Sept. 11, 2000
by Ken Kleppel
Upon the reinforced seat of his trusty 10-speed bike, senior defensive end Grant Irons' giant smile illuminates the entire Notre Dame community. With his remarkably outgoing and sociable demeanor, the four-year Keenan Hall resident is easily one of the most popular and recognizable characters on campus. He personifies what the Notre Dame student-athlete experience is supposed to be about. Whether Irons is on or off the football field, you cannot help but notice.
"Whenever you greet him you can always expect a reaction." says senior inside linebacker Anthony Brannan of Irons, whom is known simply as G.I. to his teammates. "Everybody on the team has their own impersonation of Grant."
His involvement with Notre Dame and the South Bend area is certainly more difficult to impersonate.
In addition to representing the football program as the vice-president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council, Irons' long list of community involvement includes volunteer efforts with Habitat for Humanity, reading children's books to area elementary school students, appearing in promotions sponsored by the University's Office of Drug and Alcohol Education, as well as numerous other activities associated with the Athletic Department's Life Skills Program.
In fact, Irons, who stands an imposing 6-5, 275 pounds, last season was one of 11 Division I-A players named to the 1999 Good Works Team selected by the American Football Coaches Association, which recognizes service to both the university and the community, and the 1999-2000 Notre Dame Above and Beyond All-Difference Team.
"Grant is such a likable guy," says inside linebacker Anthony Denman.
"Sometimes upperclassmen don't look too friendly in the eyes of freshmen, but Grant is friendly and freshmen can relate to him because he is very easy to get along with. You can just look at him and laugh. After we go through two-a-days, Grant is still smiling. I just start laughing."
"I try to treat the freshmen the same as everyone else," Irons says.
"I am there for help if they need advice. When I was here as a freshman, there were so many people who helped me and pointed me in the right direction. I try to do the same now."
Notre Dame and Irons proved a perfect couple from the onset of their engagement.
In addition to being named a first-team prep All-American by USA Today and the National Player of the Year by the Touchdown Club of Columbus (Ohio) in 1996, Irons also received numerous academic accolades. As president of his senior class with a 3.87 cumulative grade-point average, Irons was awarded the 1997 Dial Award presented to the nation's top high school scholar-athlete, as well as the Franklin D. Watkins Memorial Trophy given to the top male African-American scholar athlete in the country.
"The academic excellence and strong tradition of balancing academics and athletics attracted me most to Notre Dame," says Irons.
"I just wanted to be a part of it. I grew up loving Notre Dame. There is no greater feeling than running out that tunnel knowing I am wearing the golden helmet and representing the University."
The first few days at school away from his native The Woodlands, Texas, proved the most challenging for Irons.
"Being away from my parents (Gerald Sr., and Myrna) and my family was probably the hardest transition of my college career," says Irons.
"My parents and two older brothers (Gerald Jr., and Jarrett) are definitely my best friends. Being separated from them has allowed me to mature and grow as a person, though. A great thing about this place is that even though I left my family from home, I was entering another family at Notre Dame from my teammates, to the student body, to essentially the Notre Dame family."
It took Irons just a few weeks to become acclimated to his new home.
Beginning his Notre Dame career as an inside linebacker, Irons started the third week of his freshman campaign against Michigan State (one of three games he started that season) in the absence of injured veteran linebacker Bobbie Howard. In that game, Irons had eight tackles and broke up a pass. He became one of only six Irish rookies to earn a monogram in 1997 after making 50 tackles, while playing more minutes in 12 games than any other freshman on defense.
"Just coming in my freshman year and starting against the University of Michigan meant a lot to me," says Irons.
"Michigan was not only one of the few schools I was considering attending in high school, but my brother (Jarrett) went there and growing up, he was my role model. It was a special time for me. As a freshman, one of my goals was to become a starter, and to do so against Michigan was something special."
Irons needed to look no further than his backyard for reason to embark on a football career. His brother, Jarrett, twice captained University of Michigan squads as a two-time All-America linebacker, and his oldest brother, Gerald, Jr., spent four years as a nose guard at the University of Nebraska.
Equally important for Irons, his father played 10 seasons in the National Football League with the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns as a linebacker. He was a also a captain during his time with the Cleveland Browns.
"My father was a huge influence," Irons says.
