Jan. 22, 2016
By Leigh Torbin
It is no longer a question of whether or not Notre Dame will have a Super Bowl winner this year but rather a question of whom this year's Notre Dame Super Bowl winner will be.
As the NFL heads into conference championship game weekend, all four remaining teams have Notre Dame representatives, not merely on their respective rosters, but on their 53-man active rosters. Only Notre Dame, Alabama and Oklahoma can make this claim of having one of its former players on the 53-man active roster of every remaining NFL team -- assuring the school of a Super Bowl winner.
When the AFC Championship Game kicks off from Denver at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday, Darius Fleming and the New England Patriots will be facing Ryan Harris and David Bruton (injured reserve) of the Denver Broncos. The NFC Championship Game Sunday evening in Charlotte will see J.J. Jansen's Carolina Panthers facing Michael Floyd, Troy Niklas and Robert Hughes (practice squad) of the Arizona Cardinals.
At least one of these names will be added to a prestigious roll of 30 Notre Dame monogram winners who have played for the winning team in a Super Bowl and the 45 who have been on the roster of a Super Bowl winner. Both of those sums stand third in the nation.
Of those seven, two have played in a Super Bowl (Bruton for Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII and Fleming for New England in Super Bowl XLIX) while Fleming is the only one with a Super Bowl ring already in hand. Fleming would be the 12th Irish player to win multiple super Bowls, the most recent being Justin Tuck who earned a pair of rings starting at defensive end for the New York Giants, defeating the Patriots in both Super Bowl XLII and XLVI. Fleming would be the first monogram recipient to win a Super Bowl in consecutive seasons since David Givens helped the Patriots to wins in Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX.
Mainly used on special teams, Fleming played extensively at linebacker late in New England's divisional round win over Kansas City -- particularly after an injury to Jerod Mayo. Fleming finished with two tackles against the Chiefs, one on defense and one on kickoff coverage.
In addition to his football acumen, Fleming made national headlines this week for his heroism off of the field. Wednesday came news that last week, while driving home from practice, Fleming helped rescue a woman who was trapped in her car after an accident by kicking in the window. Fleming suffered a 22-stitch cut on his leg but still played against the Chiefs. ESPN.com's Mike Reiss recaps Fleming's Samaritan story here.
Harris started all 16 regular season games for the Broncos this year, including each of the last 13 at left tackle, helping protect the blind side of both Peyton manning and Brock Osweiler. Harris also started at left tackle for the Broncos in the divisional round against Pittsburgh. A special teams captain, David Bruton played in 13 games for Denver this year with three starts at safety before being lost for the season to injury. Bruton made 43 tackles in 2015 and recorded a pair of interceptions.
Most importantly, Bruton was Denver's nominee for the coveted Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award given to players who represent the league's commitment to philanthropy and community impact. The Oakland Raiders also nominated Notre Dame's Tuck for this prize.
Floyd helped the Cardinals to a thrilling overtime win against Green Bay in the divisional round by catching two touchdowns. He snared the game's first score and also a fourth-quarter TD for the Cardinals. He led the Cardinals with his five 100-yard receiving games in 2015, two more than perennial Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald's three. Niklas, who also saw action against Green Bay but did not record any statistics, had a regular season highlighted by his Week 8 performance against Cleveland where he had two TD catches, including the game-winner. Niklas started three of his 16 games played and also added four special teams tackles in 2015.
Jansen is completing his seventh season as the Panthers' long snapper, earning a spot in the Pro Bowl following the 2013 season. Jansen's flawless snapping helped Panthers kicker Graham Gano rank second in the NFL with a Panthers-record 146 regular season points, trailing only Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski's 151 league-wide. Against Seattle in the divisional round, Jansen snapped flawlessly for four extra-point attempts, one field goal and five punts.
In all, 13 Notre Dame monogram winners saw themselves on NFL playoff teams this year.
Stephon Tuitt started both of Pittsburgh's playoff games at defensive end. In the Steelers' divisional round loss to the Broncos, Tuitt recorded four tackles, including one tackle for loss, while contributing a quarterback hit on Peyton Manning. Pittsburgh had advanced to the divisional round after a wild card round win over Cincinnati. The Bengals' roster included Tyler Eifert who has been selected for the 2016 Pro Bowl at tight end. Eifert had five catches for 58 yards against Pittsburgh in the wild card round.
In addition to Eifert, four other former Irish players (RB Robert Blanton, TE Kyle Rudolph, S Harrison Smith and OL John Sullivan) had their Super Bowl dreams deferred by a year during the wild card round when their Minnesota Vikings suffered a heart-breaking 10-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Rudolph was nearly a hero in the final minutes as, during the drive that set up a game-winning field goal attempt, he caught a 24-yard pass and drew a 19-yard pass interference penalty against Kam Chancellor, contributing 43 yards to the march.
Leigh Torbin, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013 and serves as the football publicity team's top lieutenant while coordinating all media efforts for Irish women's lacrosse. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor's degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.