Oct. 2, 2014
By: Connor Killoren
Oil City, Pennsylvania, with a few more than 10,000 residents, sits hard by the Allegheny River, some 93 miles north and a little bit east of Pittsburgh.
It's a working-class town with oil at its literal core. Oil drilling in the area dates to 1859 and by a little more than a decade later, a million barrels a year were shipped all over the world.
Big-name petroleum companies Pennzoil, Quaker State and Wolf's Head headlined Oil City employment opportunities. There's one public high school in town, Oil City High School. The nickname of its athletics teams? Not surprisingly it's the Oilers.
University of Notre Dame tight end Ben Koyack, now a senior, was born and raised in Oil City, and he grew into arguably the biggest name in that town's sports history.
Previous Oil City football standouts played collegiately at Clarion, Edinboro, Mount Union (where Koyack's high school coach, Matt LaVerde, competed at linebacker) and Westminster.
But Koyack accomplished enough in his hometown to become the biggest man on campus as a star high school tight end and state champion in the javelin.
Then he came to Notre Dame.
Koyack knew the last decade alone had produced Notre Dame tight end standouts Anthony Fasano, John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph, all still playing productively in the National Football League with Kansas City, Arizona and Minnesota, respectively. Rudolph graduated the year before Koyack enrolled, but the presence of Tyler Eifert and a handful of others at that same position suggested the Oil City product would have to earn his way into the snapshot at tight end.
Making an impact on the Notre Dame football scene proved anything but easy for Koyack--in fact, it qualified as one of the more onerous tasks he had faced.
Transitioning from being the undeniable star of the Oil City team from 2007-10--as well as a hometown hero of sorts--to becoming (at least temporarily) one more name on the Irish roster required thick skin and an unparalleled level of determination.
Koyack arrived on campus in the summer of 2011 as the lone freshman in a tight end group that included future NFL draft pick Eifert (now with the Cincinnati Bengals), Jake Golic, Mike Ragone and Alex Welch. The collective presence of that quartet essentially kept Koyack out of the limelight.
Koyack's sole highlight of his freshman campaign with the Irish--a reception of five yards during a homecoming of sorts in Notre Dame's 15-12 victory at Pittsburgh on Sept. 24, 2011--proved a far cry from his glorious high school playing days.
The outlook for Koyack became even more muddled when former teammate Troy Niklas, now playing for the NFL Arizona Cardinals, moved from outside linebacker to tight end during 2012 spring practice. Niklas didn't simply change positions. He also vaulted past Koyack on the depth chart to become the number-two tight end behind Eifert.
That decision by the coaching staff ultimately resulted in another season for Koyack to patiently wait for his turn. While playing in 12 games and earning a start in the Bowl Championship Series national championship game against Alabama at the end of Notre Dame's magical 2012 campaign, Koyack registered just three receptions for 39 yards as a sophomore.
He certainly knew and understood his role, but he wanted to be contributing more to the team's success.
"I came from a small, little area of being `that guy,' the main guy," the senior says. "All of a sudden I am in a situation where there are a lot of talented guys that I am competing with on the field. I had to learn to accept my role, fit in with my position group and get to know and understand the dynamic of the team."
Koyack could have been discouraged and searched for a better opportunity where there would have been more playing time, but advice from his high school coach, LaVerde, fueled his fire.
"Football is a game of perseverance," LaVerde says. "I preached that to him early on in high school and especially from the time he began talking about playing college football. I knew it wasn't going to be easy for him at Notre Dame. When he arrived in South Bend, Ben had to figure out how to work through the depth chart and understand not having the immediate success he had grown accustomed to at Oil City."
The long wait is finally over.
Fast-forward to the 2014 campaign and Koyack is listed as Notre Dame's number-one tight end on the depth chart.
Another challenge, however, awaits Koyack, albeit much different from the one that he faced him when he first arrived as a freshman. This time the goal is to be more than a role-player--to make more than a catch or two here and there.
When Niklas bypassed his senior year following the 2013 campaign in favor of the NFL draft, the 6-5, 254-pound Koyack became the only tight end on the Irish roster with significant game experience.
As a junior, he played in all 13 games and earned five starting assignments. Koyack became an integral part of Notre Dame's offense a year ago, grabbing a career-high 10 passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns. His most productive outing came in a November loss at Pittsburgh where he caught four passes for 76 yards. Koyack's 19-yard TD reception in the Oct. 5 victory over Arizona State served as his first catch of the season and the first TD catch of his career.
As a veteran on this year's Fighting Irish team, Koyack not only has become a leader on and off the field among the tight ends, but he also has become more comfortable taking on a greater role in that category with the entire team.
Koyack isn't one of the most vocal players on the team, yet he has, in fact, effectively established himself as a player who leads by example.
