Sept. 30, 2015
Amir Carlisle, a wide receiver for the University of Notre Dame football team, remembers running out of the tunnel at the 50-yard line and onto the turf of Michigan Stadium in 2013.
More than 109,000 people unleashed a deafening roar.
It was not a welcoming roar.
"It was so loud I couldn't hear anything," said Carlisle as he and the Irish were about to play in Notre Dame's final scheduled game at Michigan Stadium.
"I took a moment to embrace the moment and see how many people were there--and then it was back to business," Carlisle said. "Actually that first hit brings you down to earth."
This Saturday, the Notre Dame football team will be running out onto the field in a venue known as Death Valley, the site of one of the top college football showdowns in the nation this weekend. No. 6 Notre Dame (4-0) is set to battle No. 12 Clemson (3-0) at 8:22 p.m. ET on Saturday (ABC-TV).
It's a stage and challenge the Irish embrace.
For Notre Dame players, every game is a chance to showcase their talent on a national stage. Marquee games involving the Irish frequently command the eyes of football fans around the nation.
Notre Dame's presence on the college football landscape also commands the attention of players who thrive on playing in big games with big stakes.
"These are the moments we live for, playing in games of this magnitude ... you have College GameDay ... you have a lot of games like this at Notre Dame," Carlisle said. "As a competitor that's what you live for. That's what you run sprints in the summer for. It's for these types of moments.
"One of the primary reasons many people choose to come to Notre Dame is that you're on national television every single game," Carlisle said. "Being an independent, you get to choose who you play, so you get to play coast to coast. You get to travel around. These games have a lot of impact when you're deciding where you're going to commit."
Senior defensive lineman Romeo Okwara agreed that Notre Dame's "big game" aura attracts talent.
"That's why you come to a school like Notre Dame, to play in games like this," Okwara said. "Going to Notre Dame, you get thrown into these types of games in hostile territory. That's the reason you play.
"If you're a football player, this is the type of game you want to play in. It's really special for us to go down to Death Valley and play this game. I think every high school football recruit tries to go to a school that has big games. We're very fortunate to be able to be here and take part in this game."
"It's going to be special," Adams said. "As a freshman, this will be my first type of game like that, but I can imagine what it's going to be like, because of what our crowd does to other teams. Going to an away game, into a hostile environment ... it should be fun. We should feel the energy. We just have to go out there and play hard. Any time you go to an away game, it's always fun to be part of something like that. The other team is going to give you their best. Their crowd is going to give you their best. It should be something fun, and we should be prepared for it.
"To the older players, it's like any other game. They've been there before. They know what away games are like, what the atmosphere is going to be like. As far as our role as freshmen, the older players just tell us to stay calm and prepare like it's any other game. We practice like we play, so we're going to practice for the atmosphere and practice for the noise so we can be prepared for game day. You just have to go in there and work hard, harder than you did the week before. That's what we're trying to do, keep improving. We're going to try to play Notre Dame football."
According to Tillery, the freshmen pick up their cues from the upperclassmen.
"We say the speed of the leader is the speed of the pack," Tillery said. "Our seniors set the tone for us. They've done a great job of talking to us. However they act, that's how we're going to perform. We understand we have to do our best and not let the crowd affect us.
"We're consistent with our preparation. We work hard. We make sure we're focused and we have the right perspective."
Notre Dame's coaches establish the tone and mindset for the Irish approach, and it's consistent for every game. There is no differentiation. Every opponent is respected.
"What Coach (Brian) Kelly has instilled in us is to not get lost in the hype and really focus on the preparation," Carlisle said. "You're only as good as what you prepare for each game. There has been no change in our preparation from this week, to how we're preparing in camp to how we were working out in the summer. We have that laser focus, and our end goal is to get to the national championship. We take each step with that same importance.
"There are a lot of external distractions, especially when you go into a hostile environment. The fans are going to be saying all kinds of stuff. You have to focus in and find that point that you can really just have that laser focus on what you're doing and the task that you have to complete. You have to cancel out the noise.
"What I tell the freshmen is that this is the game you've been playing since you were a little kid. Nothing has changed. It's still 100 yards. Just go out there and play. Play free and really focus on having attention to detail."
Okwara said consistency and focus are critical.
"You can't really prepare for the wildness, how loud it's going to be," he said. "You can turn up the speakers at practice all you want, but once you get there in front of all of those people, it's a whole different ball game. You just prepare and focus on the game. You can't focus on the outside distractions. You can't think about the hype around the game.
"If you focus on your job on the football field, everything will take care of itself. When I was a freshman, I was fortunate to have a bunch of older guys around who told me how to handle games like this. There's still going to be that `wow' when you walk in there, the fans going wild. The freshmen will see that for themselves. But after that first snap, it's all football."
Carlisle loves the mental toughness and the togetherness of the Irish.
"This team is different from other teams that I've been on," Okwara said. "We're together. We have a real sense of unity on this team. When the guy next to me says he has my back, and I say to the guy next to me that I have his back, we believe each other. We believe the man next to us is going to complete his assignment. We have a real trust in each other. We also don't take anybody for granted on our schedule. No matter who we play on Saturday, we prepare for it like it's the national championship and we play like it's the national championship.
"I attribute that to maturity. We have guys who have been to the national championship game. They saw what it took to get to the national championship game. At the top, we have very good leadership on this team."
Saturday's game at Clemson will put the Irish center stage. It's a place the Irish have been before, and it's a place the Irish have prepared to stand tall.
"It's Notre Dame football," Okwara said. "That's why you come here. You know this is the type of deal that you get, and this is what you should be ready for."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent