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Games in NFL stadiums add to Irish experience

| Friday, October 30, 2015

For countless young football players, getting the chance to set foot on an NFL field, and even better, to play a game on one, is the dream.

For Notre Dame players year after year, certainly none of whom have been drafted into the NFL yet, it’s really nothing new.

Getting ready in the same locker room as the pros and standing on the same sidelines as Hall of Famers past and future has become at least a once-a-year event for the Irish with their annual Shamrock Series game. The team’s most senior players on the roster, its graduate students, have suited up at Chicago’s Soldier Field, Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, Dallas’ AT&T Stadium, Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, New York’s MetLife Stadium and Washington’s FedEx Field — not to mention Miami’s SunLife Stadium and Nashville’s LP Field for bowl games.

Irish senior running back C.J. Prosise tries to break an Arizona State tackle during Notre Dame’s 37-34 win over the Sun Devils on Oct. 5, 2013. The game, part of Notre Dame’s annual Shamrock Series, took place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, home of the Dallas Cowboys.Observer File Photo
Irish senior running back C.J. Prosise tries to break an Arizona State tackle during Notre Dame’s 37-34 win over the Sun Devils on Oct. 5, 2013. The game, part of Notre Dame’s annual Shamrock Series, took place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, home of the Dallas Cowboys.

“I love playing in NFL stadiums,” junior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell said. “It’s cool because you kind of have this goal of wanting to go to the NFL, so it’s cool being there.”

This year, the Irish will match up against Boston College in the Shamrock Series at Fenway Park in November, moving the game from a football venue to one for baseball, albeit a storied one at that.

But they’ll still have a chance to fulfill the annual tradition of playing where the pros in their own sport do, with this week’s game against Temple taking place at the Philadelphia Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field and next week’s against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.

“It’s fun, making it that any game we play can be the biggest game of the week, like we see here, so it’s fun that teams really try to highlight us on their schedule, and it makes it fun both ways — extremely competitive each week,” junior linebacker James Onwualu said.

Over the past few seasons, some opponents have moved games away from their own campus stadiums to the nearest NFL venues when Notre Dame has come to town, with the Irish usually able to bring their large fan base along to road matchups, which is what Temple and Pittsburgh will do this season.

“It’s pretty cool,” Onwualu said. “We’ve played in some unbelievable stadiums, so just having a different atmosphere, and I think it’ll be a great one since they sold it out, but it’s fun.”

Despite the change in venue from a campus stadium to a professional one, the Irish are still anticipating a rowdy crowd.

“I’m sure they’ll have a ton of students at this game, so it’s kind of irrelevant,” graduate student Joe Schmidt said. “You just prepare for a hostile environment, and that’s all you can do.”

Senior running back C.J. Prosise said having a large Notre Dame crowd in attendance for these matchups can sometimes change the dynamic from that of a typical road game.

“It’s just a different atmosphere,” he said. “It doesn’t have the same feel, I guess. The fans will be different. It’s more kind of neutral, I guess you could say, but it’s still the same kind of college football atmosphere, though.”

Prosise, Schmidt, Onwualu and Rochell all named AT&T Stadium as among their favorites — “The JumboTron, that was tight,” Rochell said — and it seems to be a hit with their teammates, as well.

“I’d probably have to say Dallas. Probably most people would say that,” Prosise said. “It’s definitely a great stadium to play in. But each one we’ve played in, I’ve had a great experience with all of them.”

However, making an annual trip to a professional venue isn’t necessarily a huge selling point during the recruiting process, no matter how cool it may be.

“I don’t think I even realized it when I was getting recruited,” Rochell said. “I just loved Notre Dame for the school. I mean, I committed before I even came to a game, so I was more sold on the program than this opportunity to play in NFL stadiums.”

“If they ask about it, sure,” Schmidt said when asked if he talks about playing in NFL stadiums with recruits. “But the majority of the time, I think our biggest selling point is, hey, look, we have Notre Dame Stadium, which is, in my opinion, the greatest stadium in the country, and that’s something that I would tell someone if they were looking to come here, is just how amazing our campus is and our stadium is and the tradition and glory and everything about it is so fun.”

But that doesn’t stop it from becoming a bragging point now, either.

“That was definitely something that was really interesting to me, and I really enjoyed hearing about playing in those NFL venues, but it didn’t really affect anything,” Prosise said. “But it’s definitely something you can brag about, saying you play in a couple a year.”

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