"I definitely believe I am a guy who sets a tone for others on the team," Koyack says. "Whether it is on the practice field or during games, I know other guys on the team are looking to me for guidance and leadership. I hope they consider me an example.
"For me, it means coming back and bouncing back stronger than ever after a mistake, accepting the praise and criticism of the coaches whenever they are trying to talk to me and helping to nurture and develop the younger guys on this team to make them better players so we as a team can get better each week. I take pride in helping them out as much as I can."
Notre Dame sophomore tight end Durham Smythe agrees Koyack has been extremely instrumental in his development as a player and applauds his leadership abilities both on the field and off.
"He's really been working well with me," Smythe says. "There are times out there when I almost feel like I have two coaches because Ben has been in the system for three years. He's got the technique down and he knows all the nuances of the position.
"That's always a plus for all of us young guys."
LaVerde seconds the notion, noting that Koyack's style of leadership is extremely effective.
"When he played for me in high school, Ben was somewhat of a lead-by-example kind of guy," LaVerde says. "He is extremely intelligent and figures things out very quickly. He's always a guy who has done things for the betterment of his teammates.
"The vocalization part of being a leader is not something I would say comes naturally for him. I think he's the kind of guy who leads in terms of being a good, hard-working kid who also takes pride in doing well in the classroom. He's very well-rounded."
Koyack's development and maturation into a leadership role stretches beyond the playing field.
"Our relationship has slowly grown into a great friendship." Smythe says. "I feel like I've known him for five years now. He always did a good job of including us. When Troy (Niklas) left, it was just the young guys and Ben, and he's done an excellent job of leading us.
"Off the field, we all hung out together during the summer. Ben would invite us over to his apartment. He's been a pretty good influence on all of us."
For Koyack, however, responsibilities don't start and end as a member of the Notre Dame football team; a significant one rests 374 miles from Notre Dame's campus.
His hometown of Oil City is a sleepy community nestled in the backwoods of the northwestern part of the state.
It's a town filled with people who understand the value of hard work. The citizens have experienced some tremendous hardships over the last 30 years. Once a booming hub of oil activity throughout the 20th century, the city's economy took a sharp, downward turn in the 1990s when those three major oil companies--Pennzoil, Quaker State and Wolf's Head--all relocated their headquarters.
It left a population looking for an identity and a community that would love nothing more than to bask in the glory of one of its local heroes.
The folks of Oil City, where football has been played at his high school since 1896, have enthusiastically followed Koyack's Notre Dame career. While residents take great pride in the fact he has played for arguably the most tradition-rich program in the country, they also know he has the potential to play at the next level.
"When you look at where we are in a somewhat rural area of Pennsylvania, Ben's success is important to this area," LaVerde says. "The steel and oil industries are really gone from western Pennsylvania. It would be an even greater lift for our community if Ben were to get a chance to play in the NFL."
While having an entire town keep track of a single individual's athletic accomplishments might feel like a burden to some, Koyack doesn't view it that way.
"It's a great honor to represent my hometown and represent Notre Dame," Koyack says.
For now, however, Koyack strictly is focused on his Notre Dame career.
With a top-10 ranking currently stashed in their hip pockets, Koyack and his teammates are only aiming for one goal--becoming one of four teams selected for the first College Football Playoff.
"All my concentration is with my team and our season," Koyack says. "There's still plenty more for all of us to accomplish. Tomorrow, I'm going to go out to practice and try to improve. I still have a lot of things to work on. Before I leave Notre Dame, I'm trying to be the best at blocking, catching the ball and running my routes."
Regardless of what happens in the next eight months relative to football, Koyack is scheduled to graduate in May with a marketing degree from the Mendoza College of Business. It's that piece of paper that Koyack believes will present a world of opportunities outside football.
LaVerde is confident that no matter what path Koyack chooses in life, success will come his way.
"Ben is a very well-versed kid," LaVerde says. "He has done well in the classroom and has worked very hard to get where he is both as a student and player. I know he appreciates the education he has received at Notre Dame and the degree he will receive."
Throughout his career, Koyack has overcome his share of challenges. Those difficulties have allowed him to mature and develop into the student-athlete he is today.
And, while it may not always be easy, Koyack knows without that adversity he has faced, he wouldn't be where he is today--the starting tight end at Notre Dame.
"Ben deserves all the success in the world," LaVerde says. "My hope is that he finishes out a great senior season and that the NFL happens for him. If it doesn't, I know he's the type of individual who will be prepared to take the next step in his life because of the education he has received at Notre Dame.
"I'm watching every week and rooting him on just like everybody else in Oil City.
"We've been doing that for a long time and we hope to continue doing that for a long time to come."