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Football: Making his presence felt

Bobby Griffin | Saturday, November 11, 2006

Derek Landri’s journey through Notre Dame – athletically and socially – hasn’t exactly followed the classic pattern for a highly touted recruit out of California high school powerhouse De La Salle.

On the outside, he’s a fierce defensive lineman who blocked two extra points in Notre Dame’s 45-26 win against North Carolina. He is third on the team with 44 tackles this season (8.5 for a loss) and second in sacks with four.

He teams with senior defensive tackle Trevor Laws (39 tackles, 3.5 sacks) to anchor an interior line that has been a leading force on the Irish defense all season.

If one looks deeper into Landri, they encounter an individual who has dealt with more on the football field than most college players. He’s seen four coaches in five years, and while it’s a reality that Landri shrugs off – he acknowledges the “rollercoaster” type atmosphere it created.

Landri was recruited by Bob Davie before coming in as a freshman in 2002. While he was a senior in high school, Davie was fired and George O’Leary was brought in. Landri remembers what it was like when O’Leary was hired to right the ship.

“[There was] a big uncertainty pretty much every year I was here,” Landri said. “Starting with Davie, you commit to him and then half way through that year he gets canned. Then O’Leary comes in and everyone hypes him up that he’s supposed to be the best thing, then he gets canned.”

Of course, after O’Leary was fired, Notre Dame brought in Tyrone Willingham – who Landri knew little about other than that he had a few “up and down” seasons at Stanford.

Willingham’s first season – the infamous Return to Glory campaign – was Landri’s freshman year, even though he didn’t see the field. And after Willingham went 11-13 in the following two seasons, Landri again found himself in a familiar position adjusting to a new coach.

But, as Landri would attest, everything works out for the best.

“I’m happy as anything that they got coach Weis and he’s in here now,” Landri said. “I feel that I’m here at Notre Dame at the perfect time.”

But there’s a lot about Landri that one wouldn’t know by watching him on the field, or considering the coaching changes he’s seen during his time at Notre Dame.

And that’s the Derek Landri who has weaved his way through the University in a manner unlike his peers, classmates and teammates, creating for himself a unique college experience that, while focused on football, extends much deeper.

The doctor and the


Coming east from the West Coast beaches he used to surf with his father in Huntington, Calif., the senior defensive tackle was immediately thrust into a 10-by-12 foot Dillon Hall dorm room.

While Landri credits the dorm life for allowing him to meet some close friends, it wasn’t the type of atmosphere he preferred. He and close friend Anthony Salvador, who graduated in 2006, explored the relatively secluded campus.

The two played at De La Salle together, and came to Notre Dame as freshmen – Landri the big-time recruit and Salvador the little-known walk on.

But once Landri grew tired of the Notre Dame bubble, he looked elsewhere. And in the process, he met two friends.

South Bend residents Arnold Delpilar and Mike Oliva are not Notre Dame students. In fact, they aren’t students at all – one’s a doctor and one’s a landscaper.

Landri met Oliva – the landscaper – at Armando’s, an Italian barbershop located on 1639 Edison Road in South Bend.

“I formed a good relationship with different people – the Delpilar family, the Oliva family – a couple families that are just in the community that aren’t necessarily affiliated with Notre Dame,” Landri said. “They kind of made it a home away from home type of thing.”

Oliva believes the initial meeting occurred during Landri’s junior season. He’s not exactly positive when it happened, but knows it was several years ago. The two shared a barber, Dominic, and began talking.

“When he came into the area he was a little bit lonely … he came to find the Italians so he went to the local barber shop,” Oliva said. “We hit it off pretty good and became friends.”

Oliva’s sister Mary is married to Delpilar – a local doctor who has an office on Ironwood Road and is opening a new center in Mishawaka. The families welcomed Landri – they all share an Italian descent – and have maintained a relationship ever since. Oliva said he waits outside Notre Dame Stadium for Landri after games to offer congratulations.

“On the outside he’s a normal guy, when he’s on the field he’s an animal,” Oliva said. “He’s an outstanding individual.”

So what do his teammates think of his friends outside the Notre Dame community? Fellow defensive tackle Trevor Laws couldn’t help but laugh when discussing Landri’s buddies in the South Bend area.

“He definitely has that Italian connection,” Laws said with a smile. “He knows a lot of people I don’t know. He’s an interesting guy for sure.”

California upbringing

But while Landri spent time during college embracing his Italian roots with doctors, landscapers and barbers, he’s much better known for being the kid from California who is usually mentioned alongside Laws.

Landri isn’t sure exactly how he developed that reputation, seeing that he doesn’t subscribe to the traditional laid-back California mentality.

But he is an avid surfer.

“You definitely have to have balance [if you’re a big guy surfing],” Landri said with a slight smile. “I mostly did long boarding and stuff, but I don’t talk like most [of] the people out there with the ‘yo cool dude.’

“I don’t skateboard, I don’t rollerblade – I don’t do that stuff.”

In that sense, he didn’t fit the “surfer boy” image. Especially given the company he had in his incoming freshman class.

“I never really got the West Coast thing until I came out here and people started putting me in the category with [Chris] Frome and [Anthony] Vernaglia, the surfer type wearing shades,” Landri said. “But I don’t think I fit in the category with those two.”

While Landri debates his reputation as a surfer-dude from California, there’s no question he excelled on the football field at one of the top programs in the country – De La Salle.

The high school has produced numerous NFL players including New York Giants receiver Amani Toomer and, more recently, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew – a good friend of Landri’s from their high school playing days (Jones-Drew was a year behind Landri).

While at De La Salle, Landri established himself as one of the top players in the school’s history. As a senior, he won California Player of the Year – joining Toomer and D.J. Williams as the only players in school history to receive that acknowledgement.

He was also a first-team USA Today prep All-American that year, and the No. 5 overall high school prospect according to CNNSI.com. But despite his high school’s reputation and his personal accomplishments, Landri felt little pressure coming into college.

“Pressure’s what you put on yourself,” Landri said. “The majority of kids that come in here are real hyped up, All League, All State, All American, that type of thing. I think you just come here to play ball the best of your ability and whatever happens, happens.”

And there’s nothing more that Landri would want than to join his old high school teammate playing professional football next year.

“Hopefully playing for a while, that’s a dream, I’m sure it’s a dream for a lot of people but hopefully I’m playing for a while,” he said. “Where, it doesn’t really matter – I just enjoy playing football.”

Finding his place

Landri has three regular season games left in his Notre Dame career, and if the Irish win all three, they will most likely be headed to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans provided a near-miracle doesn’t propel them into the BCS Championship game.

But Landri isn’t the type who’s concerned with where the team ranks in certain polls or how the group is perceived by TV commentators. In fact, Landri – a sports fan growing up – doesn’t watch much ESPN anymore at all.

“I don’t think too fondly of people that comment on that we’re overrated and we don’t have a defense and that type of thing,” Landri said. “Growing up a sports kid, ESPN’s one of your favorite shows. But you almost grow to dislike it. But I think that’s just the way life is, the way the world is.

“I don’t watch it nearly as much as I used to because I don’t want to listen to someone who doesn’t know too much about the in and outs.”

But Landri doesn’t need the support of those on television who criticize his team. The lonely kid walking into the barbershop a few short years ago now has his own company: a few nice local Italians, those friendly waves back home in California and the overmatched offensive linemen he encounters every Saturday.