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Ryan Sharpley overcomes injuries to play two sports

Douglas Farmer | Thursday, November 17, 2011

Typically, a walk-on needs to impress the Irish coaching staff from the outset in order to make the team. Ryan Sharpley’s first few minutes on the field were far from impressive, yet the pitcher-turned-receiver still made the cut.

“The first day of practice, we were actually going through stretching lines. The very first stretching line I was jogging down and I fell,” Sharpley said. “It was my first time wearing football cleats in five years.

“Everybody in my line noticed, along with some of the coaches. At that point, I was just like, ‘What am I doing?’ That was my first day.”

Sharpley’s inability to run with football cleats stems from his natural ability to do so in baseball cleats, which have much shorter spikes. He originally came to Notre Dame in 2007 as a starting pitcher after the Chicago White Sox drafted the right-hander in the 34th round of the 2007 Major League Draft. During his freshman season, Sharpley threw 32.2 innings and struck out 31 batters while tallying an ERA of 3.03.

His stellar stats were no match for a torn right labrum, though, and Sharpley underwent surgery his sophomore year. In his junior season, he struck out more than a batter per inning before transferring to Point Loma Nazarene in San Diego.

Out west, Sharpley could not escape the injury bug, as he tore his right labrum again, further damaging his pitching arm. At that point, he hung up his baseball cleats and made a decision.

“I wanted to get my degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the country,” Sharpley said. “In doing so, I thought I could benefit the football team with my experience.”

By “experience,” Sharpley more refers to his time in athletics than he does his football experience, as his last time on the gridiron was his junior year of high school.

“It was a lot different than I expected, in a positive manner,” the sociology and computer applications double major said. “Coming in you don’t really know what to expect. Going from baseball to football, the mentality is a lot more intense.”

When Sharpley first told his friends and family — including former Notre Dame quarterback and older brother Evan Sharpley — of his football aspirations, the response was encouraging.

“When I told my brother, he said, ‘Why not? You have nothing to lose. If you make the team, people will be really impressed. If you don’t, so what, you gave it a try,” Ryan said. “More than anything he was just really proud of me.”

Many of Sharpley’s former baseball teammates had some trouble believing he had successfully made the football team, though. Then again, so did Sharpley.

“They kept asking me, ‘Are you on the team?'” he said. “I’d say I wasn’t sure. I’m practicing. I have a locker and a number, but I don’t know if I’m really on the team.

“When my picture was in the program, I thought, ‘Wow, I’m on the team.'”

A few days later he was catching passes from Irish quarterbacks Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees.

“To me, for some reason, it didn’t really resonate initially,” Sharpley said. “Then I realized, ‘Wow, so many people would die to be out here doing what I’m doing.’ It hit me what I was doing.”

A few weeks later, he stood in the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium with the number 85 on his back and 82,000 people in front of him. That crowd was quite a bit larger than any he ever pitched in front of. It was also a crowd quite a bit larger than the one watching when he fell over on the first day of fall camp.

“Standing in the tunnel, looking out there, hearing the band and seeing the crowd, it’s a real moment you can’t put into words,” Sharpley said. “I had chills going down my back, but I was also hoping I wouldn’t fall down as I ran onto the field like I did in the first day of camp.”

Sharpley didn’t fall, and though he injured his right knee the week before the Irish played Air Force, he realizes he beat the odds playing two sports at Notre Dame.

“This was special. This was something I didn’t take for granted.”