Oct. 29, 2010

There are 23 walk-ons on the 2010 Notre Dame team. Some have been put on scholarship (backup quarterback Nate Montana), some toil in obscurity to help achieve a greater good for the overall program … and then there are three who have comprised one of the better feel-good stories in the first couple of months of this season.

Entering today’s game against Tulsa, senior short-snapper Bill Flavin, junior holder Ryan Kavanagh and senior kicker David Ruffer, the trio was perfect on all 13 field-goal attempts and helped Ruffer broke the Notre Dame record for consecutive field goals made, upping his streak to 18 (in 18 attempts), dating back to last year.

“You bond together right off the bat,” said Kavanagh of the walk-on experience. “You need a different work ethic, especially outside of football … we’re hanging out in the library when we’re studying and we’re trying to get extra lifts in to catch up … we stick together, we push each other and we’re real supportive of each other.”

Flavin was the first of the trio to make the team as a walk-on in the spring of 2008, his freshman year. He had attended Benet Academy in Darien, Ill., and worked on the Irish scout team as a 6-3, 260-pound offensive lineman.

As a biochemistry major in the College of Science with aspirations to attend medical school, Flavin didn’t view football as a distraction from his intense academic schedule.

It also didn’t take long for the former high school long-snapper to have an epiphany.

“Boy, it would be something if I could specialize and do the snapping,” Flavin thought during his freshman year. “That’s really a place I could see fitting in and helping the team.”

This summer, the plan began to crystallize.

“It was this summer that [Kavanagh, Ruffer and Flavin] got together and said, `If we get really good at this, this can be a place we can contribute to the team and help the team win,’ ” Flavin recalled. “There are times when one of us is off a certain day and each of us makes the other better. It’s certainly a testament to the unit and how much we’ve worked together that it ends up being smooth regardless of the situation.”

Flavin credits special teams coach Mike Elston, who also instructs the defensive line, for evaluating their progress with fairness and continuously honing and emphasizing consistency.

“I’ve kind of taken to heart that consistency is the truest measure of performance,” said Flavin who boasts nearly a 3.6 grade-point average in pre-med and is also enrolled in an entrepreneurial course with Ruffer. “And I think that’s really indicative of the specialist positions where you get only one play — there is no second down on special teams. You have to do it well the first time because it’s your only down.”

The operation time that Elston demands in the field goal/extra-point operation is 1.2 seconds from the time of the snap to the kick.

While applying to medical schools, including Stanford, Flavin’s confidence resonates.

“I’ve had a chance to go on a few interviews already and the two things the medical schools always want to know is 1) how well do you perform under pressure and 2) how do you handle situations where your time is demanded in multiple places,” Flavin said.

“So I kind of point to football in both. I say, `Well, there are a few situations that are more pressure-packed than 80,000 people watching a snap, hold and kick — and it has to be perfect.’ It’s cool to be able to thrive under pressure that way.

“And because I’ve been involved in football, I’ve learned to manage my time, handle my homework, study for tests and come here for meetings, practices and workouts … those are great skills to learn. I think those will definitely pay off for me down the road.”

The second part of the kicking operation is Kavanagh.

When the media congregated around Ruffer after his record-breaking milestone against Pitt, the kicker singled out his holder, Kavanagh, for providing a calming influence in his approach to kicking and life.

When asked how he helps keep Ruffer on an even keel, Kavanagh wasn’t sure how to answer.

“I don’t tell him a `knock-knock’ joke on the way out there,” he replied with a chuckle. “I try to make sure he’s focused on the right things and not stressing about everything. I don’t say, `Hey, if you make this you’re the all-time leading kicker in Notre Dame history — by the way, it’s 50 yards.’ Just swing like it’s any other kick, keep your head down, take a nice easy swing, and there’s no wind today.

“… Never make a kick, and life will be good. Or never miss a kick, life will be good. Keep making them.”

A native of West Chester, Pa., Kavanagh attended Salesianum in Delaware, where he also starred in lacrosse.

There might not be another player in college football anywhere who is both the holder on kicks and also the No. 2 long-snapper, yet those are the roles the 6-3, 200-pound Kavanagh has, while also taking four engineering courses this semester in his civil engineer major.

His inspiration to expand his role and hold on kicks came from watching good friend and three-year Irish punter (2007-09) Eric Maust doing the holding during kicker Nick Tausch’s freshman year in which he made the then Irish record of 14 straight field goals.

“I saw [Maust] leaving — and no incumbent — as an opportunity,” Kavanagh said.

Flavin and Kavanagh had previously worked together on their snapping technique.

“Bill would be practicing his short snapping, so rather than just catch it I was practicing catching and putting it down,” Kavanagh said. “I started holding and worked together with Ruffer in the spring, getting faster at it, getting the laces out, getting the ball exactly as he wanted it.”

“We were out here a lot, after hours by ourselves, getting timing down, getting a good leg swing, getting a rhythm and it carried right over into camp … we just have that confidence together going into games.”

Finally, there is Ruffer, the transfer from William & Mary whose father and sister attended Notre Dame, had played dorm football as a receiver and kicker for Siegfried Hall.

When former head coach Charlie Weis was seeking help at kicker in 2008, Ruffer had three auditions in a span of less than two weeks.

“I was really nervous because it was like these [coaches] are going to see me here about 20 minutes, 15 minutes, and if I don’t do really well they probably won’t want to see me again,” recalled Ruffer, who majors in economics.

When Ruffer was given his first “live” chance late in the 2008 Washington game after an Irish touchdown built their lead to 33-0, he missed the point after when it hit the upright.

