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Tillery magnifies love for football, ND family

| Friday, November 9, 2018

For senior Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame isn’t just a school. It’s “one big happy family.”

Tillery, a defensive lineman out of Shreveport, Louisiana, is no stranger to family as the youngest of four, although at 6-foot-7 and 305 pounds, he is anything but the baby of the family. And for him, “the people [are] what makes Notre Dame special, because everyone loves this place,” he said. “They love everyone here.”

And Tillery himself is no exception.

“This is a special environment that we’re in … we’re all blessed to be here,” he said.

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Irish senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery fights through two linemen during Notre Dame’s 24-17 win over Michigan on Sept. 1 at Notre Dame Stadiumes

Being at Notre Dame is a gift, but attending a school with such rigorous athletics and academics is difficult. Tillery has had to adapt to changes as both a student and a player, particularly as he was recruited as an offensive lineman. But these challenges have taught him as much as they have tested him.  

“It’s taught me that any situation that I’m put in in life, like I can adapt and handle it. Like you know there is high demands at Notre Dame like going to class, things are hard, it’s not easy going to school here … but also playing football is not easy,” Tillery said. “We are playing some of the best teams in the country every week, so you have to be great there, too. So it’s just, it’s just tough sometimes. But I have been able to put myself in that situation and in these situations at Notre Dame and been successful.”

Tillery, however, has proven himself to be up to the Notre Dame challenge.

He has excelled in the classroom and on the field — in fact, he already graduated. Last spring, he completed the last of his credits to earn a degree in economics, and he is now a non-degree-seeking graduate student for his fourth and final year of eligibility.

On the field, Tillery is also a phenom, a prime example of his abilities coming this season in a record-tying four-sack performance he posted against Stanford at home earlier in the season.

“It felt great. I knew that I wanted to have a good game because I haven’t beaten — we haven’t beaten — Stanford since I’ve been here,” Tillery said. “Freshman year, we went to Palo Alto and lost. Sophomore year, we lost here. Last year, [I] got into the game and we lost, but we all were inspired to make it a different outcome this year, so, you know, we’re able to do that.”

Notre Dame has effectively proven itself as a viable College Football Playoff contender, in large part due to the defensive unit Tillery leads. Yet despite the huge performances Tillery has had, he cites his favorite game as “my first game, against Texas, my freshman year, because, you know, first game, running out of the stadium, night game. It’s very exciting,” Tillery said.

Even when he’s not electrifying the Irish crowd, Tillery’s world revolves around football. His favorite thing to do outside of playing football? “Watch football,” he said.

Although he is primarily a Saints fan as a Louisiana native, Tillery says that “whenever there’s a good game on, I’m always watching it.”

Always surprising people, Tillery added that he loves to watch tennis, too, particularly his favorite player, Gaël Monfils from France. “I like the way he plays, love his style,” Tillery said.

But Tillery, who has been all smiles, pauses and turns pensive when he considers the end of the season and what Senior Day means for him and his teammates.

“Sad, happy and excited I would say. Sad. It’s our last game at Notre Dame,” he said. “Happy, you know, we’re 9-0. Excited for the future. We’ve got a lot to play for.”

The arrival of winter means the arrival of the College Football Playoff, and although Tillery is anxious to compete for a title, the end of the season marks the end of an era for him. He will miss “how beautiful it is here,” he said. “ … I like being on campus, it’s just a good environment.”

Yet even when the Notre Dame football season is over, Tillery won’t be retiring his cleats.

“I want to be a professional football player, that’s my goal,” he said. “ … That’s what I’ve been working for, that’s what I’ll be training for.”

But his mother, Mildred, shouldn’t worry — as Tillery said, even great football players still love their families.

“Tell my mom I love her, because she’ll definitely be reading,” Tillery said with a smile.

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