May 4, 2001
by Blake Kirkman
It seems natural the son of a participant in the Dec. 23, 1972, National Football League playoff game at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, a game forever remembered for the play known as the "Immaculate Reception," would one day play football for a school boasting the likes of "Touchdown Jesus" and "First Down Moses." This is exactly the case for former Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders linebacker Gerald Irons, Sr., and his son Grant, a fifth-year senior defensive end from The Woodlands, Texas.
When it comes to football for the Irons family, one might say that it's in the blood. The youngest of three sons, Grant is the third to play Division I football, as oldest brother Gerald Jr., played for the University of Nebraska, and brother Jarrett played for the University of Michigan.
"I was very fortunate to have not only a father who played professional football for 10 years, but to also have two older brothers who played collegiate football. Just to have the wealth of wisdom around me growing up was invaluable," explains the double major in management information systems and business management, who will graduate this May.
"It wasn't like my parents or brothers ever pressured me to go one way or the other, or follow their footsteps," Irons says.
"They were always very open and allowed me to make my own decisions and choose what path to take. Not only were they great role models as football players, they're my best friends."
However, with two older brothers having chosen two of the elite schools in college football, it's understandable the pressure on the youngest brother when it came time for him to choose a college.
"I wanted to make sure which ever college I attended, I would become a better person," Irons says.
"Notre Dame was the perfect fit for me, in that it allowed me to become the best person I could be. There were a lot of factors, but first and foremost the academic reputation of Notre Dame. A degree from Notre Dame is well respected not only throughout the country, but throughout the world. The football tradition is one of the elite in all of college football, and everyone you meet or come in contact with here, there is always something special about them."
Make no mistake about it, however, there is also something very special about the two-time captain. Both on and off the field throughout his four years at the University, Irons has displayed leadership and maturity that can be admired by all.
"I've been very fortunate, and very blessed, as far as God given abilities and talents," Irons says.
"I just want to do what I can to help other people. I especially enjoy speaking to kids at elementary schools. When I was growing up, I looked up to all kinds of sports figures and athletes. I think being a student-athlete gives us the opportunity to be role models, and I embrace that opportunity."
On the field, Irons is a four-year letterwinner on defense and is looking forward to his fifth year of eligibility after his 2000 season ended with a shoulder injury suffered Sept. 9 against Nebraska.
"When you look at last year, it was a special year," Irons says. "We got everyone involved in the whole experience, from players to coaches to fans and administration. It was just a special year. From a personal standpoint, speaking specifically about the injury, it was devastating. To prepare all off-season with my teammates for the upcoming season, and in one quick second it all changed. We were all prepared for battle, and then being unable to compete, from a competitive standpoint it was difficult. Everyone was very supportive, my teammates and everyone on campus, it really helped me to persevere and to overcome the adversity. It is something that I am definitely grateful for the experience."
When Irons came to Notre Dame as a freshman in the fall of 1997, he was a self-described tall and skinny 215-pound inside linebacker, yet he still managed to make 50 tackles in 12 games, three of them as a starter. As a sophomore, Irons made the switch from inside to outside linebacker, while continuing to add strength and making big plays for the Irish defense ashe recorded 32 tackles in eight games played. The final move came during Irons' junior season when he was moved to his current position at defensive end. Irons had his best year yet as he made34 tackles, including four for loss and four sacks.
"I enjoyed running around as a linebacker and making big hits. That was fun," Irons says.
"Now I take that same aggressiveness and apply it to the end position, which I actually enjoy more than playing linebacker. The biggest adjustment was changing from the two-point stance and getting into a three-point stance for the first time in my life. Down in the three-point stance, there are a lot of adjustments to your footwork and to a new style of play. The footwork and technique standpoint was all new to me."
Learning the nuances of a new position at an elite college football program is never an easy task, but for Irons, help was always available. From the coaching staff, including defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Greg Mattison, and head coach Bob Davie, to his fellow teammates on the line, Irons credits many people for valuable instruction on learning the fundamentals of the end position.
"Anthony Weaver has been very instrumental in my development as a player. His technique is phenomenal," Irons says. "He's always helping me to improve and get better. I think the defensive line is a very close-knit group, and we're always helping each other with our technique. I think that has really helped us, not only as a defensive line, but also as a defense, and ultimately as a team." As the new season approaches everyone involved with the Notre Dame football team can feel the excitement building up to the opening game Sept. 8 in Lincoln, Neb., against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. For Irons, however, there is much more riding on that game than simply the start of a new season. The 2001 season will finally allow the injury that ended his 2000 season to be completely in the past.
"It always comes up - people asking how the shoulder is doing. It's all part of the game and I don't mind it at all. I'm just looking forward to the time when this injury will be a thing of the past, and when it will be who we beat last week, or who we're going beat next week. The doctors did a great job of repairing the shoulder and it has fully healed. Now it's to the point that I'm building back the strength. It's exciting to think about being out on the field and helping the team win next season."
The date of Sept. 22, 2001, is certainly important for Irons as he will have come full circle from last year's season-ending injury to once again making his way out of the tunnel of Notre Dame Stadium ready to wage war on Michigan State in the Irish home opener. All the grueling hours of rehabbing the shoulder, coupled with the anticipation of the moment will produce what Irons describes as a crescendo to a very difficult year for him.
"That will be the greatest adrenaline rush a person can have," Irons says. "This is my fifth year, and still, every time I run out of the tunnel, the adrenaline rush is just unbelievable. There is just so much energy generated in that stadium. When you look back at how many players have run out of that tunnel - players like Joe Montana to Chris Zorich, and even Knute Rockne, we're all part of something special. Then add to it the fans screaming at the top of their lungs, all you want to do is win, represent the school and represent Notre Dame."
When asked about his goals for the 2001 football season, Irons explains it is as simple as a single word - win.
Even before he lines up for his first play of the coming season, Grant Irons has already won.