Nov. 1, 2000
By Lisa Nelson
His story started like that of any other walk-on to don the gold helmet at Notre Dame a modern day Rudy of sorts. He played football in high school, decided to try out for the team once arriving at Notre Dame, made the squad and served mostly on the scout team doing whatever he could to contribute to the program.
Senior tight end Joe Recendez was no different than the hundreds of walk-ons who had walked into the head coach's office whether it was Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, Lou Holtz or Bob Davie, looking for that one chance to run out of the tunnel and be a part of the glorious tradition known as Notre Dame football.
At Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, Recendez had an average high school career. He never earned All-America or all-state accolades, in fact he wasn't even an all- conference selection. He was just a guy who showed up to practice every day, worked hard and did whatever he could at his linebacker position to help the team. Recendez was recruited to play football at some smaller schools, but he was satisfied with his athletic career and was ready to move on to life after football and college at Notre Dame.
Recendez came to South Bend and enjoyed life as student, but there was something missing. With the rich football tradition at Notre Dame, he found it hard to forget about the sport. Recendez contacted his head coach at Mount Carmel, Frank Lenti, and told him how much he missed football. Lenti never forgot Recendez's work ethic and love for the game while in high school and called his good friend Bob Chmiel, Notre Dame's coordinator of football operations.
"Joe came to us highly recommended," Chmiel says.
"Coach Lenti called me and told me he had a kid who wanted to walk on the team, that will work extremely hard and was a good student, too. That has proved to be true."
Recendez joined the Irish squad in the spring of his sophomore year. The coaching staff immediately asked him to switch to tight end because they were extremely thin at that position. He served on the scout team for two seasons, never stepping foot on the field at Notre Dame Stadium. With his patience finally paying off, Recendez received his chance when injuries vaulted Recendez into the backup tight end position.
"My first two seasons were really difficult, doing the typical walk-on thing – scout teams and such. But last spring, I was able to play a lot with the first and second teams. It was so different and much more rewarding. This spring was the most fun I had ever had," the 6-0, 220-pounder says.
Opening the eyes of the coaches and his teammates, Recendez was on top of the world and ready to live out his own version of Rudy. But his stay on top was short as his world came to a crashing halt.
One afternoon in May, Recendez went jogging with some of his friends. Normally able to keep up with no problems, Recendez felt extremely sluggish and had to stop. That night, Recendez felt some discomfort and pain in his testicle. Thinking nothing of it, he prepared for his final exams later in the week, but the pain persisted and finally Recendez went to the doctor.
The doctor examined Recendez and told him he suspected that he a tumor in his testicle and arranged for him to meet with a urologist the next day. With his parents in tow, it was confirmed that Recendez had a cancerous tumor and would have to have surgery immediately.
"I was shocked. My heart dropped to my stomach," Recendez says.
"I went from having such a great spring and being on top of the world, to finding out I had cancer in a span of two weeks. At my age, you just don't think you are mortal, and you certainly never expect something like that."
The doctors immediately took X-rays to see if the cancer had spread. After finding it had not moved to the lungs, Recendez had surgery to remove the tumor that following Monday. The doctors also removed a lymph node to ensure the cancer had not spread there. That test came back negative as well.
"It was amazing to go from being so devastated to being so relieved the cancer had not spread," Recendez says.
With all of his friends, classmates and teammates finishing finals and moving back home for the summer while he had surgery, Recendez didn't tell many people of his plight. He didn't want people to worry about him, and the survival rate for testicular cancer is extremely high if caught early, like his was.
He returned to campus in June and participated in summer workouts with the football team, although on a modified exercise regimen. In July, he would sneak away from his teammates and go to St. Joseph's Hospital in South Bend to receive daily radiation treatments. The radiation sessions made Recendez nauseous and sluggish, many days causing him to lose over 15 pounds.
"There were days when I wished my teammates did know what I was going through," Recendez says.
"There would be days when I had to do my own thing. While they would be in the weight room, I would be on the side running and doing different things. I didn't want them to think I was getting special treatment."
After experiencing such a range of emotions over the past two months, Recendez didn't know what the future would hold. The doctors assured Recendez he would be able to play football again as long as his body took the radiation treatments and there was no sign of any additional cancer. He held out hope that things would turn around and he would be back on top of the world.
It didn't take long before good things started happening for Recendez. Davie and the coaching staff, already enamored with what Recendez had done in spring drills, were even more impressed with how he handled this extremely difficult situation. They rewarded Recendez with a football scholarship for the 2000 season.
"He is the typical Mount Carmel kid - he works hard, has great character and is extremely tough," Chmiel says.
"It is tough for a Fenwick guy (Mount Carmel's arch rival), like I am, to say this, but Joe is one great kid."
Now, Recendez has to attend tri-monthly check-ups to ensure the cancer has not come back. He went for his first examination the week after the Texas A&M football game and much to everyone's delight – including his dad Joe, his mom Sandy and his girlfriend Lindsay Jones of the women's soccer team, who were extremely strong for him during this trying time – there was no sign of any cancer.
"Having cancer is something I think about every day. There isn't a day that has gone by since all this happened where I haven't thought about it and said ‘Why me?' But I was lucky, and if I can create awareness and help one person, then it is worth it."
So this walk-on, turned scholarship athlete, who has contributed to the program in ways unimaginable, is anything but typical. And his football career has a happy ending as well.
Recendez finally was able to live out his dream when he played for the first time in his career against Navy at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. Recendez played almost two minutes in the game, but did not catch a pass.
It didn't matter to him, though. Somehow it just didn't seem as important any more.