By Todd Burlage
Tyler Eifert was finally ready to chase his football dreams as a Notre Dame freshman when it looked as if his career might be over before it really had a chance to start.
Ferocious and persistent pain in his back forced the Irish tight end to shut down his rookie year in 2009, almost immediately after some token playing time against Nevada in the season opener.
The pain had become unbearable, and the proper remedy for recovery debatable.
Something had to be done, but the potential risks surgery might have on Eifert's football career created a cautious environment within the team of Notre Dame coaches and doctors.
"We were trying to avoid surgery," Eifert recalled. "We tried rest, therapy, rehab, core strength and everything like that."
Nothing helped, and surgery was finally scheduled about halfway through the 2009 season. The doctors assured Eifert the procedure would not derail his college football career. But obviously a serious operation that required a broken piece of disc to be removed from his spinal cord left no guarantees for a full recovery.
"My back just kept bothering me so the doctors just figured it was time to do something," said Eifert, who never lost any confidence that he would be healthy and ready for his sophomore season in 2010. "The doctors were very helpful and knowledgeable. They assured me I would make a full recovery."
Any career uncertainty Eifert felt as a freshman has given way to the Irish senior setting a pace to become the greatest tight end in Notre Dame history, and quite likely, the best player at his position during this college football season.
Eifert is the frontrunner to win the Mackey Award as the best tight end in the country. He also entered this season needing 39 receptions and 605 receiving yards to break legendary Irish tight end Ken MacAfee's career records that have stood since 1977. Eifert led all tight ends in the Football Bowl Subdivision (Division I) last season with 63 receptions and 803 receiving yards - both Notre Dame single-season records - so MacAfee's 35-year run as valedictorian of "Tight End U" is likely coming to an end.
Quiet and a bit uncomfortable celebrating career accomplishments or individual goals, questions about records and awards bounce off Eifert like defenders trying to bring down the sturdy All American in the open field.
"All of that would be nice," Eifert deadpanned about any personal pursuits. "But in the end, awards and records don't really carry much weight on anything. My goal is just to help the team the best way I can, be accountable, be reliable."
From Humble Beginnings
As a skinny defensive back and wide receiver at Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., nobody - not even Tyler Eifert - could have imagined where his football pursuits would eventually lead him.
"When Tyler first came to high school, he was like 5-foot-10, and I was looking down on him. I never thought he would be a late bloomer like he was," said Irish fifth-year senior John Goodman, a high school teammate of Eifert's back in Fort Wayne. "When I got to my senior year (in high school) and Tyler was a junior, I could tell he was a breakout player. He can play the game like nobody else."
Bishop Dwenger head coach Chris Svarczkopf agrees. Eifert's high school teams were loaded with Division I college talent - especially within the receiving units - and Eifert just kind of blended in until late in his sophomore year as a split end.
"He was actually overshadowed somewhat," Svarczkopf said. "We hit him with a touchdown pass in a regional game and I just remember saying, "whoa!' Because that was the first time I can remember Tyler becoming somebody that all of us really started to think very highly of."
Eifert shot up more than six inches in high school to about his current height of 6-foot-6 and gained enough weight and notice to secure his share of scholarship offers - Indiana, Purdue, Northwestern, Minnesota, Vanderbilt, to name a few. But none of those carried the clout of a Notre Dame offer, the dream school of almost every player that moves through the Catholic environment at Bishop Dwenger.
Incoming Purdue head coach Danny Hope brought the fullcourt press to Fort Wayne to try and lure Eifert to his Boilermakers. Tyler's father, Greg, earned his degree and was a standout basketball player at Purdue, so Hope thought the legacy card might pull Tyler in.
"I thought, and I think the world thought, that Purdue was what Tyler was going to do because of his affiliation with the school," Svarczkopf said. "I don't know if he was waiting to see if Notre Dame was going to offer, but Coach Hope wanted an answer right then, and Tyler couldn't give him one. He didn't jump on the Purdue offer, for sure. He did jump on the Notre Dame offer."
Ending up at Notre Dame happened almost by chance for Eifert. Kyle Rudolph had already locked down the starting tight end duties for the Irish after a Freshman All-American season in 2008. The Irish coaches had evaluated Eifert on videotape but showed little interest in his services or offering a scholarship.
One recruiting service rated Eifert as the No. 10 player - the No. 10 player in the state of Indiana.
Svarczkopf became familiar with the Notre Dame coaching staff during Goodman's recruitment and urged former Irish assistant coach Corwin Brown to take one more look at Eifert, but maybe as something other than a tight end.
Persistence paid off and in June of 2008 - after a second round of videotape evaluation - Eifert was invited to a one-day football camp at Notre Dame.
He arrived on campus essentially anonymous. He left campus as the talk of the Irish coaching staff, most notably head coach Charlie Weis, who offered a scholarship shortly after Eifert's visit, but as an athlete and not as a tight end.
"I looked at the trip as a chance to draw some attention and hopefully get an offer," Eifert said. "Once I did, the decision on where I was going to school was easy after that."
Some Coaching Irony
Weis had his player, but there was another coaching staff in Ohio that had also recognized the raw potential of one Tyler Eifert.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and former Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar were trying to bolster their 2009 recruiting class while working together at Cincinnati, and they wanted Eifert to be part of the plan.
The two coaches were on Eifert's recruitment and offered a scholarship in part because their staff looked past what Eifert was in high school, and more to what he could become in college.
"We only saw him on film (at Cincinnati)," said Molnar, who ended up coaching his Cincinnati recruit at Notre Dame in 2010-11, before leaving to become head coach at the University of Massachusetts. "But one of our coaches saw (Eifert) at a camp and said, `No, this guy can grow into a tight end.' "
It turned out to be a prophetic projection, but not until one man's misery became another's opportunity.
Rudolph had emerged as a star at Notre Dame and established himself as arguably the top tight end in the country. But in one lineup changing moment, Rudolph's college career came to an abrupt end when his hamstring muscles ripped off the bone during the sixth game of the 2010 season against Pittsburgh.
Enter Eifert, the next man in, who had just one catch in the first six games in 2010 - his only career reception - but managed 26 catches, 335 yards and two touchdowns filling in for Rudolph as the starter in the last seven games that season. In his first career start against Western Michigan, one week after Rudolph's injury, Eifert recorded four catches for 72 yards with a 39-yard touchdown.
"That's when I felt like I belonged. It was the first game I started after not getting much collegiate action," Eifert said of his breakout game. "Now, everything has exceeded my expectations. You get here as a freshman, you're kind of trying to get the hang of things, maybe those aren't the best of times. Then you finally find your niche and it's been great after that."
About five months from now, Tyler Eifert will have his finance degree in hand, and a big financial decision to go along with it. The injury during his freshman season preserved an extra year of eligibility, so coming back to Notre Dame for a fifth season in 2013 is an option.
But with the fortunes of a first-round selection in next year's NFL Draft waiting, even Eifert slipped up when talking his plans after this year.
"I know that the NFL will probably be there. But I'm just trying to enjoy my last year here ... well, I don't know if it's my last year yet or not," Eifert said, trying to keep a straight face. "I'm just going to enjoy the moment and enjoy the opportunities that are in front of me."
And oh my, there are many.