Oct. 21, 2015
By Todd Burlage
University of Notre Dame linebacker Joe Schmidt was taught by his parents early on the importance of prioritizing goals and never losing site of what it takes to attain those.
Even back to when the future Notre Dame graduate, Irish captain, team Most Valuable Player, and starting middle linebacker was still drawing with crayons, his father always encouraged Joe to keep a life wish list.
“I think I wrote back then that I wanted to go to Baskin-Robbins, go to the park, and go to Notre Dame to play football,” Schmidt says with a laugh. “Playing here was something I wanted to do as long as I can remember.”
Growing up in Orange, California, outside of Anaheim, in a family and community of USC fans, Schmidt still has no idea where his Notre Dame football aspirations came from. “No clue,” he says. “But they always simmered inside of me.”
A simmer became a full-blown inferno going back about 12 years ago when Schmidt was in elementary school while his sister, Catherine, was at Notre Dame studying photography and running track.
Joe’s first campus visit came with his parents more than a decade ago, but he remembers it like yesterday.
Catherine’s now husband, then boyfriend, Greg Lopez, was a baseball captain at Notre Dame, affording him access to all the athletic facilities, including Notre Dame Stadium.
While trudging through a foot of snow and across campus on the way to one of Catherine’s indoor track meets at the Loftus Center, Joe wondered aloud about how cool it would be to get an impromptu look inside the empty football stadium.
Lopez obliged, swiped his keycard, and let the five of them inside the House That Rockne Built in a moment Joe still considers life-changing.
“There is just something about Notre Dame that is so magical, I even recognized it when I was young,” Schmidt says. “I knew all along that whatever it took to get here, I was going to find a way.”
So when his family returned to Southern California after the visit, Schmidt said he reworked his priority list, replacing ice cream and a trip to the park with a couple of meatier goals. Yet, one line-item remained the same, it always did: 1) Play football at Notre Dame, 2) Be the fastest kid at school, 3) Get good grades.
“I never knew how it was all going to play out,” Schmidt says. “But even then, I had a vision for how I wanted it to go, and i believed in myself that I could do it.”
Dream Turned Reality
Catherine graduated from Notre Dame in 2006 and the subsequent months turned to years for Schmidt as he was beginning a football career in 2007 as a freshman at powerhouse Mater Dei High School.
Schmidt paid his dues, busted his tail and became the MVP his senior season on a Monarch team that included USC-bound quarterback Max Wittek.
And while the team accolades came Schmidt’s way, the scholarship offers did not.
A solid player and a bright student, but undersized for a linebacker at 6-foot tall, Air Force and a few Ivy League schools were the extent of Schmidt’s scholarship offers.
Notre Dame wasn’t recruiting Schmidt, so Schmidt recruited Notre Dame, sending multiple messages to Irish associate head coach Mike Denbrock, begging for a look and a chance.
“I just kept sending [Denbrock] stuff and emails and pretty much pleading, ‘Please, let me come to your school. I promise you won’t regret it,’” Schmidt recalls with a grin.
Hamstrung by confusing NCAA recruiting rules that limit off-campus visits and coach-initiated contact, the Notre Dame staff couldn’t really recruit Schmidt even if it wanted to.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was aware of Schmidt and liked him as a player, there just wasn’t enough room on the recruiting bus.
“We had to kind of not recruit him,” Kelly says. “It was like, ‘Joe, we can’t call you.’ And he’s like, ‘Why aren’t you calling me? I want to come to Notre Dame.’ So we’re trying to fend this guy off that we want and now he’s our captain.”
Schmidt’s persistence finally paid off when Kelly offered him a roster spot as a “preferred walk-on,” meaning that Schmidt would receive no scholarship money but he could still practice with and become an important part of the football program.
Thrilled with the opportunity but moderately miffed he wasn’t on scholarship, Schmidt went to work, first as a scout team player during his freshman year in 2011, then as a special teams regular in 2012.
“I just kind of did everything I could on a daily basis to attack the small markers,” Schmidt says of a steady ascent that culminated the summer before his junior season in 2013 when he was awarded a scholarship and then played his way into a role as a regular backup at linebacker.
Schmidt says the best part of earning the scholarship was calling home to California bright and early and breaking the six-figure savings news to his parents.
“[Dad] was shocked and my mom just started crying because she didn’t understand why I was calling at 5:30 in the morning,” Schmidt says. “And then I tell her the news, and she just starts crying harder. I was happy to be able to give that kind of gift to my parents.”
Only The Beginning
One man’s misery became another’s opportunity when a devastating leg injury to Schmidt’s roommate, linebacker Jarrett Grace, thrust Schmidt into extensive action during the second half of the 2013 season.
Obviously, seeing your best friend suffer in the way Grace did wasn’t the circumstance Schmidt would’ve preferred to become a rotation regular, but he was ready nonetheless.
“Early on in his career, everybody counted out Joe,” Grace says. “They thought, ‘Who is this kid?’ He dove into his playbook and understood the game, concepts and philosophies. Then when Joe got his shot, he was ready. He had been working harder than anybody.”
The injury also cost Grace all of the 2014 season, leaving Schmidt the chance to evolve as both a starter at linebacker and into one of the strongest leaders this program has featured in the last decade — at least through the first eight games last season.
Similarly to this year, injuries undermined Notre Dame’s 2014 campaign, none more than Schmidt’s when he was lost for the final five-plus games with a broken fibula and fractured ankle.
In Schmidt’s absence, the Irish defense gave up nearly 20 points more per game than when he was playing and they lost four straight to finish the regular season.
“It’s a lonely time. There are a lot of sleepless nights,” Schmidt says of dealing with the injury. “I couldn’t help but wonder if I was ever going to be able to walk again. Am I ever going to be a good football player again? Am I ever going to be able to help this team again?
There are a lot of things that you doubt.”
Remarkably, even with his year cut short, Schmidt’s impact was so profound through the first eight games, he was still named the team’s MVP despite missing about 40 percent of last season.
“Incredible and humbling,” Schmidt says when asked about the postseason honor. “I don’t ever think about stats, tackles, sacks. All I ever wanted to do was to be the guy that the football team needed me to be on that day.”
And equally amazing was a difficult rehab and recovery that allowed Schmidt to resume his posts this season as the starting middle linebacker and the anchor of this Notre Dame defense — a profile that to nobody’s surprise (except perhaps Schmidt’s) allowed him to check “team captain” off of his goal list in August.
“What a representative of our program,” says Kelly, who routinely singles out Schmidt as the strongest leader on the team, “in the community, in the classroom, class distinction, and on the field, just a great communicator, a galvanizer.”
Never satisfied, Schmidt continually updates his goal list, adding all-American to his plans during his fifth and final season here.
“It still blows my mind that I am a captain, it’s a great responsibility,” Schmidt says. “These guys are counting on me to kind of lead them. I take that very seriously.”
With bachelor’s degree in management-entrepreneurship from the Mendoza College of Business already in hand and some offseason experience on his resumé working in the Notre Dame investment office, Schmidt is well-equipped to handle life’s next chapter when he leaves a University he holds so dearly.
“Notre Dame has provided me with a lens to view the world and the perspective to hopefully change the world and just to do good,” Schmidt says. “I love Notre Dame, I love the community, I love the family, I love everything about it.
“It’s incredible for me because I can sit here and know that if I was to do college all over again, I would change absolutely nothing, and that is a very powerful thing to say.”
And a very long way from Baskin-Robbins.