefferon | Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dan Fox first arrived on Notre Dame’s campus five years ago, and since then he has been one of the team’s most consistent contributors. But while the graduate student inside linebacker has been steady in the middle of the Irish defense, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had plenty of ups and downs.

For Fox, a high point came earlier this season, as the Irish tried to fend off a late rally by Arizona State in the Shamrock Series. With time winding down in the fourth quarter, Fox put the game on ice by jumping in front of a pass and returning it 14 yards before leaping up and around a defender into the end zone. Fox’s hang time got him some ribbing from his longtime teammates, but also secured the Irish win.

“It was maybe a little bit of evading the guy, but mostly it was celebratory,” he said. “It was a little unnecessary, but for my first interception I felt like I had to do something.”

It was an emotional peak for Fox, who has supplied the Irish with plenty of sparks and slowly moved up into the spotlight during his time in South Bend.

Coming in as a freshman from Rocky River, Ohio, Fox quickly learned to deal with adversity. He was shuffled around the defense before ending up at inside linebacker, and ended up being kept off the field as a redshirt. Along with the adjustments that come with a transition to life at Notre Dame, Fox was also forced to adjust to a new coaching staff after his first season, as Charlie Weis was fired to make way for current Irish coach Brian Kelly.

Kelly was familiar with Fox from his days at Cincinnati, and he was quickly able to find the field under the new regime. Fox made his debut sophomore year in the home opener against Purdue, and the feeling of stepping out onto the field is a high that he said has never gotten old.

“It felt really surreal to walk out onto the field and see all the people,” Fox said. “I remember looking around, and just wondering ‘Is this really happening?’ It’s something that you can’t describe, being surrounded by people, and everyone’s yelling … that’s something really special.”

Fox played in all 13 games that year on special teams, picking up 20 tackles and continuing to increase his role. As a junior, Fox stepped up into the first team, carving out a regular role at inside linebacker. In fact, Fox’s role in the Irish lineup has been about as regular as they come, as he has played in all 49 games since that debut against the Boilermakers.

When asked about his unblemished record of durability, Fox credits both the Irish training staff and a desire to play through the pain.

“Persistence and getting in the training room have been big in that,” he said. “But really, you don’t want to miss any time. Obviously sometimes you’ll be hurt, but you battle through it, and I think that’s just part of my mindset.”

That perseverance was key as Fox played through the pain last year as a senior, grinding through a nagging shoulder injury to help the Irish make their undefeated run to a national championship.

During that campaign, Fox played in the shadow of fellow linebacker Manti Te’o but excelled there, racking up 64 tackles on the year. 

The year may have come crashing down for the Irish when they lost to Alabama in the national championship, but Fox said that the opportunity to reach the pinnacle of college football was exactly why he and his teammates play the game.

“To be able to play in the national championship was truly special,” he said. “That’s why you commit to Notre Dame. You get the best Catholic education you can, and you want to play for national championships.”

The loss ended Fox’s senior season, but he knew that he’d be able to come back for his final year of eligibility. Fox had his shoulder surgically repaired following the national championship, but he got far more attention from going under a different kind of knife. After letting his hair grow down past his shoulders in his time at Notre Dame, Fox got a haircut in the offseason, looking for a fresh look and fresh start.

“I just felt like it was time to move on,” he said. “I grew it out from my senior year of high school to my senior year of college. I donated it to Locks of Love before I started getting dreads by accident. Plus my mom was pushing for it, too.”

Kathleen Fox is not a force to be messed with. During Fox’s Senior Day ceremony last year, mother and son got up – way up – for a flying shoulder bump at midfield. Dan felt a little bit looser last year knowing he’d be back for another season, but as he looks forward to his second Senior Day this Saturday, Fox said that his mother is planning to send him out with even more of a bang.

“My mom came up with some crazy ideas,” he said. “You never know with her. She wants to do a dance, or a handshake or something…But from freshman year and redshirting and that disappointment, to coaching changes, my mom and dad have been there for me through it all. Through the ups and downs, they’ve always been there. I really appreciate everything they’ve done for me.”

But come Saturday there is still football to be played, and Fox is in the midst of his best year for the Irish. With at least two games to go, Fox already has a career-high 66 tackles on the season, despite falling out of the starting lineup for a spell earlier in the year. For Fox, each year has brought more experience and ability, allowing him to step up at every turn.

“Being an older player, you get these little knacks for the game,” he said. “You start getting to the ball a little bit quicker, and I think getting more experience has allowed me to do that.”

After five long years under the Golden Dome, Fox has begun to realize that his time at Notre Dame is drawing to a close. When he completes the season and his studies, Fox said that he plans on pursuing football at the next level, but he has yet to seriously think about moving his play from Saturdays to Sundays. 

And after his playing days are over, the management consulting major would like to apply his degree to another field with plenty of ups and downs. 

“Obviously I’ll try to play in the NFL,” Fox said. “It’ll probably take me a year or two to realize football is no longer an option, but I’m going to try to hold onto it as long as I can.

“After that, I’ve got my business degree, and to graduate from the No. 1 undergraduate business school is something that I’m really proud of. I’ve really started to dive into finance and the stock market, and I’ve got a lot of interest in that. So I’ll probably try to do something in that world.”

But before he gets to any of that, Fox has fixed his focus on his last three games in an Irish uniform, and refuses to look past the challenge BYU will pose on Saturday. 

“It’s something really special to play my last game at Notre Dame,” he said. “I’ve had a great run here, and I’ve loved every bit of it. To walk off the field after BYU as a winner – that’s something I don’t even have to think about. So I really want to win, and focus on that.”

After weathering five years of highs and lows, Fox just wants to make sure he goes out on top.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu