Sept. 11, 2000
by Tim Welsh
It comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen a game of football that the players must be tough. Physically, players must endure crashing into their 200- to 300-pound opponents at full speed countless times during a game. Besides the obvious toughness needed for players to withstand the massive collisions on the playing field, the players need mental toughness to compete at the highest level.
For Notre Dame athletes, this latter category may be the more important. To go along with the challenges of competing at the highest level of collegiate football, a Notre Dame player experiences the scrutiny of media, fans and classmates, all hoping for an outstanding season to follow in the great tradition of the Irish dynasty. In addition, these players must face the demands of attending a university in the top-20 nationally for academics.
If a player can handle all these challenges to excel on and off the field, we label that player "tough." One such player is Notre Dame fifth-year offensive guard Mike Gandy.
Unlike many of his teammates, the 6-4, 315-pound Gandy did not come to Notre Dame boasting an outstanding career at Garland High School in Garland, Texas. Gandy started on both sides of the ball beginning his sophomore year when he was only 14 years old. Sure, he was a two-time all-city, all-district and all-area pick, but he never received All-America honors. Maybe he did lead his high school to a 9-0-1 record his junior season, as well as back-to-back district championships his last two years, but he never won a state championship. Gandy caught 11 passes with one touchdown in his entire high school career!
Despite not owning awe-inspiring high school statistics, Gandy wowed recruiters with his size, mobility and blocking skills and eventually chose to play college ball at Notre Dame.
"The great tradition - academics and football - obviously attracted me to Notre Dame," says Gandy.
"Notre Dame has such a great image and I wanted to be a part of that."
Upon arriving at Notre Dame, Gandy had to deal with his first major obstacle. He came to Notre Dame smaller than most and needed a year in training with the Irish to mature into a strong, blocking tight end.
After a year waiting to play, Gandy first had to confront another challenge. With the development of Dan O'Leary and the recruitment of Jabari Holloway, there was no place for Gandy at tight end.
"Coming out of high school, I had a slight idea that I might change. It was not a big surprise to me," says Gandy.
The Notre Dame coaching staff first opted to use Gandy on the defensive line. That switch lasted only a few practices. Gandy's next change would find him at guard, and at this position he found his home.
"I was not the best receiver, but I was good at blocking and I was a pretty big guy, so I figured that in a few years I would be at offensive line," Gandy says.
As a sophomore guard, Gandy showed real promise. His athletic ability and agility put him in a position to earn some real playing time. Offensive line coach Dave Borbely called Gandy Notre Dame's "prototypical" lineman.
"He is big and strong enough to move people along the line of scrimmage, but he is athletic enough and runs well enough to cut guys, block in space and chop those ends," says Borbely.
"I think I have an advantage being a former tight end," says Gandy.
"I was slow for a tight end, but I am pretty quick for a guard."
Those quick feet fit well into Notre Dame's multiple offense, which features a great deal of pulling, trapping and option. Gandy feels the Irish offense suits him just fine because he can "move pretty well and hit a moving target."
Unfortunately, a broken ankle caused Gandy to miss his entire sophomore season.
"It is just one of those things that happens in football," says Gandy.
"You don't expect it and it is really frustrating. I thought I was really looking at some playing time my sophomore year and I was getting better. Then I had to take away the whole season with rehab. It was really emotionally draining."
Gandy learned a great deal from his injury, especially about the fragile nature of his career.
"It showed me how quickly it all could end. It helped me to prepare better and to not take anything for granted."
After missing a year of practice and struggling though rehabilitation, Gandy found himself as the sixth man, backing up former Irish players Tim Ridder and Jerry Wisne at guard. Filling in as a backup, Gandy showed his toughness as he dealt with being a role player. He would play marvelously in all 11 games, at times grading out higher than the starters.
"He's good enough to win with, and that is why we're playing him a lot," said Borbely.
When Wisne suffered an injury against Navy, Gandy filled in beautifully. He would start the next three games against LSU, USC and Georgia Tech in the 1999 Gator Bowl.
Gandy then stood out as the most experienced member of a very young Notre Dame offensive line starting the 1999 season.
"Especially on the offensive line, experience is very important. You have to get in game-type situations when the crowd is cheering, the band is playing and everything is going on so fast. Coming out of high school you just don't have that atmosphere. It really helped me a lot playing in each game my junior year," he said.
With relatively little experience, Gandy, along with the other offensive linemen, showed their toughness by holding their own against the top teams in the nation. As the Irish season progressed, Gandy and the other offensive linemen worked through their relative inexperience together. They became closer and more cohesive as a unit.
"A lot of people see positions on the field and think it is just one guy, but, especially on the offensive line, what each of the five guys does affects the other four. You have to have all five guys moving on the same page. It has to be a tight unit. We are really close, we are all friends and that is what is going to help us be good on the field," says Gandy.
Gandy dealt with a variety of emotions duringthe '99 season.
"A lot of us who were in all those tough games, a lot of guys who played a lot, truly understand that we were not as bad as our record indicated. All the games we lost were within four or five points. It came down to the last couple series every game. To work so hard all year, to get ready for the season and have it go that way was frustrating."
Like so many tough competitors, Gandy has turned that frustration into inspiration for next season.
"All the seniors coming back and all the leaders coming back are really looking at that as motivation not to let it happen again. This is our last time around and there is no more next year. We just have to do it this year," he says.
Having confronted so many challenges in the past, Gandy has earned the right to name toughness as one of his advantages on the field.
"I think I am a pretty tough guy. I can play with a lot of pain. Of course in football, you are going to get hurt. I am mentally strong so I can usually block out the pain and keep going," says Gandy.
With a new season on the horizon, Gandy looks to the future with hope and anticipation.
"I am looking forward to the season," Gandy comments. "I hope everybody stays on our bandwagon and has faith in us."
Just keep playing hard, tough guy, and we will keep cheering for old Notre Dame.