The last time Eric Atkins wasn't starting in a game for the Irish was during his freshman year, and over the course of his career, he has played in 132 total--the third most of any Notre Dame player ever. Photo: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Ambition and Resiliency

March 11, 2014

By Lauren Chval

Sitting in the team lounge, Eric Atkins looks completely at ease. The senior guard can undoubtedly hear his team, rambunctious, on the other side of the wall in the locker room, but in his own skin and in the face of questions, Atkins is comfortable. He is secure.

Experience will do that for an athlete. It will also do that for a man.

Looking up from his right arm is the image of an angel, drawn in black ink and holding a basketball to her chest. A cross dangles from her neck, and above her haloed head floats the word “Ambition.”

He got the tattoo-one of his more recently acquired-to represent his love for the game. He says the sport has gotten him far in life; he has been able to travel across America playing basketball.

“But I put ‘Ambition’ over it because I still want to do so much more,” he says, running his finger over the word. “I’m still aspiring to a lot of other things.”

At Notre Dame, Atkins has left several benchmarks in the dust. The last time he wasn’t starting in a game for the Irish was during his freshman year, and over the course of his career, he has played in 132 total-the third most of any Notre Dame player ever.

If “Ambition” dictates where Atkins is going, his other tattoos tell the story of where he has been. The EA logo sits opposite the angel on his left arm-a tribute to a nickname given to him by his older brother. An area code, 410, represents his hometown of Columbia, Md. Dominque, his mother’s name, is spelled out upside down on his chest so that it is easily read when he looks down.

But it is his first ink-“RIP Dad”-that still means the most to the senior. It’s these words that remind him of why he’s on this journey in the first place.

“My bond with basketball first started with my dad,” Atkins recalls. “He was the first one to put the ball in my hands. He was the one who got me started with the game.”

William Atkins was a former Division II basketball player was recognized talent early in his son. By the time Eric Atkins was in seventh grade, his parents agreed to homeschool him so that he could focus on developing his game.

It was two years later, in Atkins’ freshman year of high school, that his father lost his battle to cancer. The senior describes it as his first experience with adversity and adds that it is still, to this day, the hardest thing he has ever been through.

“I think that was the beginning of my being resilient and always bouncing back,” he says. “Going through that has prepared me for anything.”

And his time at Notre Dame has not been without adversity. Despite the fact that the three-time captain has had a stellar career with the Irish-he is one of only five players to log both 1,000 points and 500 assists-difficulty has followed his team during his tenure. Most recently, he has had to adapt without having fellow-senior and close friend, Jerian Grant, in the backcourt with him during the second half of the season.

“There’s always been adversity and different things to bounce back from, but I think this year especially with losing my best friend-not losing, but him leaving,” Atkins corrects immediately, careful with the word. “With Jerian leaving, it was another time that I had to be resilient.”

Although he is not new to leadership, Atkins says this season has called him to be a different kind of leader. The first three-time captain in program history, he has always thought of himself as a quiet, lead-by-example type, careful to play unselfishly and take others aside when they should be doing something differently.

In the absence of Grant, who was averaging 19 points per game before his departure, Atkins has had to step up both his scoring and his vocal presence on the court. Certainly, there are days when he misses his best friend, but Atkins first has to think about the team, and how he can carry a workload originally meant for two players.

In moments of pressure, he says he reminds himself of what he has already lost and already overcome.

“This season, I had to step up just like I did when I was younger,” he explains. “Going back to then helped me out, dealing with this season.”

And it is not as though this season has been without its high points. Specifically, Atkins says he will never forget going up against Duke in Notre Dame’s first ACC matchup. Aside from the upset win, the game holds special value for Atkins because it was the first time he was able to face his childhood friend, Quinn Cook, in college basketball.

Cook’s father passed away just a year after Atkins’, and the two men were best friends from the time the boys met a basketball clinic when they were 10 years old. As both Atkins and Cook supported each other through their emotional tragedies in high school, they looked forward to the possibility of eventually playing against each other in college.

“That was a really special game for me,” Atkins confesses. “Probably the game that meant the most to me this whole season, playing against someone that I would consider a brother to me. Win or lose, going into that game, it meant a lot to me. Being able to play well and get the win made it even better.”

Now that he is near the end, Atkins finds himself looking back to see how much he has grown since he walked through the doors as a freshman. With a childhood connection to UConn and a father who loved Duke basketball, Atkins didn’t expect to end up a member of the Fighting Irish. For him, it came down to two things: his bond with head coach Mike Brey, and the fact that his mother was a big fan of the academics.

“That appealed to my mom, and then when I thought about it, I sort of jumped on board as well,” he admits with a laugh.

In the classroom, Atkins has dedicated his studies to the Film, Television & Theatre major, specifically focusing on television. The natural conclusion would be that he hopes to get into sports broadcast someday, but Atkins says that was never the goal at all.

“When I first got here and started doing interviews, I would always talk really low,” he remembers. “My head would be down and I usually had one-word answers, so I figured I could get into television so I could get used to getting in front of the camera and talking.”

How does he plan on continuing to use that skill after graduation? Once he has to face life after being a basketball player, Atkins is determined to be more of a leader than ever, this time as a coach. This ambition, along with his decision to come to Notre Dame, can be at least partially attributed to Atkins’ relationship with Coach Brey.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been more connected to a player than Eric,” Brey says. “He’s had an amazing career for us. He’s been an unbelievable representative and ambassador. Just a good guy.”

And it is that recognition that clearly matters more to Atkins than any of the stat lines or award nominations. Although it is not visible, Atkins takes care to mention one final tattoo-stretched across his back reads, “Family Above Everything.”

And that family has multiple meanings to him now. It means his father, the man who inspired him to put the work in and make him proud. It means his mother and his brother, who he describes as “1A and 1B of my biggest fan.” It means Cook, who was there for him during the hardest point in his life.

But it also means Notre Dame. He may be leaving, and 410 might be his hometown area code, but Notre Dame is home now, too. When asked what he’ll miss, “family” is the word that comes to Atkins’ mind.

“The people. All the connections I’ve made here. People that I consider family now.”

He is ready for what is coming next-so ready that he has an angel on his arm to remind him of it. But when he thinks of where he has been, Notre Dame basketball will be the place where he put the work in. It will be the place where he grew up.