Nov. 1, 2000
By Bo Rottenborn
Everything about Irish tight end and captain Dan O'Leary leads you to believe he is having the best time of his life.
From the way his eyes light up when he talks about playing football at Notre Dame to the air of incredulity and amazement he conveys when speaking of this year's Irish team, it seems O'Leary could not imagine a more enjoyable setting than the one he currently inhabits.
This would seem normal if O'Leary were a fifth-year player who had played sparingly in his Notre Dame football career and was just enjoying the last few months before being forced to make a living in the real world.
But does this seem an odd reaction from someone who has a realistic chance of being selected in the National Football League Draft next spring? Doesn't it seem plausible that he'd be more concerned with himself and preparing for his self-proclaimed lifetime goal than being worried about things like his teammates and relishing in the experience of Notre Dame football? Not if you've ever heard the way Dan O'Leary talks about these things.
"Please emphasize that I just really love being on this team this year," O'Leary says.
"This team is something really special. At the beginning of the year I was questioning whether I should have come back for a fifth year, but when I saw the camaraderie and the unity this team has, it reinforced my decision to come back. This has been nothing but a great time. I would die for any one of the guys on this team and they know that. Also, I know every one of them would die for me."
Don't get the wrong impression about the 6-3, 260 pound tight end. He does put tremendous value on being able to compete in the NFL, citing it as not just a long-time goal, but also a factor in his choice to play football at Notre Dame.
"I'm really ambitious," says O'Leary.
"I really want to go to the NFL. That's something I take very seriously and the success former Notre Dame tight ends have had in the pros definitely intrigued me and ultimately helped my decision to come here."
O'Leary recalls his official visit to the campus in 1995. At that point, every Irish team since 1981 had included at least one tight end that would go on to compete in the NFL, a streak likely to continue as both O'Leary and Jabari Holloway look to turn professional after the 2000 season. At the time of the Cleveland St. Ignatius High School standout's visit, the Irish coaches were quick to emphasize the incredible success preceding him.
"I can remember it perfectly," says O'Leary of the yellow sign hanging on his already set-up locker for that visit. The sign featured names of all the former Notre Dame players that wore number 86 (which O'Leary has worn for the past five years), as well as all the All-America and NFL tight ends to come from Notre Dame. The list includes the likes of recent pros Pete Chryplewicz, Irv Smith, Oscar McBride and Derek Brown, as well as former All-Americans Mark Bavaro, Tony Hunter, Ken MacAfee and Dave Casper.
Still O'Leary keeps coming back to the 2000 Irish squad and how much he is enjoying this particular season.
"I don't really know what it is. Chemistry is something you can't create. You can try to create it by having barbecues and team functions, but there are still usually divisions in the team. This year there are no divisions. I don't know if it is the guys we recruited or if it was just time for people to come out of their shells and start acting like brothers. I just think it is a special year for us."
The chemistry he speaks of has made things much easier on the field, according to the Westlake, Ohio, native.
"You have fun because you don't have to worry about what the guy next to you is thinking. It's all football. There are no extraneous things coming into play and that just makes your focus stronger."
The success the Irish have enjoyed this season has just perpetuated this feeling.
"When you start succeeding as a team, that just makes your unity that much stronger," says O'Leary.
The former Parade All-American and two-time first-team all-Ohio selection had plenty of success in high school, helping St. Ignatius to three straight state championships, including a pair of 14-0 seasons. At Notre Dame, O'Leary did not play his freshman year, but learned a lot behind former Detroit Lion Chryplewicz.
He and Holloway then jumped into the spotlight his sophomore season. O'Leary began the season as the Irish starting tight end and caught a career-high four passes for 49 yards against Purdue in the second game of his career. But a sprained shoulder and a subsequent ankle sprain caused O'Leary to miss the next six games of the '97 season.
In '98, O'Leary started out strong, catching a four-yard touchdown pass in the season opener against fifth-ranked Michigan to give Notre Dame the lead for good at 16-13. He played in all 12 games that season, sharing time with Holloway at tight end and also taking over the long-snapping duties, an area O'Leary feels helps his chances in the NFL.
O'Leary once again saw action in all 12 games last season, including four starting assignments. He was more of an offensive factor in 1999, catching 13 passes for 183 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
In 2000, O'Leary has seen a considerable increase in playing time as he leads all Notre Dame wide receivers and tight ends in minutes. He also has had multiple starting assignments and has been a team leader after being named one of four Irish co-captains prior to the beginning of the season.
Although he feels like a brother to all his teammates, there is one with whom he has an even closer relationship: fellow senior co-captain Holloway. O'Leary credits this relationship with allowing both of them to learn and develop as players.
"Jabari and I help each other out and learn from each other. Even now we're the oldest guys on the team, but we're still helping each other and learning. It just makes us better players."
O'Leary definitely feels he's benefited from working with Holloway and Chryplewicz, saying he's learned a lot from them and it has "been a great opportunity to play with these guys."
The learning process in football is something O'Leary is fascinated by and he classifies it as never-ending. He cites an ESPN segment he saw recently featuring NFL veteran Cris Carter of the Minnesota Vikings. In that feature, Carter admitted he was still learning things even after more than 14 seasons in the NFL, causing O'Leary to say, "It's a good feeling to know you can pick up on more things every day. I strive to be a complete player every single
day, to be just as good a blocker as I am a receiver. I would be in the elite in the nation, I think, if I could do that."
The combination of pass-catching and great blocking demands is that which characterizes the tight end position, O'Leary's natural place on the field since grade school. He feels Notre Dame does the best job of any school in the country of preparing tight ends to move to the pros, where NFL teams look for good fundamental blocking ability.
"At Notre Dame, you're a blocker first," says O'Leary.
"You're pretty much an offensive tackle who can run a 4.7 (40-yard sprint) and catch the ball. That's more than anyone in the country demands of their tight ends."
The issue of blocking or receiving as the primary role of the tight end is always a controversial issue and receiving tight ends tend to receive more attention collegiately. But O'Leary, who caught 46 passes in each of his final two prep seasons, has confidence that Notre Dame's approach is the correct one saying:
"I look around and see some guys highly ranked just because they are making a lot of receptions. It's easy to think I could be doing that too. But when I came to Notre Dame, I made that sacrifice because I knew I was going to have to block. I came to Notre Dame because I wanted to be a more complete player."
As recent history shows, that more complete player has been successful in the NFL, leading O'Leary to believe he has a good chance of playing on Sundays next fall. But unlike most players, O'Leary does not hope to be able to duplicate his collegiate performances on the professional level.
Instead, he looks to actually do more, citing the NFL as a place where he can finally show all the things he can do as a tight end without having to share time with anyone.
"I feel there are a lot of things I can do at tight end that people haven't seen yet. This year I'm starting to get into it a little more because of having increased playing time, but any time you rotate with another guy, you can't show everything you can do. I'd like to show people I can do a little bit more and I think the NFL is a good way to do that."
But if there is one thing all the shared minutes have taught O'Leary, it is patience. So he is content to wait to show exactly what type of player he can be because for now, he's got more important things on his mind, like enjoying the 2000 Notre Dame football team.