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Going with the flow

Andrew Gastelum | Thursday, October 18, 2012

According to legend, the biblical character Samson was blessed with phenomenal strength, yet there was one condition to his clout: He could never cut his hair.

Since his last haircut, senior linebacker Dan Fox has added over 20 pounds of muscle. Coincidence? Fox thinks not.

“No, no, no, it’s not true, but it’s a cool story,” said Fox, who often draws comparisons to Samson from others. “People say all the time, ‘You can’t cut it or you will lose all of your strength.’ But I don’t believe that. It’s funny though.”

Instead, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker nicknamed “Foxy” finds a better comparison for his hair rooted in the locks of an NFL icon.

“I get a lot of [Packers linebacker] Clay Matthews comparisons,” Fox said. “He’s a really good player so it’s great to be compared to him. But hopefully I can try to be as good as he is.”

Despite the uncanny similarities he shares with Samson, Fox said he holds one definite advantage over the heroic character.

“I use shampoo and conditioner all the time,” Fox said. “But I just got this Garnier Fructis oil stuff. It’s kind of like Moroccan oil and you put it in your hair to make it soft. It’s pretty sweet.”

Growing it out

When he attended an all-boys Catholic high school at St. Ignatius in Cleveland, Fox met hair length requirements set by the school’s administration. But once graduation came, Fox was free to create his own image.

“I’ve been growing my hair since the end of high school. I had this dean of discipline, Mr. Arthur, who made me cut it before graduation [in 2009] and I haven’t gotten a haircut since.

“At first it was just that I never got it cut. I was that kid in college that never had a haircut. And then after it just started to fall back I just let it go. Now it’s just like I’m never going to get a haircut. I was thinking next year if I come back for my fifth year of getting dreads. I told my mom that and she was not having it.”

Even though he does not have to adhere to the strict rules of high school these days, Fox said that doesn’t stop people from trying to get him to clean up.

“A lot of people usually will tweet at me: ‘Cut your hair,'” he said. “But then I just say, ‘Why?'”

Fox heads a group of long-locked Irish players, which includes junior defensive end Kona Schwenke, sophomore linebacker Ishaq Williams, sophomore defensive tackle Tony Springmann, senior tight end Tyler Eifert and sophomore running back Cam McDaniel. As far as becoming a distraction during games, Fox brushed past his first and only bad hair day.

“Actually it really hasn’t gotten in the way. It’s crazy – the first game I played was against Purdue [in 2010],” he said. “I was running down on the first kickoff and a dude just grabs it. The first play [in an Irish uniform] and I said ‘Oh is this what’s going to happen?’ But it has not been touched since then.”

Strong safety switch

After winning a state championship during his senior year at St. Ignatius, Fox committed to Notre Dame as a four-star-rated safety, turning down offers from Stanford, Michigan State and Boston College among others. Fox didn’t see any action in his freshman year at Notre Dame, but used the time to make an exacting transition to linebacker.

“I was excited,” Fox said. “A linebacker at Notre Dame, that’s something to be excited about. That was sweet when I first found out. I wasn’t sure how it was going to translate and how I was going to pick it up, but [defensive coordinator Bob] Diaco did an awesome job helping me out. He started me from scratch, taught me all of the basics. He just took me under his wing and helped me out. He is one the best defensive coordinators in the country without a doubt.”

A combination of hair-trigger instincts and breakthrough speed made the safety the perfect candidate to make the switch to linebacker, as his exploits as a top 110-meter hurdler in high school heightened Fox’s athletic appeal. But now, Fox has to comb his way through offensive linemen rather than meeting the ball carrier at the second level.

“The guys coming after you are a lot bigger,” he said. “I didn’t really do anything specific to try to gain weight. I just stuck to [strength and conditioning coach Paul] Longo’s strength program and I put on about 20 pounds. So that really helps when I try to slam into [senior guard] Chris Watt in practice. He’s thick, so I just remember running into him the first time and telling myself, ‘Welcome to inside linebacker.’

“But something that has really translated for me is that speed. Except in college football everyone is fast. That’s something I kind of got used to instead of being the fastest guy on the field, now I’m just one of the fast people on the field.”

In 2011, Fox started in all 13 games and recorded 48 tackles at his inside linebacker position. He returned to the Irish defense this season as one of only two players to start every game last season, where Irish coach Brian Kelly said he made striking progress.  

“Well, I think, first of all, he’s a very physical player,” Kelly said. “Though I would not say that he wasn’t physical last year. I think just overall knowledge of the position. As you know, the [weakside] linebacker position for him was something new. I thought he adapted very well last year. There were times that we thought that he was clearly the No. 1 player at that position.”

Making interior progress

Oftentimes, the linebacker’s persona on the field doesn’t get too far past being the “guy with the hair.” Fox is off to a career year in 2012, having already recorded 31 tackles in six games, yet is often overshadowed by the Heisman contender he lines up next to. But Fox said he owes senior linebacker Manti Te’o the bulk of the credit for his success at his new position.

“I kind of do [like being under the radar],” Fox said. “It’s kind of funny on defense, they snap the ball and everyone is trying to get the tackle. But there aren’t too many tackles to be had because [Te’o] is snatching up a lot.

“He’s showed me the way, to be honest. It helps so much when you can understand everything on the defense and what other people are doing so you can know why the ball is going where and where you need to be. If you just understand the defense you can play so much faster and I really think that is what he’s helped me with.”

Fox’s consistency plays a major role in in the nation’s top red-zone defense – Irish opponents are scoring touchdowns at a measly 12.5-percent rate in the red zone – and second in scoring defense as the Irish only give up 8.7 points per game.

“You see Dan Fox play, and he doesn’t hesitate,” Te’o said. “He is a lot more confident in his ability to make plays and comfortable in the scheme. He knows what to do, he knows that the guy next to him is doing, and he knows where I’m going to be.

“Combine that with confidence, you will get Dan Fox’s process throughout his career here at Notre Dame. He’ll get better.”

In Notre Dame’s 20-13 overtime win over Stanford on Saturday, Fox recorded six tackles, but was not included in Notre Dame’s goal line package. So he watched the defense’s Samson-esque goal line stand from the sidelines

“I was nervous, but then again I have full confidence in everyone on that defense,” Fox said. “I just knew we were going to win. Once it went to [overtime] I knew we were winning that game.

“We just know we have each other’s backs when it comes down to it. If you make a mistake, someone is going to get in your face about it. That’s the thing; you’re held accountable. That’s how you’re going to get good. You have your weaknesses and you have to get better at them. It’s about letting things go and knowing that we are going to get better and be one of the best defenses in the country.”

When asked about his golden-brown locks, the player who comes across more as a surfer than a linebacker was breezy instead of flippant.

“I don’t think the power’s in the hair,” Fox said. “I guess it’s just attached to the power. That’s pretty funny though.”

Contact Andrew Gastelum at [email protected]