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Numbers don’t tell the whole story

Joe Hettler | Friday, November 12, 2004

Looking at the numbers during the past four or five years, Notre Dame’s seniors didn’t rewrite Fighting Irish history by any means.

They had two losing seasons.

They went 1-4 against Boston College.

They never won a bowl game.

But, sometimes, the numbers lie. What the Notre Dame seniors didn’t get done on the field in terms of wins and losses, they certainly made up for in how they played the game and carried themselves on and off the field.

Some Irish fans, alumni and outsiders will look at this class now – and in years to come – as never achieving greatness. They never won a national title. They never returned Notre Dame to a consistent football powerhouse.

But those people make a grave oversight. This group of seniors has shown an uncommonly high degree of character, resilience and toughness that anyone associated with Notre Dame should be proud of – and all qualities head coach Tyrone Willingham preaches and teaches to his team each day in practice.

Derek Curry described the senior class best during interviews earlier this week.

“We have a group of seniors that are just phenomenal,” Curry said. “Our fifth-year seniors, I love those guys with everything because they give it their all, week in and week out, summer in and summer out. … You are playing for Notre Dame, you are playing for the family, you are playing for those people who came before, you’re playing for pride and [the seniors have] tried to instill that, and I think that’s one thing that’s helped because the guys that are stepping in for guys that go down, they have to step up and come in, they [have to] understand what they are playing for.”

Perhaps the best example of Curry’s description is Carlyle Holiday.

He was thrown in the fire during his first season at quarterback, then bounced back to have an outstanding 2002 campaign, leading the Irish to an 8-0 start and a Gator Bowl appearance.

But the very next season, Holiday and the offense struggled. As the losses mounted, the criticism rained down on Holiday. Rather than blame the inexperienced offensive line that never gave him time to throw, or chastise the ineffective running game that forced him into undesirable passing situations, or rant about the inconsistent wide receiver play, Holiday said nothing – and meanwhile, put all the blame on his own shoulders.

He never complained, never pouted. When students made tasteless T-shirts saying, “The Holiday is Over, Quinn to Win,” the quarterback said nothing. Instead, he carried himself as a true champion by doing all he could to help the team, while at the same time sacrificing his own personal gain.

Holiday had played quarterback since he was six, yet he never flinched when asked to change positions last season. When he came back in 2004 as a fifth-year senior, Holiday hoped and expected to play significant minutes. Instead, he’s been stuck returning punts and playing sparingly on offense.

But, through it all, Holiday has never wavered.

“I think when you look at Carlyle’s character and what he has gone through in the tenure that he’s been here, through both the ups and the downs – to go through that and be the man that he has, I think says a great deal for him, and it’s helped the program through some tough times,” Irish offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick said.

Then there are guys like Jared Clark.

Another quarterback, Clark asked the coaches if he could change positions in 2002. Assuming he would be on defense, Clark was surprised when the Irish coaching staff penciled him in as tight end, a position already full of talented players.

But Clark did not complain. He just worked harder, moving up the depth chart to eventually become the team’s fifth-leading receiver in 2003.

Then at the beginning of the 2004 season, Clark was passed up by players that had played the tight end position their whole lives. Instead of seeing the field as a fifth-year, Clark now sees the bench. But Clark does his best to help the younger players and keep the locker room atmosphere light. He’s the guy that makes his teammates laugh, even when times get tough.

“He did a lot for me, especially early in my career,” fellow tight end Anthony Fasano said. “He helped me along and showed me the ropes along the way.”

Players like Holiday, Clark and defensive end Kyle Budinscak have made the Notre Dame program better during the past few seasons, even if the number of wins say otherwise.

Budinscak has set an example for other players, compiling a 3.6 GPA while also keeping an upbeat and positive attitude.

Asked at practice this week what he remembers during his five years as a Notre Dame football player, Budinscak talked of many experiences. A reporter then asked him, “Is there anything you’d really want to forget?” Budinscak paused for a moment, then said, “There’s plenty of those too, but they only make you stronger.”

When Notre Dame lost to Brigham Young to open the season, it was Budinscak who was a leader in not allowing the Irish to give up. This team had worked too hard, Budinscak said, to let it all slip away because of one bad performance.

Notre Dame’s seniors have taken excessive amounts of criticism at times throughout their careers. Some of it justified, some not. But through it all emerged a group of 36 guys that have defined what a Notre Dame athlete should be. They’ve been through so much together – two coaching changes, numerous blowout losses and many peaks and valleys – yet they have bonded together and battled through it all.

The Notre Dame team, led by its seniors, will run out of the tunnel for the final time this season on Saturday. They won’t run out ranked No. 1 in the nation, they won’t run out with hopes of a BCS bowl berth and they won’t run out with a chance to accomplish all of their preseason goals.

But the seniors nonetheless have left a positive mark on this football program. They’ve laid the foundation for future successes and shown the younger players how to lead.

Character, resilience and toughness can’t be measured in wins and losses – you have to see it to understand it. Just look on the field Saturday to see a perfect example.

The opinions and views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Joe Hettler at [email protected]