Nov. 23, 2014
They are bonds forged in the sweltering summer practices.
They are bonds forged in physical pain and when the devastation of doubt attempts an all-out blitz.
They are bonds forged in the shared joy of victory and the heartache of defeat.
A brotherhood built in the storied tradition of the University of Notre Dame football shined as brightly as the gold helmets that the Fighting Irish strap on, when the Irish took the field for senior day on Saturday against Louisville. Linebacker Jaylon Smith switched from his No. 9 jersey to wear the No. 38 jersey of injured fellow linebacker Joe Schmidt, and freshman defensive lineman Andrew Trumbetti switched from No. 98 to No. 69 to honor defensive lineman Tony Springmann, who missed his senior season due to a knee injury and subsequent back issues.
"What happened today was a lot more than just the jersey," Trumbetti said. "It's what's behind the jersey, the heart behind it, the tradition behind it, how Notre Dame is a family. I'm not the only one who would have done that."
Schmidt, a senior who has one year of eligibility remaining, said he and Smith were in the locker room Tuesday night talking over plays, when Smith asked his permission to wear the No. 38 jersey.
"For me, it was a such an honor to have him even approach me and say, 'Hey, I want to wear your jersey,'" Schmidt said. "We have such a great relationship. I love Jaylon. He's one of my brothers. I wish I could be out there more than anything to play with him. I just can't wait for the day we can play together. I think it was a great gesture. He definitely did me very proud today."
Schmidt told Smith he needed a night to think about the jersey switch, because he didn't want any attention deflected from the team to him. After thinking it over, Schmidt agreed, because it symbolized the steel-like bonds that unite this Irish team.
"The bonds on this team run deep, they run so deep," Schmidt said. "I can't play any more (this season), and that's really sad. Tony can't play any more, and that's really sad. It's great to have guys on the team who would want to wear the jersey of a brother on the team, a fallen comrade, if you will. We have an amazing brotherhood on this team, and I'm so blessed to be a part of it."
Sitting in the Irish locker room, his left foot in a cast painted black propped up on the motorized cart he uses now to get around, Schmidt said the Irish brotherhood is a powerful force that transforms an individual into a team of one.
"For me, it's all about I'll put my entire body on the line for any of these guys when I'm out there," Schmidt said. "That's what it needs to come down to. I will never break. There is nothing that will break me, because I'm playing for the guy next to me, I'm playing for this great University, I'm playing for the Catholic faith and my family, and all that comes together. That bond between the man that's bleeding and sweating and crying next to you, it's a very powerful, palpable thing."
Smith said the magnitude of Senior Day, and the strong emotions Irish players have for each other led him to want to honor Schmidt on his senior day. Last season, Smith wore Danny Spond's No. 13, to honor the remarkable senior who helped him transition to playing collegiate football.
"Joe was the heart and soul of this defense, and it meant a lot for me to honor him," Smith said. "Joe has helped me with life. He's three-plus years older than me. He helped me with how to become a man, as far as time management, adjusting to college life, especially here at Notre Dame, especially the academics. He's understanding of each concept, and especially on the field as well. He's really helped me expand my football IQ."
Smith said many teams have closeness, but the Irish bonds are a strength that carries out onto the field.
"This is a different team, because of that strength we have," Smith said. "We're so young. It's almost scary, but the bond we have, not only on the field, but off the field, we spend a lot of time together. The bond we have is very humbling, and I feel like we're blessed. A special trust definitely is there."
Trumbetti said Springmann helped him fight through the adversity that all freshmen confront in collegiate football.
"I knew how much Tony worked leading into his senior season," Trumbetti said.
"When I came in early, Tony was like a brother to me. He made sure I was OK, texted me on the weekends to make sure I was all right. We went out to dinner together every weekend. He was there for me, on and off the field. He helped me learn the playbook. When I found out he couldn't play this year, I immediately asked him if I could wear his jersey on senior day, as a thank you for everything he's done for me. I wish we could have gotten him and the other seniors the win."
As Senior Day approached, there was a fight among the defensive line as far as who would wear Springmann's No. 69.
"I'm the one who got it because I asked first," Trumbetti said. "Tony said he wanted me to wear it."
Trumbetti said older players are the ones who bring the younger players into the brotherhood and help them break through the wall.
"There have been days when I'm a freshman, and coaches try to test you, test your limits," Trumbetti said. "There have been days when I literally wanted to break. Seniors like Tony, Anthony Rabasa, Jarrett Grace, Matthias Farley, especially, all of those guys, every senior, they come up and give you a pat on the head, talk to you, and get you back on track. The older guys really help you survive."
When Notre Dame senior running back Cam McDaniel leaned against the gray concrete wall of the tunnel after Saturday's gut-wrenching 31-28 loss, tears started to streak down his face. A teammate came over and made sure McDaniel wasn't alone in the depths of his discontent. Those are the bonds of brotherhood that make Notre Dame rise above the college football landscape.
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent