Nov. 14, 2014
By Curt Rallo
For Cody Riggs, his University of Notre Dame moment, the moment he knew he was home and that he belonged, didn't happen when he celebrated a breathtaking last-minute victory against Stanford at legendary Notre Dame Stadium. It didn't happen when he soaked in the reverence and awe of the Golden Dome. It didn't happen when he walked into the venerated academic halls where he is enrolled in graduate studies.
It happened when his aunt, Emily Brown, sent a video of his two cousins, Bray (age 4) and Thatcher (age 2), wearing Notre Dame jerseys, cheering for him before the Michigan game.
"I love that video," says Riggs, a Notre Dame graduate student and transfer from the University of Florida. "The boys were chanting `Go, Notre Dame,' and `Go, cousin Cody.' It was the funniest video I've ever seen. But that's when it hit me. That was my Notre Dame moment."
Emily Brown, a Notre Dame graduate, is married to former Notre Dame star receiver Bobby Brown, an attorney in New Jersey. Bobby Brown has been a special influence in his nephew's life and was on hand at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey when the Irish took on Syracuse in September.
"It was also really cool to see Bobby's two sons at the Syracuse game, and they were wearing Notre Dame gear," Riggs says. "I thought it was awesome, because back in the day, I came to Bobby's games wearing Notre Dame gear. It's pretty cool to think about it. Bobby went here. I'm here now. Maybe his two sons will go here."
Riggs, a 5-foot-9, 195-pound cornerback from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, played at Florida after a stellar high school career at St. Thomas Aquinas High School that included playing in the Under Armour All-America Game in 2010. He started all 12 games at safety for the Gators in 2013. He missed most of his junior season with a broken foot but played in all 13 games as a freshman and a sophomore. He was one of only six true freshmen to play in all 13 games.
Brown played for the Irish from 1996-99. He knew Notre Dame and Riggs would be a perfect fit.
"I was very happy that everything worked out that he could attend Notre Dame," Brown says. "My mother passed back in 2012, when Cody was at Florida. My belief is that she is looking down smiling that Cody is at Notre Dame. It's kind of like things have come full circle in a sense because he's experiencing what I think is very unique about attending this University. Notre Dame is getting to experience a young man who I believe is very unique as well. I'm tremendously happy. I'm loving every second of this."
Riggs wanted to stay fairly close to his Fort Lauderdale home when he was going through the recruiting process in high school. He met former Gator coach Urban Meyer and wanted to play for him at Florida.
When Riggs had the opportunity to play elsewhere as a graduate student, it was clear he would be heading to a campus that had special meaning in his family.
"The second time around, Notre Dame was the best fit for me, academically and in terms of football," Riggs says. "They had a program here that fit my academic needs. They have a football team that is two years removed from the national championship game. You can see the talent here. I felt that I could fit in with the program, where I knew I would have support academically and on the football field, and I would be able to make connections for my future."
Riggs said he appreciates what Notre Dame has meant to him as a student and an athlete.
"The Notre Dame experience has been everything I thought it would be and more," Riggs said. "From the team to the coaches to my professors to the academic staff ... it's been more than what I expected. I've gotten so much support, even though I've had conflicts with the schedule between school and football. Everybody has been so supportive and been able to make it work for me.
"From the first day I got here, there wasn't a day where somebody didn't come up and introduce themselves to me and make sure I didn't need anything. If I needed a ride, if I needed somebody to talk to, there was always someone there for me."
Brown has been a strong influence in Riggs' life.
"One of the reasons I chose Notre Dame was I saw what Notre Dame did for Bobby," Riggs says. "He was invaluable in the process. He's always been there to support me and guide me. He was a great resource when it came time to talk to coaches, making sure they were calling for the right reasons, making sure they would not renege on me academically, if I was going to transfer to their school. He didn't want me to get caught in a situation where a school got me there, and then it was all about football."
Although Brown didn't overtly lobby for Riggs to play for Notre Dame, he made sure that Riggs knew where he stood.
"His freshman year of high school, I brought Cody to New Jersey to work out with me, and I took him to a Notre Dame football camp," Brown says. "I told him I would pay for the Notre Dame camp, and that I'm not forcing him to go to Notre Dame, you can go wherever you want to go for camp, but that Notre Dame was the only school that was going to get my money."
