Dec. 1, 2015
By Denise Skwarcan
The Showtime series “A Season with Notre Dame Football” has given fans a rare behind-the-scenes look at the Fighting Irish program. Its cameras have followed players and coaches at practice, in the classroom and on game day. But one of the series’ surprising stars has turned out to be Carol Boyd, the mother of defensive lineman Sheldon Day. She has made several appearances on the show talking about her son and wildly cheering for him during games.
“She said it’s going to help her get the Campbell’s (chunky) soup lady’s job,” says Day with a laugh about his mom’s performances. “She’s enjoying every opportunity she gets to be on the camera. It’s definitely good to see her laughing and enjoying herself. She is who she is, and I enjoy that.”
But Boyd isn’t the only one lighting up TV screens across the country. Actually Day has been doing it for quite some time now … just in a different way. The Notre Dame senior arrived in South Bend in early 2012 amid high expectations, and his final season this year is proving to be, thus far, his best in an Irish uniform. Through 10 games he leads the team in tackles for loss and quarterback hurries.
“I think defensive tackle is my best position,” says the 6-2, 285-pound Day. “The mentality you have to have is a very physical mindset, and I just really love that.”
Day began making waves at Warren Central High School in Indianapolis when he helped his squad to a No. 1 ranking as a junior, and earned second-team honors on SI.com’s High School All-America team in his final prep season. Day graduated early and then headed north in January of 2012 to begin his collegiate career…just not as far north as he once thought he might.
“I actually grew up not liking Notre Dame because I was a Michigan fan,” Day says. “But it came down to Notre Dame, Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia Tech, and if one of those didn’t work out I was going down south. In the end I couldn’t pass up the opportunity that Notre Dame put in front of me…the opportunity to better myself in the classroom and on the field.”
The early enrollee made an impression on the coaching staff and, as head coach Brian Kelly noted, Day had an “incredible motor and a great work ethic” who also had an explosive first step. That combination limited the amount of time Day spent idling on the sideline. But a talented defensive line, headlined by Kapron Lewis-Moore, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, kept Day out of the starting lineup. Playing time notwithstanding, Day still experienced his share of freshman blues. But being close to home helped that first season.
“I hurt (my knee) jumping up and down during the Michigan State game, so there was a struggle to get over the injury and play at a high level again,” Day recalls. “It hurt me mentally more than anything because I’m thinking I’m a freshman and I’m not playing well and we’re winning games but I’m not contributing. So it was a mental thing I had to get over.
“But it definitely was easier being close to home. The family support I needed always was active in my life. And my high school coaches did a great job of staying on me and making sure that I knew my goals and that I could attain them.”
In addition to Boyd and his coaches, Day also had eight older brothers and sisters rooting him on and toughening him up at the same time. Four older brothers, including Shane who coached Day in basketball and football early on, also played football. But the brothers didn’t suffocate Day with well-meaning advice and opinions.
“Only two of my older brothers played football at the collegiate level, and they kind of let me find my own way,” Day says. “They said it’s a different time now then when they played.”
Day’s experience with the injury during his rookie campaign came in handy, unfortunately, after suffering a high ankle sprain as a sophomore and an MCL injury late in 2014. He cracked the starting lineup in his second season and has been a stalwart along the line unless the injury bug prevented him from taking the field. Day was named a captain as a junior in ’14, and his 40 total tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and nine QB hurries were the second-most among all Irish defensive linemen. For his efforts, Day was named Notre Dame’s Moose Krause Lineman of the Year.
But Day ended the regular season on the sideline with a knee injury while the Irish limped to a 7-5 record after injuries decimated the squad, particularly on defense. A 32-28 victory over No. 22 LSU in the Music City Bowl upped the winning total to eight, after which Day contemplated moving on to working on Sundays in the National Football League. Discussions with family and friends along with input from the league’s Advisory Committee and Kelly convinced Day to return for his senior season.
“I debated it a little,” Day says. “But in my heart I knew it was the right decision to come back. I had the chance to play for a national championship once (in 2012 as a freshman), and I wanted the chance to be able to do it again. I thought 2015 could be a special season, and I wanted to be part of that again.”
The versatility and experience Day brings to the defense have been key to Notre Dame’s start in 2015. But his role as leader and mentor are just as important, and that was supported by Day being named a captain for a second straight year. His big personality has made it easy to wear those hats, but using words and not just actions has been an evolution.
“I think I’m a natural leader,” Day says. “It’s taken time to become a vocal leader. But now when I say something I think (the defensive line) listens because they respect me and understand where I’m coming from.”
Showtime cameras have followed Day around as he interacts with young players, particularly fellow lineman Jerry Tillery. The freshman, with whom Day rooms on road trips, takes a lot of ribbing from the upperclassman, even when Day refers to him as ‘Terry Jillery’. The comedy schtick has helped forge a camaraderie that’s become evident on and off the field.
“Jerry’s a great kid and he brings a positive energy every day,” Day says. “I’ve been where he’s at and I know what it’s like to be that player. He’s just trying to absorb everything he can to make sure he’s a better player each and every day.”
Which also is what Day is trying to do. So far this season Day has managed to be disruptive at opportune times.
“My pass-rush angles,” Day says when asked what is the one thing he needs to consciously work on regularly. “I can hit a move and beat somebody clean, but my angle toward the quarterback can be thrown off and I’ll miss the sack. It’s something I have to consistently work at improving on.”
Day also is consciously aware of the limited time he has left at Notre Dame, especially since he flirted with the idea of leaving at the end of last season. Now, once the last game has been played, he’ll have no choice but to move on. And he knows that the things he does now will only help him in the future, so the two go hand-in-hand. But still…
“(Some of us) were talking about it the other day about how we only had (a few) games left,” Day recalls. “It’s crazy. We were just getting dropped off yesterday as freshmen. It’s been a great journey so far and I wouldn’t change it for the world. But it’s definitely staying in the back of my head because I’m so focused on the season. We have such a great opportunity right now and I don't need any distractions. That time will come when it needs to.”
Day also knows that if and when he lands with an NFL team he will be ‘Terry Jillery’ all over again, going from grizzled veteran to wide-eyed rookie.
“That time’s coming and it’s been a long time since I felt like that!” Day says with a chuckle. “There's so much uncertainty that goes with that process but I feel like as long as you go in with a positive energy and you enjoy the process that you can’t really be too mad about the outcome.”
Soon Day will have a degree in information technologies management from the Mendoza College of Business in hand and, with his football pedigree, Day will be able to pick from a plethora of opportunities. Once football comes to an end, Day would love to work for a company like Google or IBM in their IT department, but he’s pretty darn sure that you won’t see him doing one thing.
“I won’t be working with my mom on TV!” Day assures. “She has that under control.”