Dec. 14, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Joe Schmidt hobbled on his crutches backstage after receiving the University of Notre Dame football team's Monogram Club Most Valuable Player award Friday night at the elegant Leighton Concert Hall in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.
Schmidt sank down into a bench against a wall and took a series of deep, measured breaths as he struggled to cope with the magnitude of the moment.
A bone-jarring linebacker who is never caught off guard on the field for the Irish, Schmidt was struggling to deal with an all-out blitz of emotions as he held the MVP plaque.
"I'm trying not to pass out," Schmidt said a moment later as he wrestled to get his composure. "Wow. This is real."
Stepping into the Leighton Concert Hall after a red-carpet entrance, players, coaches and their families took in an enchanted scene. Notre Dame's fabled gold helmets glistened on the maple hardwood stage, and a haze blanketed the theater. Spotlights created a blue and gold sunbeam effect. Notre Dame women's basketball legend Skylar Diggins and NBC's Mike Mayock brought the star power as the emcees.
Glamour and glory dazzled, but grit and grind commanded the true storylines as Notre Dame football head coach Brian Kelly and his staff handed out the awards.
Schmidt's heartfelt response to the MVP honor voted upon by his teammates and coaches captured the essence of Echoes 14, an event that celebrates the dedication of the Irish to each other and to excellence.
"I mean this, from the bottom of my heart, this is the most honored I've ever felt in my life," Schmidt said. "It's a humbling award. To have my teammates feel that way about me, and my coaching staff feel that way about me, it's really special."
Bringing heart and intensity to the Irish defense, Schmidt started the first eight games of the season before suffering a broken ankle that ended his season. The Irish missed his impact on the field, and the injury-riddled defense went from only allowing 19.1 points a game with Schmidt helping lock down enemy defenses to allowing 44.5 points a game without Schmidt delivering bruising tackles.
"This award is great, it's fantastic, but it's not about stuff like this for me," Schmidt said. "For me, it's about Notre Dame and my team, and doing everything I can for them. I always say that you can't fool guys in the locker room, and I've never tried to do that. I've always tried to be what this team needs me to be. Whatever that is, on or off the field, I just want to do whatever it takes to make Notre Dame a better place, to make the football team a successful team, to eventually win a national championship. I love this University, I love my teammates, I love my coaches."
Another emotional Echoes 14 moment came when Irish running back Cam McDaniel was named the recipient of the Nick Pietrosante Award, given to the student-athlete who best exemplifies the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and pride personified by Pietrosante, an Irish All-America fullback who died of cancer in 1988.
"Every day, I say, `Wow, this kid has guts,'" Notre Dame running backs coach Tony Alford said of McDaniel. "You can go back to Purdue, when his helmet was knocked off, and he got 12 to 15 stitches. I went into the locker room, and he had blood pouring down his face. I said, 'Are you fine?' And he said, 'Yeah, I'm good, let's go.'
"He's what parents wants their child to end up being," Alford continued about McDaniel. "His heart is in the right place. He's one of those guys who I respect because of the leadership that he's given, leadership that he always had. Obviously, the older he became, the more the leadership came out. It was evident he had those qualities coming out of high school. He's the consummate team player. There's not a guy that exemplifies being a Notre Dame man better than Cam McDaniel, and that's to take nothing away from his teammates. But he's what you're looking for when you go out and start saying, `Who can you trust, who can you depend on every single day, who is going to go to work every day, and who is tough and gritty, but has life in perspective?'"
Although plenty of awards were handed out, Echoes 14 was more a celebration of the human qualities and successes that coach Kelly, his staff, and Notre Dame football develops. In a format that is a state-of-the-art, cutting-edge exhibit, Echoes 14 transcends the standard banquet of most college football programs.
"I was here at the event last year, and it was great," said Defensive Newcomer of the Year Drue Tranquill said. "It's just an amazing event to be a part of. You feel the family atmosphere that is unique to Notre Dame. I've been to a lot of banquets, and I couldn't say that any compare to this. The DJ, the music, the setting, the family atmosphere ... it's exquisite."
Corey Robinson, the Rockne Student-Athlete Award winner, said the Echoes 14 is an event that captures the memories of a lifetime in Hollywood style.
"I think it's really fun when you get everyone together and watch the highlights," Robinson said. "Everybody is laughing and joking around, but you're also able to honor people.
"As a recruit, you see all the effects and the highlights, the music, it's a real nice feel for kids, but the main thing is they see what Notre Dame is about. A lot of awards shows are not that interesting. This is different. They've done a good job of making it interesting, and the important thing is it showcases what Notre Dame is all about. They showcase the academics, the football and the service and community projects. It's really special."
Lineman of the Year Sheldon Day savored the magical night.
"This is a special experience," Day said of Echoes 14. "We're celebrating a successful season, we're having fun and we're just being ourselves around our family and friends.
"It's unique in the way we do it here at Notre Dame. I came on my official visit, and it was such a great experience. They make it so interesting with all the inter-actives and videos. I had just had my high school football banquet and then I came to Echoes, and I was like, `Wow, Notre Dame is really stepping its game up.'"
As the spotlights of the theater dimmed, the Irish football award winners gathered backstage for photos and interviews. Austin Collinsworth soaked in the honor of being named a captain for one of the nation's most legendary college football programs.
"Just to be able to represent some of the greatest guys I've ever known has been a special honor," Collinsworth said. "For those guys to vote for me to be a captain ... I can't think of a higher honor than my best friends naming me a captain of the University of Notre Dame football team.
"I think the biggest mark that we've left on this University is that we'll do anything for each other and anything to win. I really think there's enough talent in these young guys, and they've really bought into it. They're great competitors. The future has never looked brighter for Notre Dame football."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent