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Walking tall

Dan Murphy | Friday, September 12, 2008

Less than a month ago, Mike Anello walked into Notre Dame Stadium and was told by an employee he had to leave. The area was for players only.

“I walked down and they told me to stop,” Anello said. “I think they confused me for a student manager.”

At a press conference earlier this week Anello found himself surrounded by reporters jamming microphones and cameras in his face. They all knew exactly who he was.

Last week the former walk-on was just another name on the depth chart. But after four big special teams tackles against San Diego State, the secret is out.

The 5-foot-10, 170-pound former walk-on plays gunner on the Irish punt team and is also on the kickoff team. Anello made his debut on the field last year in Notre Dame’s 38-0 loss to Michigan in the Big House.

“I remember I had a good week on the scout team the week before,” he said. “During practice, Coach [Charlie] Weis started yelling ‘Where’s Anello?’ I thought I had done something wrong.”

Weis told him that he had cracked the depth chart and would be going to Ann Arbor that weekend. Anello waited all week for the coaches to pull him out of the spot, but it never happened. On his second trip down the field he got to the ball and recorded his first collegiate tackle.

“It was kind of a surreal experience, if you had told me a few years ago that I would even be on the Notre Dame team I would’ve probably laughed at you,” Anello said.

The road to where he is now was not an easy one.

As a 120-pound sophomore at Carl Sandburg High School outside of Chicago, he didn’t see the field once. His coaches told him that if only he was a little bit taller or weighed a few more pounds he could get some playing time.

After a frustrating year, Anello quit the team to focus on wrestling. By his senior year, the coaches realized their mistake and convinced Anello to join the team again.

“I missed it a lot,” Anello said. “My junior year I just felt like something was missing, I don’t like to have too much free time.”

Anello was named a weekly captain eight times and helped lead the team to the state quarterfinals that year.

He was all set to head to the University of Illinois the following fall, where he had been accepted into an exclusive business program. But after a trip to South Bend and some sound advice from an old coach, he knew Notre Dame was the place for him.

Anello decided almost immediately to give football a try.

“I figured at the very least I would stay in shape for another nine months,” he said.

Wrestling Background

Anello’s top sport throughout all of high school and his childhood was wrestling. He had the opportunity to wrestle in college but decided against it because of the wear and tear on his body.

“I’ve seen the guys who wrestle in college and it just doesn’t seem like fun. I didn’t want to spend four years doing that and worrying about cutting weight all of the time,” Anello said.

But all of that work in the ring wasn’t lost. Anello said that a lot of his work ethic and ability to train as hard as he does comes from wrestling. Weis and the coaching staff also found that wrestlers often make good football players.

“The few [wrestlers] that I’ve had, their track record is good,” Weis said. “You have to be a sicko to wrestle anyway and I think that it kind of helps in your development as a football player.”

Move over Rudy

He’s an undersized, Midwestern special teams walk-on, and he even wore No. 45 last season. Anyone who has ever heard of Irish football before could make the connection with Notre Dame’s most famous player, Rudy.

After last year’s Michigan game, when Anello went to pick up his jersey, No. 45 was sitting there waiting for him for the first time.

“I saw it and turned to our equipment manager and said ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,'” he said. The equipment manager asked what he was talking about and Anello said, “Come on, 45, that’s Rudy’s number.”

Anello said he didn’t mind the comparisons and just kind of laughed about them now. Being compared to anyone who got the chance to run out of the tunnel and take a snap on the field is fine with him.

This year, Anello wears No. 37 on game days but said the change in number had nothing to do with creating his own image or getting rid of the Rudy stigma.

“Coach Weis just came up to me when we were getting our jersey and told me I wasn’t wearing Rudy’s number again this year, he pointed to 37 and that was fine with me,” Anello said.

Anello actually knew Rudy before he stormed down the sidelines with No. 45 on his back. He and Rudy’s son, Danny Jr., wrestled against one another several times as they were growing up and got to know each other pretty well.

Anello said he called Rudy after the Michigan game last year to tell him about the new number and the Irish legend congratulated him on the game.

Nothing comes easy

Anello’s ascent from unrecognizable to a fan favorite may seem like it happened fast, but it was the result of years of tireless work.

The process started four years ago when Anello first started training for walk-on tryouts. Every day he forced himself to run sprints and lift for hours on top of his classes and the other work he had. After a long, lonely few months, things only got tougher.

When he returned to campus for spring semester freshman year he started working out with the other walk-ons. The group got together at 5:30 a.m. to run sprints and get ready for tryouts.

“That was really tough, doing all that and not even knowing that you would make the team,” he said. “They were only about 30 minutes long, but man, sometimes you would leave those workouts crawling out the door.”

Anello made the team that spring, but as so often happens, his reward for hard work was more hard work. He continued to train hard to move up the depth chart and make himself and the team better.

After his sophomore season, Anello got an internship at an investment banking firm that had him logging upwards of 80 hours per week, but still he found time to get up early and go for a run or hit the gym after a full day’s work.

“That was probably the toughest part, working that hard and then having to go work out afterwards. There were plenty of days when I didn’t want to be there,” he said.

Despite the challenges, Anello never once thought of giving up. The thrill of throwing on the gold helmet every day was enough to keep him going.

Hard work pays off

Those sunrise workouts and 100-hour weeks paid off in a big way this August when Weis announced Anello was given a full scholarship for his contributions to the team.

“I didn’t give the kid a scholarship because of his appearance. I gave it to him because he earned it,” Weis said.

Anello’s parents were in town to watch the practice and witnessed the moment.

“I was the last one he called so I was getting a little bit nervous,” Anello said. “But when coach started saying ‘This next guy is 5-foot-2, about 12 pounds,’ I knew who he was talking about.”

Weis continues to remind Anello how undersized he is on almost a daily basis.

“At first I was 5-4, then 5-2, now I think I’m under five feet according to him. For some reason, I keep on shrinking,” he said.

Anello might be shrinking in Weis’s eyes, but to the rest of the Notre Dame football world, he can’t get much bigger.