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Glenn Earl: More than just a play

Chris Federico | Friday, November 14, 2003

Seniors out there probably remember “The Miracle Block.”

Think back to freshman year, 2000, the Air Force game. The then-5-2 Irish were trying to make a late season push for a BCS bowl, but were currently tied with the Falcons with only three seconds to play. And things looked even worse, as Air Force had a 28-yard field goal attempt to win the game and send the Irish packing to just a minor bowl or worse.

The kick was a chip-shot. A no-brainer. A piece of cake.

Except for the hand of then-sophomore Glenn Earl getting in the way to block the kick and send the game to overtime, where the Irish would eventually win.

People called it “The $12 million Block” in reference to the purse the Irish would later receive for participating in the Fiesta Bowl. People related it to the hand of God coming down to stop the ball.

Observer comic artist Tom Keeley even portrayed the play in one of the next week’s issues, showing a mighty hand appearing through the clouds to flick the ball away form the goal.

To so many people that kick meant so much.

To Earl, it was just another play.

“It was kind of a thing where it lingered on for about a year. But after a couple weeks, I kind of got tired of [all the attention],” Earl said of his block that people would remember and congratulate him on for months to come.

After all, that one play in no way summarizes Earl’s entire career at Notre Dame. The fifth-year senior safety for the Irish has been a two-year starter in the Notre Dame secondary and a four-time game day captain. But even with all he’s accomplished with the Irish – his 172 career tackles, five interceptions and numerous trademark big hits – Earl doesn’t mind being remembered for that one spectacular play anymore.

“But now, I guess it’s kind of a good thing to at least be remembered for something,” he says with a smile. “A lot of people can’t say they’ve done that. Looking back on my whole career, I guess it’s one of the things I’ll remember best. If people remember me for that, so be it.”

The playmaker

Earl’s resume does include many more big plays than just that one against the Falcons as a sophomore. Even earlier that season, Earl had a blocked punt against Purdue that set up an Irish touchdown in Notre Dame’s 23-21 victory over the Boilermakers.

Last season, with the Irish only leading Pittsburgh 7-6 midway through the fourth quarter, Earl laid a crunching hit on scrambling Panther quarterback Rod Rutherford that jarred the ball lose. The senior also fell on the ball at the Panther 12-yard line to set up the decisive score in Notre Dame’s 14-6 win.

Later in the season against Florida State, Earl was named player of the game for leading the team with 11 tackles, snaring an interception and causing a fumble with another big hit on Seminole quarterback Chris Rix.

“The thing is, [Glenn Earl] is a playmaker,” Irish defensive backs coach Trent Walters said of his senior safety. “Those are the key things. When you have guys that are big hitters and that can defend the pass and make plays, that’s what you look for in a defensive back.”

As a starter the last two seasons, Earl has been a key playmaker on a Notre Dame defense known for forcing turnovers and laying big hits on opponents.

“I guess I like to think of myself as a football player, and I think I have those natural instincts,” Earl said. “I play fast, I’m always flying to the ball, and good things just happen if you play the game the right way. I don’t think it’s any scientific reasoning. If you just play hard, good things can happen for you.”

The headhunter

On top of being able to make big plays at key times, Earl has also developed a reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the nation.

“Glenn Earl is one of the toughest hitters I’ve seen in a long time,” said Walters, who has undoubtedly seen some powerful hitters, coaching for eight years in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings before coming to Notre Dame. “He’s a head hunter, and he’s really quick and fast, and he just loves to hit.”

While many in college football – from reporters, to his teammates, to his own coaches – have referred to Earl as the team’s headhunter and big hitter in the defensive backfield, the senior is a little hesitant to accept the title.

“I don’t think [I’m a head hunter],” he said. “If you look at our team, anyone is a headhunter and a big hitter. It’s just a matter of time and place and opportunity. You look at last week, I saw [Irish safety] Garron Bible get a good hit on the running back.