Brown saw the talent in Riggs, but he understands the complexities and commitment of Division I football. That summer in New Jersey had Riggs running the hills of South Orange, New Jersey, with Brown.
"I'd wake him up early every morning to go running with me," Brown says. "I wanted to see if Cody could stomach it, because at the time, he wasn't a morning person. I wanted to test his mental toughness. After the run, we'd go to a training facility, and there were some NFL guys there. Everyone who saw him said, 'Wow. This kid is phenomenal.' It was an affirmation that this kid has a bright future."
As an exceptional athlete and former Irish wide receiver, Brown also tested his nephew on the football field. When Riggs was in high school, Riggs had to try and cover his gifted uncle.
"He got the best of me in high school, but he wouldn't catch a ball on me now," Riggs says with a laugh. "He used to talk to me about what receivers would do, what I could do to enhance my game. That was really helpful."
Brown said Riggs won't get a chance to show him firsthand how he's developed his coverage skills.
"The beauty of that is, it will remain a mystery," Brown says. "His uncle has never been accused of being a fool. I'm not going out there now against him. I will call it hypothetical, at best. The last time we went out there, I made sure I was still on the right end of the leverage battle. He's done a tremendous job of becoming a great defensive back. As a receiver going up against someone like that, I would definitely have to bring my A game, and I don't know that my A game is available to me anymore."
Riggs has been a critical component to Notre Dame's success this season. The Irish defensive backfield began as a question mark. Thanks to Riggs, now it's been an exclamation mark.
"Cody has brought a stability to the corner position," Notre Dame defensive back Max Redfield says. "We feel Cody's a shutdown corner. He has a great work ethic, and he has tons of experience, which is useful for all of us. He gives us hints and tips on what to watch for in film and what to look for on the field. He'll share information about a receiver he knows or a particular style of offense that he's familiar with.
"Cody knows how to work, and how to get after it. We know we can rely on him, and we love that about him. With Cody stepping in, we got a corner who we could 100 percent rely on."
Riggs said he loves the character and fight of the Irish.
"What I love most about this team is that everybody cares so much about the success and the win column," Riggs says. "Some teams, everybody cares more about individual success. This team, they are about whether or not we win or lose. That's something special. You never hear guys complaining about playing time. It's always what we did well to win, what we can do better. I think that's something special here at Notre Dame.
"We put in a lot of work, each and every week, in the film room with the coaches, and that makes us prepared for each game. I think we prepare so well. We put in a lot of time, and that enables us to play with anybody. We're always going to have a good shot to win the game. That hard work and preparation is what makes us successful."
Making the switch from Florida proved to be challenging for Riggs.
"It was very tough in the beginning," Riggs says. "It's like learning a new language. Everything is named differently. I still say stuff, and people look at me like, 'What are you talking about?' It was hard at first, but the support of my teammates and the willingness of the coaches to work with me, the hours people spent with me going other everything with me so I could learn it, was amazing.
"I was in a system that was totally different for three years, four years. Everything is different, and people know how hard it is. It might be easier for an offensive player to switch, but for a defensive player, everything is different when you go to a new scheme. That was the hardest part for me to transition to Notre Dame."
Brown said the most important piece of advice he's tried to impart to Riggs is to remain true to himself and to continue to be the down-to-earth, caring person that he is.
"When you're a football player at this level, people are going to treat you as though you walk on water, and you're different," Brown says. "The thing I'm most proud of about Cody is that he always stayed in touch with me and the rest of his family. He's always been the same young man. The first thing he does when he comes to the house is hang out with the young kids. He's not Cody the big star. He was just Cody.
"That's the thing I always wanted him to have, the ability to stay grounded, and everything else will take care of itself. The hunger and competitiveness, he already had those when he got to Notre Dame. The ability to stay grounded is what gets tested. He's exceeded all of our expectations. He's a very grounded young man."
For Riggs, deciding to attend Notre Dame has been a difference-maker in his life.
"What I've done for Notre Dame is minor compared to what this school has done for me," Riggs says. "The connections I've made, the people I've met ... it's been a great experience overall."