"I am thankful to have him not only as a coach, but also as a friend. He's been where I want to be, which is ultimately the NFL. The great thing about him is that he has never pressured myself or my brothers to play football. Rather, he has always been there for guidance, support and encouragement. He has the insight that very few individuals have and it has helped me to be at the point where I am today. Between my father and mother, they were our biggest fans and supporters."
Making the switch to outside linebacker at the launch of his sophomore season, Irons started the first five games in 1998, before injuring his shoulder against Arizona State. Upon recovery, he shared time with Lamont Bryant, while playing a key reserve role in the final three regular-season games and in the 1999 Gator Bowl game against Georgia Tech.
As a junior in 1999, Irons again changed positions, this time bulking up and moving to the defensive line. He started the first 10 games of the year at left defensive end, before suffering a broken leg. Despite the shortened season, Irons shared the team lead in sacks, while notching six tackles and a sack in the Tennessee contest and recording his 100th career tackle in the Irish rout of Arizona State.
"2000 is actually the first year that I will have played the same position," says Irons who will line up on the right side of the line.
"I look at it as a positive experience because it has allowed me to see the game from different points of view and different perspectives, which I utilize now as a defensive end."
A similar theme of adjustment is inherent in Irons' approach for a rejuvenated 2000 squad.
"We need to take it one game at a time and not listen to what the critics on the outside think," says Irons.
"The main thing is for us to focus and play as a team. We need to believe in ourselves, from the coaches to the players and to the fans, because we are all in it together. It is a collective effort. When we go out there we're going to take the approach that we represent not only ourselves, but everybody that has come before us."
A starter in 18 of his first 31 career games and the most experienced member of a recharged defensive line, Irons views the forthcoming campaign as his chance for a breakthrough season.
"The biggest challenge for me is to become that impact player, to be that dominant pass rusher that is able to make plays and make things happen," Irons says.
Irons is already an impact player off the field, according to his teammates. Along with Denman and tight ends Dan O'Leary and Jabari Holloway, the squad selected Irons as one of its four captains.
"To be a captain was definitely a goal of mine, but not something which I sought," says Irons.
"I always wanted to be a leader in some form. I feel honored that my teammates selected me to be one of the four because there are so many players on this team that are captains even though they don't have the title of captain. It is an overwhelming feeling to be a captain, but every senior is a captain to me."
It is such confidence Irons speaks of in his teammates that the lineman so readily demonstrated last fall.
Irons routinely handled all post-game interviews no matter the game's outcome. Sometimes hiding the emotions of the contest, Irons became one of the signature spokesmen for a battle-weary squad that now explodes with optimism.
"I am able to flick a switch," says Irons.
"I am a different person on the field and in the locker room than I am off. Most of the time I like to lead by example, but when I am in the games and the adrenaline comes out I am a totally different player."
Perhaps sophomore defensive lineman Darrell Campbell assesses Irons' abilities best:
"If the time is right, he responds accordingly to get the team and defense ready. Grant has a great attitude and has a good heart. He is always working to improve and make himself better. He sparks something in all of us. He makes everyone feel confident and in tune with the game."
"Grant not only leads by example, but by words and emotion as well," says Denman.
"He always hustles to the ball, and if someone is out of line, he'll step up and tell people in the huddle to get it together."
"I just try to be myself and don't try to be somebody that I am not," Irons says.
"My parents always taught me that if I could be one thing in this world, it is to be myself. They also taught me to treat others the way I would want to be treated and that is with respect. I just try to have fun doing that and try to set and accomplish goals and be a better person, but at the same time help others help themselves to become the people they want to be."
Just hours away from opening kickoff against many of his former opponents and friends from Texas and weeks away from his college graduation date, Irons offers mature insight on his personal Notre Dame experience:
"It is not just Notre Dame football, but it is the student body and the alumni. It's amazing that everywhere we go, everybody shows us love. It's a family and that's what I love most about this place. From (former university president) Father (Theodore) Hesburgh to Chris Zorich to Tom Mendoza, there are so many excellent mentors here. Notre Dame has opened so many doors. For instance, just the other day Regis Philbin sent me a personal letter wishing the team and luck in the upcoming season.
"There are so many talented and intelligent student-athletes out there, but there are only a select few that are invited to have this experience and I am grateful to be one of the few. Meeting the people at Notre Dame is what makes this place so special."
Reversing roles for a moment, it may just be that the ability to meet and know Grant Irons makes this place special for everybody else.
Ever-smiling on the outside, with an iron frame, he punishes opposing lines and with a golden character personifies the Notre Dame spirit.