Matt Salerno always knew he was coming to Notre Dame
Andrew McGuinness | Friday, November 19, 2021
Countless kids grow up dreaming of one day running out of the tunnel of Notre Dame Stadium, gold helmet gleaning in the sunlight with the roar of 80,000 fans behind them. Very few actually earn the privilege of doing so; even fewer are able to contribute to an Irish team that competes on the sport’s biggest stage.
That wasn’t necessarily wide receiver Matt Salerno’s dream. While sports are the deciding factor for the college choice of many high school students, Salerno didn’t come to Notre Dame solely to live that dream. “Notre Dame was my dream place,” Salerno. “I was gonna come here regardless of football.”
Maybe that doesn’t sound like the mentality of someone able to work their way onto the team as a walk-on and eventually become a consistent special teams player for the Irish. But this does: “I worked hard to reach out to the coaches and get a response and see if there was a spot on the team,” Salerno said. Salerno’s Notre Dame dream may not have been centered around football, but he worked hard to make sure it played a large role in his time in South Bend.
The results certainly reflect the hunger of the latter approach. Salerno walked on at Notre Dame from Valencia, California, where he was a three-sport athlete (football, lacrosse and soccer) and straight A-student and class president at Crespi Carmelite High School. Salerno spent his freshman season on the scout team; not the most glamorous work, but as the classic theatre saying goes, there are no small roles, just small actors.
Salerno has certainly proved he isn’t the latter. After making his Notre Dame debut against New Mexico in 2019, Salerno played the biggest role of his Irish career in 2020. He returned 10 punts for 45 yards last fall, fair catching 23 more. Had Salerno returned just two more punts, he would have been eligible for the national leaderboard and ranked 36th in the nation with 4.5 yards per return. His ten punt returns were the fifth most in the ACC, helping Notre Dame reach the conference championship and the College Football Playoff.
Salerno has continued to be a part of Notre Dame’s special teams this year, returning his first two collegiate kickoffs for 33 yards against Navy. However, his favorite moment playing for the Irish came when he didn’t even have the ball in his hands; it was “(Chris Tyree’s) kick return for a touchdown against Wisconsin. To be able to feel for the momentum shift was pretty exciting.”
Yet for everything he’s done on the field for the Irish, some of Salerno’s most valuable moments at Notre Dame haven’t necessarily come on the field. “I learned that relationships are probably the most important thing when it comes to work and success. The positive relationships I’ve had with relationships here have been very good,” he said. Salerno is studying aerospace engineering and plans to work in the blockchain space after graduation.
His degree and the lessons he’s learned at Notre Dame were his main dream. But whether he was grinding away on the scout team, or waiting for a high arching kick to land in his arms in front of 80,000 screaming fans, football was an incredible boost to the Notre Dame experience that Matt Salerno had always been working towards.