Nov. 2, 2012
By: Matt Lang
Forget all of the hype, the preseason honors, the career-best numbers - senior University of Notre Dame running back Cierre Wood will be the first to tell you that winning football games is the only important measure of success. But Wood's journey to success has not been clear cut.
During the 2011 campaign, the Oxnard, Calif., native registered personal bests in carries (217), rushing yards (1,102) and touchdowns (nine) en route to becoming just the 10th Notre Dame player to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in a single season. But the manner in which Wood celebrated each of those nine touchdowns signified a much deeper meaning: he always tapped his two clenched fists softly against the shining golden surface of his helmet as a gesture to his little sister, Martinece, back home.
"Me and her, we started doing that ever since I was in high school," Wood says. "She was at all of my games and I was at all of hers. And it's basically just a sign to her and my family that this is for us, and I've got them in everything I do."
In particular, Wood points to a moment between Martinece and him that has impacted his life and career far more than any other on the football field - a moment that made him fully recognize and appreciate the importance of family.
"I remember vividly during one of her softball games in Virginia - her team had two outs and she was up to bat," Wood says. "Everyone knew she was good and a strong hitter, but she hit the pitch out of the park."
Wood pauses for a few seconds as a gentle smile crosses his face.
"As she was running around the bases, we made our sign, she got the ball back, and tossed it over the fence to me. That really hit me in a strong place, just knowing that my sister cares and loves for me the same way I do for her."
Wood understands that family unity brings a heightened sense of trust, and this trust eases the pressure of doing everything for his team. Such was not the case at Santa Clara High School where Wood - like many premier athletes at the position - accounted for the majority of the offense. During his junior and senior seasons alone, the running back accumulated over 4,200 rushing yards and 54 rushing touchdowns.
These days, the Irish backfield arguably has as much depth as some of the top in school history. Wood, fellow senior Theo Riddick, and sophomores George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel have collectively formed one of the nation's most formidable quartets of running backs.
The four backs have enough talent and skill between them distribute the carries and remain effective. In fact, during the week prior to Notre Dame's highly anticipated matchup with rival Stanford, head coach Brian Kelly essentially listed Wood, Riddick and Atkinson III as co-starters for the game.
This wasn't something that bothered Wood.
"We all are fighting for the same cause," Wood says. "We all complement each other in everything we do - the runs, the touchdowns, the blocks - so just all that in combination makes us one and I think that's why the whole three-back thing works."
Although he doesn't carry the load every game, Wood's presence still factors into every play. He's the veteran of the group, having carried the ball more times than the other three backs combined. When Jonas Gray -- now in the National Football League -- concluded his career in 2011, Wood put it upon himself to demonstrate senior leadership.
"I try to lead by example, really, and by going out and making plays. Coach (Paul) Longo always says lead by the front and the back will follow."
Wood's best friend and roommate also happens to be Riddick, a recruited running back from New Jersey who converted to slot receiver for two seasons before returning to the running back spot this year. Riddick describes how the two constantly laugh at one another, usually for no reason at all.
"I can't get rid of him here, at the hotel, I can't do anything without him being there," Riddick says. "He's always there for me, a great man on and off the field and just a very positive role model for everyone on this team. We both push each other; we're both competitive. But at the same time we're doing it for our best interest. We want to be the best we can be."
Their friendship off the field has undoubtedly strengthened their relationship on it, and Riddick sees Wood as someone who has matured immensely during his time at Notre Dame. Riddick affirms Wood's leadership style - he is a quiet but strong force on this team.
"Cierre leads by example," Riddick says. "He's not the most vocal guy. He won't go out there and try to put someone in the hot seat, so he leads by example. You see that during his play and the sky is the limit for him."
And while his fortune and success on the field have been quite impressive, Wood will tell you he's most proud of his performance academically. He explains that, too, was a maturing process on his behalf.
"If I can get a 3.0 this year, it would be my fourth straight semester," says the film, television, and theatre (FTT) major. "Usually I was just trying to get by, but once it started becoming important to me, that's when I took the most initiative and made it a priority."
Wood's personal growth off the field has translated on the field, allowing him to become a more patient runner. In Notre Dame's 41-3 victory over Miami at Soldier Field in Chicago, Wood rushed for a season-high 118 yards to go along with two touchdowns. All of this was accomplished in a game that featured the Irish running attack at its finest.
"Cierre did a great job on one of his runs where he showed great patience, stepped on the heels of the guard and bent it back," said Kelly in his post-game press conference. "He had not done that this year. And he had a great week of practice, preparing himself to do what we've asked him to do, and we saw that kind of success today."
So long as the Irish continue on the path of their remarkable season, Wood will indefinitely be an integral part of the team's success. Signature home victories over Michigan and Stanford have provided spectacular memories for fans and players alike, but Wood and his teammates aren't satisfied.
"We have a system at hand, we have to get our work done, and everything else will fall into place," he says. "I think that was the core for everything as far as getting our heads right and into the game, and getting the mental focus of the game right."
In the meantime, Wood will continue to be his usual self - someone who, according to Riddick, lights up any room when he enters. He'll continue to lead by example, continue to work hard in the classroom, and continue to grind out plays as he did against Michigan State in the fourth quarter earlier this season. It's exactly that mentality and trust in his teammates that has gotten him into the position he now occupies - a position of maturity and leadership.
No one can be quite sure what the remainder of the season will bring. But for Wood, the light bulb turned on long ago. He understands he can't navigate the path to success without help along the way. Under the radiance of the Golden Dome, illuminated is the belief that something special will emerge in the end.
"I see everything a lot differently than when I first got here," Wood says. "The best is yet to come."