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Ryan Burkhart: Local kicker always keeps ND close to heart

| Thursday, November 19, 2009

He was just another local kid attending kicking camp the summer before his senior year of high school, but that’s when it all started for Ryan Burkhart. A kickoff specialist out of Northwood High School in Wakarusa, Ind., a half-hour away from campus, Burkhart has been living his dream the past four years by wearing the Notre Dame uniform.

“Being so local, growing up everything was Notre Dame football,” Burkhart said. “It’s an incredible opportunity to actually play for them. But I’m humble about it, I don’t take it for granted.”

Recruited out of high school, Burkhart knew coming to play for the Irish would be a different experience than any he’d had before. Captain of his high school team senior year, Burkhart recalls memories he had there as some of his most special times. Most exciting was his senior season, where, although they were 3-6 in the regular season, his team was able to battle against the top teams to win it all. His dream job is even going back there and being his high school athletic director.

“I still want to be around sports, I have been my whole life,” Burkhart said. “There’s a lot of tradition there and a lot of memories.”

The decision to come to Notre Dame was an easy one for Burkhart. The Irish were the first team to offer, and once he knew the Irish were interested Burkhart was quick to accept.

“I knew it wouldn’t get any better with the academics, football history and the tradition. I accepted right away,” he said.

Coming in as a freshman meant a busy schedule from the start with practices, drills, study hall, classes and team meetings. It made the adjustment process pass by quickly, however, and gave him a chance to meet some of his teammates who would become mentors and lifelong friends, such as J.J. Jansen and Geoff Price.

His decision paid off as he made it on the field in the fourth game of his freshman season after kicker Bobby Renkes was injured against Michigan State. He kicked in the final nine games of the season and made 45 special teams appearances, including in the Sugar Bowl against LSU.

“It was an incredible experience,” Burkhart said. “It’s an experience in the first place to come to play at Notre Dame and then to play as a freshman.

“Going to the Sugar Bowl was my favorite memory,” he said. “Just the hype and going to a BCS bowl game, and that chance to play for the University.”

Burkhart also recalled playing in the Hawaii Bowl, and being part of the team that broke the Irish bowl streak, as being one of his best times on the team.

“Hawaii was great just to say that you’re on that team that broke the bowl streak,” he said. “It’s all about football here, but there it was the first time we all got to hang out and get to know each other better.”

His teammates have made Burkhart’s experience on the Notre Dame team the one that it has been. Not only does he still keep in contact with former players like Jansen and Price, he also cherishes the relationships he has formed with other specialists, on and off the football field over the past four years.

“We’ve strengthened our friendships, know more about each other and know what each other has been through. They’re a great bunch of guys.”

Another mentor Burkhart has found in his time at Notre Dame is special teams coordinator, Brian Polian.

“Coach Polian is a great person to get to know,” he said. “He helps you to mature and develop as a player and as a person. He is definitely someone I want to stay in touch with.”

As he works on keeping in touch with those he’s met here, Burkhart, a management consulting and psychology major, hopes to find a position in either Chicago or Indianapolis for a few years before returning closer to home and, hopefully, working as a high school athletic director, whether at his alma mater or not.

Looking back on his four years at Notre Dame and wearing the uniform, Burkhart can only describe it as one of his best life experiences.

“I’m going to miss life in the dorm, roommates, walking by the Dome and Touchdown Jesus, little things like that,” he said. “It brings chills, I can’t even explain it. I’ve had the chance to be around a great group of guys and coach for four years and the opportunity of playing and wearing that helmet on Saturdays. It’s incredible, all for a couple moments.”