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Hart overcomes adversity, leads on and off field for Irish program

On Saturday afternoon, senior cornerback Cam Hart and his classmates will run out of the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium. For many, it will be the last time they do so. For Hart, it’s a second straight week of high emotions surrounding game day. Just last weekend, Hart came back home to Baltimore when Notre Dame played Navy.

“It was very emotional. I had 35-plus people there … For some of [my family], it was their first time able to see me live action at this stage,” Hart said. “And here we are coming into Senior Day, and it could be the last time I play in Notre Dame Stadium ever, and it’s emotional. It’s kind of surreal, it all happened so fast.”

It’s been quite the journey for Hart, who came to Notre Dame as a two-way player, but he committed as a wide receiver. At the time, he felt it was his best path to playing time. However, Hart quickly transitioned to defensive back and worked his way up the depth chart. He became a starter as a junior and delivered his breakout performance with a two-interception game against Wisconsin in the Shamrock Series game. This season, despite a bumpy road at times, Hart has led an Irish secondary allowing just 193.8 passing yards per game. He has four pass breakups and has been a huge factor in Notre Dame’s turnaround after their 0-2 start. 

“It was tough. I’ve never been on a team that faced as much adversity. It honestly shows the character of the players on the team. I think it’s brought us closer because we’ve been through those tough months. We came to practice, and were all fighting together, all trusting each other. This is one of the closest teams I’ve been on at Notre Dame. That adversity brought us closer.”

Adversity has been a major talking point for Hart and the Irish over the last few seasons. 

As a freshman, Hart earned a sack in his first collegiate game, but he suffered a season-ending injury after three appearances. As a sophomore, Hart and the Irish battled through the long COVID season, playing in front of little to no fans all season. However, that season also boasts one of Hart’s favorite memories — a win over No. 1 Clemson that led to Notre Dame students, the only fans in attendance, storming the field. 

“We had been playing in stadiums with zero fans, or a few hundred fans. To play at home, a top-five team, we weren’t expecting much fanbase-wise. We were adamant about bringing our own energy,” Hart remembered. “But as the momentum started to shift our way, the fans got more into it, started to get louder. It was all a surprise for us, and with the way it ended, it was one of the most exciting games I’ve been a part of.” 

Then, there was this past offseason. A coaching change briefly rocked the program, but the Irish stabilized things with the promotion of Marcus Freeman. Hart lauded Freeman’s approach to coaching.

“I have much love for Coach Kelly, but if he had to move on, Coach Freeman would be the person I would want to be in that position,” Hart commented. “There’s no hierarchy. [Freeman] puts respect as a fundamental element in the program.”

Of course, with Freeman now leading the program, that meant Hart worked under his third defensive coordinator in as many years. This one is Al Golden who brought 10 years of head coaching experience to the table, along with six years of NFL coaching. His most recent position was as a linebackers coach with the AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals.

“Obviously Coach Golden being an NFL cat, it’s nice to be able to play under him,” Hart said. “We’re learning a lot of the stuff that hopefully we’ll get to learn at the next level.”

So working under a new coaching staff, Hart immediately got hit with more adversity. A slow individual start to the season, coupled with the team’s 0-2 start and a home loss to Marshall piled the pressure on Hart. But, Notre Dame has righted the ship, going 7-1 since that ugly start. That included a beatdown of previously unbeaten Clemson, 35-14. Hart noted the victory was sweet, but the mentality felt different.

“It was very special to have one of those big wins in my senior year. I feel like [Freeman] has another level that he can tap into. It felt different than 2020,” he said. “I appreciated the win, but I felt like there was something more there that he can tap into.” 

The ceiling is higher, and that’s in no small part due to the young talent that Freeman is bringing in. Young players like Jaden Mickey and Benjamin Morrison, both freshmen cornerbacks, give Hart a chance to be a leader for the Irish. 

“Guys like [Notre Dame football alum] Troy Pride, Shaun Crawford, Nick McCloud all took me under their wing and taught me tricks of the trade,” Hart said. “[They] taught me how to be a leader and be a big brother. I took what they taught me and put it into effect this year and last year.”

For Hart, seeing those young guys he’s taken under his own wing have their own big moments is just as gratifying as making big plays himself. When asked about his favorite memory from this season, Hart recalled Morrison’s pick-six against Clemson.

“To see that, on that stage versus Clemson, it was amazing for me to be a part of it. I know where we stand as brothers, as friends. It was special for me, like a big brother moment.”

On Saturday, it’ll be Hart’s moment, at least for now, as he soaks in what could be his final game at Notre Dame Stadium. But once the pregame ceremonies are over, it’ll be back to business for Hart. After a career and senior season filled with adversity, with his days donning the blue and gold potentially coming to a close, Hart is looking to close out the 2022 season with a bang.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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