Oct. 28, 2015
By Curt Rallo
When the University of Notre Dame football team runs out onto the turf of Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia Saturday to take on unbeaten Temple, Nick Ossello admits there will be a brief second when the bitter memories of an overtime loss to Denver in the NCAA national lacrosse semifinals last May will stir.
Ossello, a fearless midfielder in lacrosse, will then punch any of those lingering emotions aside and totally focus on his new job as a special teams player and scout team linebacker for the Fighting Irish football team.
Carving out a fierce reputation on the lacrosse field as a relentless force, Ossello scored a goal with nine seconds left in regulation to force the NCAA Final Four battle against Denver into overtime. Although the Irish waged a stunning rally from four goals down with 4:23 left in the game, Denver would regroup and prevail in overtime for an 11-10 victory. The Pioneers would go on to win the national title.
"Walking off the field, I was terribly sad," Ossello said about his last visit to Lincoln Financial Field. "I believed that maybe my time at Notre Dame had ended, but I knew I was going to have a couple of meetings with the coaches to discuss my future as a football player here."
"I was fortunate enough to talk to Pat Eilers (who was helping the Irish coaching staff at the time and also has a daughter than plays lacrosse on the Notre Dame women's team). We had been in contact for about a month prior to the (lacrosse) national championship game. He was great about the whole process. He said, 'What you need to focus on is winning the national championship for Notre Dame, and then afterwards we'll discuss the football option at Notre Dame.'"
Ossello earned football all-state honors as a quarterback, safety and punter at Wheat Ridge High School in suburban Denver, Colorado. He turned down an offer to play football at Montana in order to suit up for the Irish lacrosse team. Montana showed interested again in Ossello for football as a fifth-year senior. When the Irish coaching staff heard Ossello might be interested in a year of football, it contacted him.
Fighting Irish assistant coach Scott Booker, who is the special teams coordinator, said Ossello brings that fearless play to the Irish, as well as other key attributes.
"Nick brings a maturity, he brings a guy who has been playing big-time college athletics," Booker said. "He's been in national championship games. Whether it's lacrosse, football or basketball, if you're on that big-time stage, it's always good to have a guy who brings that maturity. He comes to play hard and practices hard every day.
"He's a physical player, definitely. He's not a guy who is afraid of contact. He seeks contact out."
Ossello felt the sting of losing a chance to win a national championship in lacrosse.
"That was a very, very tough experience," Ossello said. "That had become the routine, the past four years. We lose a game, and then we have to go and get ready, we see what we did wrong. Unfortunately, we never won a championship.
"Whenever we would lose in the playoffs, there would be a new flame lit, where it said we have to work that much harder, we have to come back and train even more than we did last year to make sure this doesn't happen again. To know I wouldn't have a chance to go back and correct what I had done wrong, to get that chance to rebuild as a team again--that was the toughest part to deal with, knowing my time as a lacrosse player had come to an end."
Now Ossello is embracing a new grind, one that doesn't necessarily afford the glory he earned in lacrosse. It's a grind that still requires the guts Ossello brings to the Irish cause, flying down the field on kickoff coverage and bringing down return men.
"Playing football is absolutely a second life, more in the sense that it's an entirely new aspect and a new view to be looking through the football facemask, as opposed to the lacrosse facemask," Ossello said. "Every day, there are new challenges. There are new things I'm still trying to pick up. I'm still trying to knock the rust off—things that would be intuitive for someone who had been playing football for four years as opposed to someone who had been playing lacrosse for four years.
"It's similar to the transition between high school and college lacrosse, in the sense that it's a much higher level and I have to pay attention to every single detail in order to be able to compete," Ossello said. "But the flame never really died, as far as me as an athlete. I was able to transition from lacrosse to football fairly easily, just in the sense that I was still competitive and still had the drive to work hard. That was never an issue."
According to Ossello, there are winning similarities between Notre Dame lacrosse head coach Kevin Corrigan and Irish football coach Brian Kelly.
"I was fortunate enough to have Coach Corrigan as my coach, and he always did a good job of putting everything in perspective," Ossello said. "While I'm not going to be the starting quarterback, and I may not contribute as much as I personally would like, I show up to practice every day. I understand the importance of being a 'look' guy. I knew I was going to be a 'look' guy coming into this, and my playing time was going to be on special teams."
Ossello embraces his role as a linebacker who gets the starters ready.
"We're there to help the team," Ossello said of scout team players. "You can't be selfish. You can't be saying, 'It's not fair that I'm not playing,' because that attitude is detrimental to the team. I understand my role, I'm happy to be in it and I'm going to give it my all every day. "Coach Kelly and Coach Corrigan have a lot of similar ideas. They're both great coaches. It's always a team emphasis. It's always, 'You're there because the team needs you in your specific role.'"
Ossello said strapping on Notre Dame's legendary golden football helmet has been a humbling experience for him, playing with and against athletes who he expects to be watching on Sundays in the future. He savors the opportunity to be a Fighting Irish football player.
"It's so awesome to put on the blue and gold again," Ossello said. "I always wanted to be a football player coming out of high school. Unfortunately, I was a lot smaller and slower back then. Just putting on the uniform and running out of that tunnel, that gives me chills every time I do it. I'm very, very appreciative of this opportunity. It's something I'll be forever grateful for."
As for Ossello's immediate future after football, he's not sure if it will be putting on a three-piece suit and working for a financial institution or giving professional lacrosse a shot. He was drafted by the Denver Outlaws, a Major League Lacrosse professional team.
And, he joked, he's open to a sixth year at Notre Dame.
"I can set a screen," Ossello laughed about hoping to get a call from Irish men's basketball coach Mike Brey to be a power forward. "Unfortunately, I was never any good at basketball. I think I need to look into baseball next, maybe get another year and put off the real world."
Curt Rallo is a special correspondent for Fighting Irish Media.