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D.J. FITZPATRICK: Special talent

Mike Gilloon | Friday, November 18, 2005

A lot of D.J. Fitzpatrick’s knowledge about kicking wasn’t learned on the football field.

Instead, it was the golf course where the Irish placekicker and punter says he learned quite a bit about the mental part of kicking – maintaining body control and his smooth leg swing. In particular, a round of 18 with former Notre Dame football coach and Fitzpatrick family friend Lou Holtz made him realize the similarity between the two.

“I had a chance to play golf with Coach Holtz one time,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was almost every other hole he was telling me how golf and kicking relate. It’s the principles of keeping your head down, having good body position, following through and being balanced.”

Holtz, who was the coach at South Carolina when he and Fitzpatrick hit the links, reminded Fitzpatrick that most of kicking is mental.

“He always said kicking is 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical,” Fitzpatrick said. “Everybody kind of has the capability to do it, but going in front of 80,000 with 11 guys coming at you and trying to get the field goal off in under 1.3 seconds … it’s hugely mental.”

NFL hopes

Fitzpatrick’s ability to control the mental aspect of the game has taken him on a long journey. He went from being a walk-on with modest hopes of holding for field goals as a senior to a scholarship player and starter at punter and kicker. He’s held that job for the past two seasons and now has realistic aspirations for the National Football League next season.

“He is … so multidimensional he’ll wind up being in somebody’s [NFL] camp next year because he is a guy who can do everything,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “Very seldom do you have a guy who’s handling the punting, the kicking and the field goal kicking.”

It has been a long road for Fitzpatrick to get to this point. An all-around athlete, he played quarterback and was an all-state defensive back and punter during his senior season at Marian High School in South Bend. He walked on as a freshman at Notre Dame after considering several schools – including Holtz’s South Carolina.

“When I was a freshman I was just hoping to get on the field my senior year and hopefully be a holder or something like that,” Fitzpatrick said. “I just wanted to earn the guys’ respect with hard work and do something on the field to contribute.”

Learning the trade

But getting on the field didn’t take Fitzpatrick quite as long as he originally thought it might. When former Irish kicker and punter Nick Setta went down with an injury in the first quarter of Notre Dame’s 20-14 win over Pittsburgh in 2003, Fitzpatrick took over both roles. He has held the jobs ever since, using knowledge gained from from Setta and former Irish punter Joey Hildbold to maintain a high level of play.

“Very rarely do you have a kicking coach who knows the ins and outs of the technique of kicking,” Fitzpatrick said. “So whatever guys are ahead of you, they kind of pass down the knowledge to the guys in back of them. Those two taught me everything I know about kicking. They were great role models for me.”

Fitzpatrick certainly had a lot of time in the beginning of his career to soak up knowledge from Hildbold and Setta. Even after kicking 13 field goals and 153 extra points in high school, he practically relearned everything when he joined the Irish squad.

“From the time you get here it’s almost like they reconstruct your whole kicking style – it’s sort of like redoing a golf swing,” said Fitzpatrick, who captained Marian’s golf team to the state championship as a senior.

All of the hard work paid off for Fitzpatrick during Notre Dame’s 27-24 win over Navy in 2003 when he kicked two fourth-quarter field goals – a 30-yarder to tie the game and then a 40-yarder as time ran out for the victory.

“I grew up here, so moments like that you dream about,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was just a great opportunity for me to show what I can do. I was just happy that my teammates put me in that position and we got it done.”

A new era

Notre Dame struggled that season with the win over Navy being one of the few highlights as the Irish slumped to a 5-7 record. Times have changed in South Bend, as the Irish and Weis have surged to a 7-2 mark.

Fitzpatrick hasn’t forgotten the relatively recent days when Notre Dame’s offense wasn’t scoring many touchdowns and he was needed fairly often to kick a field goal. But simply kicking extra points isn’t a problem for Fitzpatrick.

“It’s great because I’m not always thinking, ‘OK I have to go in for a field goal’,” Fitzpatrick said. “There’s just so much confidence in our offense. I’m just ready to do whatever I am called on to do. I know that the offense will do its best to put the ball in the end zone for me.”

Much of this credit goes to Weis and his coaching staff, Fitzpatrick said.

“He’s completely 100 percent focused in on the details of special teams,” he said. “Not only just the kicker, blocker and snapper … all 11 guys have just one job to do on a particular play. He makes sure that all 11 are in the position to execute when they’re called upon.

“When everyone runs on to that field, there’s no question about what we’re doing. Guys are more confident. They know their assignments and don’t have to think about it the whole time. They can just go be athletes.”

Finishing up

Fitzpatrick is thrilled with Notre Dame’s play in his senior season. But all the Irish success has made time move quickly – ushering in a senior day that Fitzpatrick has been thinking about for a long time.

“It’s gone by so fast,” he said. “Just cherish these last couple games, every practice. I just want to take it all in because it’s been a ride of a lifetime.”

And when the clock strikes 0:00 at Notre Dame Stadium in what could be a messy, snowy Saturday afternoon, Fitzpatrick isn’t quite sure how he’ll feel.

“I have no regrets,” he said. “I’ve played as hard as I could. As long as I keep doing that I’m going to have a great time, when that clock ticks off and I know that I gave it my best and tried to help the team as much as I could.”