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John Carlson: Chip off the old block

Chris Hine | Thursday, November 15, 2007

Notre Dame tight end John Carlson has played in two BCS bowl games, was a finalist for the Mackey Award last season, and is a likely NFL prospect.

But for all his athletic accomplishments, few are as special to Carlson as the state title he, his brother Alex, and his father, John Sr., won together in basketball during Carlson’s freshman year at Litchfield High School in Minnesota.

Carlson was the starting center, Alex, a senior at the time, was the starting point guard and John Sr. was the coach of the 30-0 Litchfield Dragons, who captured the Minnesota Class 2A state title in 2000.

Immediately after claiming the title, the Carlson clan met at mid-court and embraced each other in celebration of their rare, Disney-like accomplishment – and it was an embrace Carlson will never forget.

“It was one of the greatest moments of my athletic career so far and it always will be,” Carlson said. “We have a picture of the three of us hugging at mid-court and even if I didn’t have that picture, I’d always have that image in my mind. It was really special.”

But even when things weren’t going so well for Carlson, his family was there and continues to be there for him.

The path to Notre Dame

Aside from his duties as a highly successful basketball coach, Carlson Sr. was also the offensive coordinator for the football team and is still the tennis coach at Litchfield. Through his father, Carlson developed his ability in all three sports and developed into an all-state basketball and football player and an all-conference tennis player.

“I was exposed to [sports] at a very young age, going to practice and sitting on the bench at games,” Carlson said. “That kind of piqued my interest at a very young age and it provided me an opportunity to get in the gym whenever I wanted, get in the weight room whenever I wanted.”

While some fathers who are coaches by trade take an overly hands-on approach and pressure their children to become the best at their sport, Carlson Sr. was never like that with his son, Carlson said.

He never forced his son to do anything he didn’t want to do, but if John wanted to attend a basketball camp in Pittsburgh or go to a football camp, Carlson Sr. made sure his son was there.

“When I was younger, he did everything I wanted to do,” Carlson said. “He provided me with every opportunity athletically, that I asked for … but he never forced anything on me. It was always everything I wanted to do and he just facilitated that.”

But when Carlson Sr. was coaching Carlson in a sport, things were a little bit different.

“The only time he pushed me was when he was my head coach and that was his job,” Carlson said. “As a father, he did his best to let me follow my own interests and not force anything on me.”

While his father provided Carlson with every opportunity to become a better athlete, his brothers provided the inspiration. Alex Carlson was a pretty good athlete in his own right, making the basketball team as an eighth grader and the tennis team as a seventh grader.

“He was definitely someone I aspired to be like and because of our body types, we played different positions, but as a competitor, as a football, basketball, tennis player, he was definitely a role model I aspire to be like,” Carlson said.

Becoming a star

Carlson was highly acclaimed in all three sports. He even played on the basketball team at Notre Dame in his freshman season before he decided to concentrate on football. But it was three years before Carlson became the star that he is today.

In his freshman year, Carlson redshirted, and for someone who grew up constantly playing sports, a year without getting playing time in any sport was tough to take.

“By far, my freshman year, my first semester, was the most difficult time here,” Carlson said. “You’re away from home for the first time. It’s going from the high school to the college game. I came in undersized. I was 225 pounds, way undersized, and it’s practicing everyday and not getting to play in the games, adjusting to academic and college life. It was tough.”

Through that difficult first year, Carlson’s family was there to offer advice and help him persevere.

“They just pushed me to keep working hard and do my best,” Carlson said. “That’s kind of been a common theme, do your best. If you’ve done everything you can do, you can’t worry about the results.”

Carlson first saw the field his sophomore season on special teams and as a back-up tight end. During his junior season, he backed up current Dallas Cowboys tight end Anthony Fasano. Carlson caught his first touchdown that season in a 49-28 Notre Dame win at Purdue on Oct. 1, 2005.

Last season, Carlson broke out and garnered national attention for his athleticism and versatility at tight end. In Notre Dame’s home-opening 41-17 win over Penn State on Sept. 9, 2006, Carlson had six catches for 98 yards. Over the course of the season, Carlson helped ease the pressure on receivers Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija by becoming a reliable target for the Irish in the middle of the field.

An injury sidelined Carlson for Notre Dame’s final two regular season contests, but Carlson came back for Notre Dame’s 41-14 loss in the Sugar Bowl to LSU.

He then decided to use his final year of eligibility, returning to the Irish and putting off plans to enter the NFL Draft. This season hasn’t gone the way Carlson or any Irish fan hoped it would. But being a captain of a 1-9 team still carries tremendous responsibility – keeping the team from ruining itself from within – and Carlson is proud of the way his teammates have responded to this year’s adversity.

“This team as a whole, going through everything we’ve gone through this year, we’ve never given up,” Carlson said. “We continue to work hard and we haven’t turned on each other. We showed a lot of pride, a lot of character and a lot of resolve. It makes me proud to be a part of this team, a part of this University.”

With his career at Notre Dame winding down, Carlson said he hasn’t had time to look back and evaluate what his years at Notre Dame have taught him. But he said friend and fellow fifth-year senior, center John Sullivan, could tell you how he’s changed as a person.

Sullivan said Carlson has grown up just like the rest of the upperclassmen on the team, but it hasn’t changed the kind of person he is.

“Well, you know he came in and he’s a small town guy and he’s been exposed to a little bigger area. … But I think he’s matured just like the rest of us have,” Sullivan said. “He’s definitely more vocal than when he first came in. I don’t know what that’s due to, but he’s definitely more vocal. He’s just matured a lot as a football player and a person. I don’t know what else to say about him, he’s just a great guy.”

Headed into the final home game of his career, Carlson is focused on beating Duke, but once the game is over, it will be hard to hold back how he feels.

“I know when that clock winds down, it’ll really be an emotional time for me,” Carlson said.