Joe Schmidt rises from walk-on to captain
Marek Mazurek | Thursday, November 12, 2015
We are in love with Cinderella stories. Rags to riches, immigrant to senator and, in the case of Irish linebacker Joe Schmidt, freshman walk-on to captain for his dream school.
“I honestly don’t think there can be a more dramatic transition,” Schmidt said. “When I got [to Notre Dame] it was funny because I was on the very, very bottom of the totem pole and now being a captain on the team, a fifth-year guy who’s playing, it’s very strange.”
While it may seem strange to Schmidt, it makes perfect sense to every Notre Dame fan. Schmidt came to Notre Dame as a preferred walk-on despite scholarship offers from other schools and spent his freshman year on the scout team. In his sophomore and junior seasons, he cemented his role for the Irish as a special teams contributor recording 21 tackles and even saw the field in the BCS Championship Game.
Though he didn’t take the field every game early in his career, Schmidt said his goal-oriented approach helped him work his way into a starting role.
“When I got here, I created a list of goals that I wanted to have for myself,” Schmidt said. “When I was five, my dad had me start making goals. … I evolved that process over my life. On the wall in my room right now, I have overarching goals, but then I have smaller goals I work on each and every day to attain those big goal. That’s something I worked on as a freshman and sophomore, even junior, and it’s something I still do today. I was so goal-oriented and focused to be a contributing member of this football team.”
Schmidt got his chance the next year and started in eight games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury against Navy.
Now in his fifth and final year, Schmidt has been rewarded for all his hard work by being selected as one of the five team captains.
“I do a double-take every time I see the ‘C’ on game day,” Schmidt said. “It’s just surreal to see pictures with that ‘C’ on my chest. It’s such an honor for me to have my teammates think of me that way. Especially on a team that has as many leaders as we have. To be a representative of this team, ‘Team 127,’ it’s something that’s very special to me. I don’t have a lot of words for it.”
Humbled by his teammates’ support, Schmidt takes his captaincy seriously, and he said he went so far as to do research on people he felt have a handle on leadership.
“I’ve done a ton of research on leadership,” Schmidt said. “I’ve read a bunch about different leaders that I thought had some part of the process figured out. I read [Warren] Buffet, I read Bruce Lee, [John] Wooden. I read stuff about them, their own work. I just wanted to see how they saw the world.”
Though they may not be as famous, Schmidt also said he learned a great deal from his teammates over the years.
“I think in order to be a good leader, you have to be a good follower first,” Schmidt said. “I just tried to follow and understand guys like [linebacker] Dan Fox or [safety] Harrison Smith when I first got here, or [defensive lineman] Kapron Lewis-Moore. I looked at those guys and saw what they did and looked at our coaches and what leadership practices I could use on my own. I really just tried to be the best follower I could be and learn as much as I could at the time.”
The biggest thing Schmidt learned? Be true to yourself. And be loud.
“I’ve become more vocal, I’ve become more assertive later in my career,” Schmidt said. “I don’t think leading by example is a thing. Unless you’re doing something as a leader, you’re not leading anyone, no one’s just going to follow to follow. … I don’t act any differently than I did when I was a freshman, I’m still the same kid.”
On the field, Schmidt ranks third on the team with 47 total tackles, but he said enjoys the mental aspect of the game more than racking up statistics.
“I think my favorite part of playing linebacker and my favorite part of being the [middle] linebacker is the defense, to me, feels like an extension of my mind,” Schmidt said. “I love the chess game I’m allowed to be a part of. I love the fact it’s my responsibility the machine is working properly and efficiently as possible. … I always wanted to learn the mental side [of the game]. It payed off dividends and helped make me a better football player, a way better football player because I’m playing against some of the best guys in the nation. … The most fun is that leadership driving the defense.”
Of course, Schmidt said he still loves making the big hits, too.
“Obviously I love hitting people,” Schmidt said with a grin. “I love tackling people.”
Ahead of Schmidt in tackles is junior linebacker Jaylon Smith, the player Schmidt pointed to as the key to the defense.
“[Smith] is one of the most physically gifted human beings I’ve ever met,” Schmidt said. “Combine that with the work ethic that he has. Honestly, it’s such privilege to play next to a guy like that. He’s so skilled in so many way, and he’s a good friend of mine. He sees the game the same way I do. … Jaylon and I, I think we feed off each other, and we have a great working relationship, and that’s something that I’ve really valued over the last two years.”
The Irish are currently ranked No. 4 by the College Football Playoff committee, and though the pressure is high, Schmidt said this year’s team can go all the way.
“We’re fortunate to be in the position at this point where we’re still in the conversation, and really the goal is to be in the conversation at the end of the year,” Schmidt said. “I think this is the most talented football team I’ve ever been on, just in terms of straight top-to-bottom talent. I think that that’s something that needs to be fostered and cultivated. We need to work hard, practice hard and prepare the right way and hopefully put ourselves in a position.”
And as an elder statesman on the team, Schmidt said championship games are difficult to win having played in one himself in 2012.
“That was a tough game,” Schmidt said. “Being [in a championship game] helps me understand where we are now in the season and how we need to continue to work. I’ve seen so many teams slip at this point, and it’s so easy. We need to focus all of our attention on what’s important right now.”
Schmidt holds a degree in management-entrepreneurship from Notre Dame, but he said he doesn’t want to think about what the future holds yet.
“I’m going to assess what life after Notre Dame is going to be like,” Schmidt said. “Right now it would be unfair to think about anything other than this football season. I’ll address the NFL and everything else after.”
Though his future is uncertain, Schmidt said he plans to remember his time at Notre Dame as the best part of his life.
“My junior year, we played USC at home, and I made a big play at the end of the game to help us win,” Schmidt said. “And then I spent the time after that with my friends and family. I didn’t go out, I went home. Growing up, my dad would always tell me, ‘Remember the good days, cause there’s a lot more bad than good, and you have to remember the good when there’s bad days.’
“I remember laying in my bed, it’s vivid, everything had gone right … and there was a little green light on my wall, and it was kind of dancing around, and I remember looking at that green light and thinking to myself, I don’t ever want to forget the way this feels right now.”
And while Schmidt’s time at Notre Dame is coming to a close, his legacy is just beginning.
“I think I would want people to first say I was a good person,” Schmidt said. “I think oftentimes people lose sight of that fact that we’re all just members of this University and football team. I would hope that people remember me for doing good in the community and for being a good teammate, a good leader.
“And I also hope they remember me as someone who had a dream and went after it with all he could.”