“I guess people wanted to give me that moniker a year ago, but I don’t see myself being any bigger of a hitter than anyone else. It’s all a matter of opportunity.”

Still, Earl has earned his title and reputation as a hitter from such jarring blows as the hit he laid on Michigan running back Chris Perry earlier this season to cause a fumble with the Irish still in striking distance.

But he doesn’t just pick on the little guys either, as Earl is unafraid to lay a pop on anybody that comes his way, such as former Stanford wide receiver Teyo Johnson. In last season’s battle with the Cardinal, Earl laid out the 6-foot-7 sophomore in a hit that helped turn the tide in Notre Dame’s favor in the eventual 31-7 victory.

“I know what I’m bringing, and I know what I’m going to do,” Earl said. “I’m never going to turn down a hit. You could be 250 pounds, or you could be 180 pounds. I’m coming to give you all that I have. I may hit you high, I may hit you low or I may hit you in the middle, but I know that I’m definitely going to look to make the play.”

Even if Earl does not want to be thought of as only a big hitter, it’s obvious that the 6-foot-1, 205-pound safety understands the importance of being able to lay on a big hit from time to time in a game.

“That’s part of the game. People may say a tackle is a tackle as long as you get the guy on the ground, but over the course of a game, receivers and running backs, they take a beating and it adds up after a while,” Earl said. “If a running back or receiver gets hit really hard a couple of times, they begin to wear down, and they become aware of where the hitters are on the field. Then you get receivers having alligator arms across the middle, and you get running backs getting slow in the hole, looking for the hitters instead of just running. It basically changes the complexion of their offense.”

As a guy who has seen that fear in the eyes of opposing running backs and wide receivers first hand, Earl knows the impact that the ability to lay a big hit on an opponent can have.

“In my opinion, hitting is a big part,” he said. “I mean, there’s times when you need to make the sure tackle, but there’s also times where you need to lay the hit. If the defense doesn’t hit, they’re not going to get the offense out of sync and the offensive players out of their game.”

The injury

Now near the end of the 2003 season – Earl’s final year with the team – things have kind of taken a sour turn for the senior, and it has little to do with Notre Dame’s current 3-6 record.

The big hitter Earl was hampered by a knee injury in the USC game that seemed minor at the time, but has turned out to be a season-ending injury following the surgery Earl had at the beginning of last week to repair the damage.

“That’s probably the most curious part about it, that I didn’t feel the pain that I guess I was supposed to feel,” said Earl of his knee injury. “It wasn’t like all of a sudden I’m hurt and I’m down. After I got injured, it didn’t really feel like anything different throughout the course of the game. It juts felt like a little nick, a little bruise that you get through the course of battle.”

But the injury turned out to be more severe, and now Earl will have to watch from the sidelines Saturday against BYU on Senior Day. The day that should have been the culmination of a fine career with the Irish, instead may take on a bittersweet tone, as Earl will not be able to play in his last game at Notre Dame Stadium.

“Right now, just thinking about it, I know that chances are when I come out of the tunnel onto the field for the opening kickoff, I’m going to look up at the stands at the student section,” Earl said. “It’s all the things you don’t really notice when you’re playing. I try not to think about it, because I don’t want to psych myself out and be a wreck. But I guess it’s just the reality of the situation, it’s tough that it will be my last game – my last time on the field as a player.”

But Earl’s career and duties with the Irish are, by no means, finished. The fifth-year senior can still help from the sidelines during practice, review film with his fellow defensive backs and lend whatever support and experience he can to the team over its final three games.

“The first thing is we want Glenn to spend the majority of his time recovering and going through rehab and doing the things he needs to do there,” Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham said. “But when he does have the opportunity to be around, his experience can be passed on to the other players. Because there are so many things that he recognizes that some of the players that don’t have that experience will struggle with.

“Hopefully he can impart some of his wisdom, some of his experience, and some of his confidence onto our guys that are picking up his slack.”