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Robert Hughes: Moments of glory break through years of strife

Sam Werner | Thursday, November 11, 2010

Before Notre Dame Stadium public address announcer Mike Collins even announces the play, everyone in the building knows who just got the carry. No, the student section isn’t booing. They’re screaming “Huuuuuuughes!”

Senior running back Robert Hughes has become familiar with that sound from the northwest corner of the Stadium.

“[The cheer] means a lot,” Hughes said. “When I hear it, it just kind of gives me that extra motivation to say, ‘Hey, the fans are loving this, so keep doing it and keep going.’ So when I hear it, it just makes me want to run harder and give that much more.”

Perhaps the one play that exemplifies Hughes’ extra effort came last season against Washington. With 1:20 left on the clock, the Irish scored a touchdown to go ahead 28-27. Hughes plowed up the middle on the two-point conversion attempt and was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. But then, the pile just started moving slowly towards the goal line. The mass of players creeped in the direction of the goal line until the ball crossed the plane to give Notre Dame a key 30-27 lead.

“I wanted to make sure that my brothers had a good time partying in the end zone, so once I got stopped initially I was just like, ‘Don’t give in. You’re a fighter, so fight,'” Hughes said. “Guys jumped on the pile, jumped on the pile. A couple of my guys came up and pushed the pile and we were just fighting our way for that goal.”

Coming to Notre Dame out of Chicago’s Hubbard High School in the fall of 2007, Hughes made an immediate push for playing time. He made special teams appearances in the first three games of his Irish career, and received his first carries in the fourth.

Against Michigan State, he ran the ball six times, mostly in short-yardage situations, for 33 yards and scored his first touchdown.

Just over a month later, though, tragedy struck. On Oct. 30, 2007, Hughes’ brother was shot and killed in Chicago. Despite the tremendous emotional turmoil, Hughes said the tight connections he forged at Notre Dame were invaluable throughout the grieving process.

“The whole Notre Dame community was excellent in a hard time — my teammates especially,” he said. “When hard times come, you know, a lot of things go through people’s heads, especially after the tragic loss of my brother. A lot of things were going on, but my teammates were there to pick me up and give me a little bit of encouragement and peace of mind.”

In that weekend’s game against Navy, the Irish drove the ball down to the Midshipmen’s 3-yard line on their opening drive. Hughes came in and powered the ball into the end zone to put the Irish on the board. After the game, then-Irish coach Charlie Weis said Hughes was “going to get [the ball] every play until he got it in the end zone.”

“He gave me the opportunity, and like any other chance, I wanted to score touchdowns and help the team win. I got the ball and was able to get in there,” Hughes said. “I didn’t play the rest of the game because I was a little too emotional on the sideline, but it definitely felt great. That definitely would tie as one of my greatest moments [at Notre Dame].”

Later in the season, Hughes would see the field even more, and make some history in the process. In the final two games of the 2007 campaign against Duke and Stanford, he carried the ball 35 times for 246 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first Irish freshman to rush for 100 yards in back-to-back games since Allen Pinkett in 1982.

In his sophomore season, Hughes more than doubled his rushing attempts from his freshman campaign. He was most in his element in Notre Dame’s rain-soaked win over Michigan in the second game of the season, with his punishing downhill style translating into 19 carries, 79 yards and two touchdowns. Hughes, though, hesitates to pinpoint one moment or game as his favorite of the past four years.

“It’s just been a great four years,” he said. “In the course of one year, so many things happen — so many great things happen. To sit here and say there’s one special great moment would just not really shed light on all the time that I had here.”

A year later, Hughes saw his role on the team change slightly. When then-senior James Aldridge went down with an injury, Hughes was forced into duty at the fullback position.

“It just adds versatility to your résumé,” he said of the position switch. “It’s just like any other profession, going and getting experience in different things. Whatever I can do to help the team win, I’ll definitely try my hardest at it and do it because I love the guys on this team.”

When he did get the ball during the junior season, though, Hughes made the most of it. Even though his total carries decreased from 112 to 88, his rushing yards rose from 382 to 416 to go along with five touchdowns. In his first start of the season against Washington State, the junior had a career-high 24 carries for 131 yards and a score.

So far this season, Hughes has been used primarily as a blocking back in Irish coach Brian Kelly’s spread offense, but showed his effectiveness three weeks ago against Western Michigan, when he rushed the ball eight times for 63 yards. Hughes said he has also assumed a lead-by-example role in the Irish backfield this season.

“The leadership role that I play isn’t really using words or being a rah-rah guy,” he said. “It’s really just continuing to fight. I think knowing what I’ve been through and having other guys look at me and see I’m still fighting, still standing strong, hopefully that inspires a lot of guys to keep doing this.”

Hughes said the most memorable part of his Notre Dame experience has been the strong bonds formed in the Irish locker room, through both wins and losses.

“It’s much different than just having regular friends because you’re going through the same things, you’re going through the same struggles,” he said. “It’s good to look over at the guy next to you and know that he’s bearing the same problem’s you’re bearing. You’re patting him on the back and he’ll pat you on the back.”

He did note, however, that the reasons he came to Notre Dame in the first place encompassed more than the football program. Though he considered numerous Big Ten schools during the recruiting process, he said the decision was “hands-down” Notre Dame.

“I could’ve gone to any other school and got though just fine, but I wanted to come here and challenge myself academically,” he said. “I knew it was going to be difficult so I pretty much took a leap of faith, and I knew at the end of the day I’d be better for it.”

Has that challenge paid off?

“I’m much wiser, much smarter than when I came in here,” Hughes said with a smile.

As for this week’s game against Utah, Hughes said the enormity of Senior Day hadn’t even hit him yet.

“It’s amazing how it came up so fast,” he said. “It sort of crept up on me. Feels like yesterday I was running out of the tunnel for the first time.”

Whether or not he realizes it, Hughes’ senior year is winding down, but at the end of the long practices and after disappointing losses, though, there’s always one thing Hughes said he could count on when he goes home — his 1 ½-year-old Dogo Argentino, Raycu, will be there to greet him.

“He doesn’t care whether the day’s bad or good,” Hughes said. “He’s happy to see me and I come home happy to see him.”