He would not get another opportunity again until late in the 2009 season, when Tausch was injured. This time, Ruffer made all five field-goal attempts (two from 42 yards) and nine of his 10 extra points.

Regardless, when new head coach Brian Kelly arrived, he admitted he didn’t have high expectations for someone who had come from the interhall league. “If I was the coach I would have thought the same thing: `Where is this kid coming from?’ ” Ruffer laughed.

With any walk-ons ability to deal with the unknown yet still endure and maybe even prosper, it’s not about where they came from, but where they will ultimately go in life beyond football.

Walk-On Kicking Wonders
In 1974, Dave Reeve became the first Notre Dame football player to sign a football grant-in-aid at Notre Dame solely as a kicker. Since then, there have been nearly a dozen others, but many memorable performances at kicker the past 40 years have come from walk-ons. In addition to David Ruffer, they include:

BOB THOMAS 1971-73
Three-year starter was a clutch figure during the 1973 national title run, booting three field goals to help snap USC’s 23-game unbeaten streak and the game-winning 19-yarder with 4:26 left in the 24-23 Sugar Bowl win versus Alabama. The future Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice played 11 years in the NFL.

Local product Male transferred from Western Michigan and converted 22 field-goals, highlighted by his Notre Dame single-game record 4-of-4 effort in a 12-10 upset of Michigan in 1979. Unis replaced an injured Male late in the 1978 season and kicked the winning extra point with no time left not once but twice (after an Irish penalty) in the 35-34 comeback victory against Houston in the 1979 Cotton Bowl.

A kickoff man his first two seasons, Johnston enjoyed a sensational junior year in which his three field goals to help beat Michigan in the 1982 opener earned him a scholarship. Three weeks later, his 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left defeated Miami, 16-14. He finished the year a remarkable 19 of 22 (.863) on field goals.

Broke Johnson’s record for single-season field goal percentage by going 17-of-19 (,894) as a sophomore, highlighted by 10-of-10 from 40 to 49 yards. His 51 career field goals are still the most in Notre Dame history, and he has been in the NFL an Irish record 23 years.

His lone season as a starter came as a senior when he was 14-of-18 (.778) on his field-goal attempts, with three apiece in victories against Purdue and Alabama. He joined Thomas in 1972 and Carney in 1984 as the only Irish kickers to finish a season perfect on extra points.

The 5-5, 131-pound Ho came out of nowhere to boost the 1988 national title run. A Hawaiian native who is now a doctor in his home state, he made all four field-goal attempts, the last with 1:13 left, in the crucial 19-17 opening-game win versus Michigan. He also nailed his lone attempt in the epic 31-30 conquest of No. 1 Miami.

Originally a member of the soccer team, Pendergast joined the football program in 1991 after an injury to starter Craig Hentrich. As a senior in 1993, he made 14 of his 19 field-goal attempts and capped off his career with a 31-yard field goal with 2:22 left in a 24-21 Cotton Bowl victory versus Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.

D.J. Fitzpatrick 2002-05
Like David Ruffer, the local product (Marian High School, just like Male) also excelled in golf and was the captain of the state championship team as a senior. He took over as the starting kicker and punter by 2003 and converted 34 field goals in his career, highlighted by a 40-yarder as time elapsed to beat Navy in 2003.

Honorable Mention:
Scott Cengia (1995-97) wasn’t a full-season starter but still made 13-of 17 field goals during his career, most notably from 20 yards with five seconds left in a 23-22 victory at Hawaii.

Walking On A Road Toward Success
When it comes to Notre Dame football’s walk-on history, Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger (1975) receives the lion’s share of ink and royalties.

His captivating story was made into a 1993 movie — “Rudy” — that was voted the 54th most-inspiring film of all time in the “American Film Institute 100 Years” series. Although Ruettiger played only 27 seconds, the crux of the movie centered on his against-the-odds journey to Notre Dame.

Walk-ons can not only make good theater, but sometimes they even steal the show with their on-field performances. Here are seven who had profound impacts on offense or defense the past 50 years:

ED GULYAS (1969-71)
Among nearly 100 walk-ons who tried out in 1968, Gulyas was one of about 20 who made the final cut. He did enough on special teams to receive a scholarship in 1969 — until the Irish traveled to the Cotton Bowl at the end of the season.

“I was a bad boy and broke curfew down there, so I’m also the only walk-on to have his scholarship taken away,” Gulyas chuckled. “[Head coach Ara] Parseghian said, `Listen, you’ve got to get serious about your life, you have to get serious about football. If you want to come back, you come out to spring football and you can win your scholarship back.’ “

During Notre Dame’s No. 2 finish in 1970, capped by an upset of No. 1-ranked Texas, the California native emerged with a team-high 534 yards rushing. Gulyas also was an effective receiver, nabbing a clutch 30-yard touchdown pass on fourth down versus Dan Devine’s Missouri team and making a diving 46-yard catch of a Joe Theismann pass to set up the fourth-quarter game-winning TD in the 10-7 victory versus Georgia Tech.

Although he missed much of his senior year with an injury, Gulyas’ five TDs that season still tied for the team lead.

TIM RUDNICK (1972-73)
Linebacker/nose tackle Gary Potempa was the esteemed recruit from Notre Dame High in Niles, Ill., that year, but prep teammate Rudnick decided to join him at Notre Dame in a walk-on capacity.

Surprisingly, the free safety inherited graduated quarterback Joe Theismann’s No. 7 jersey in 1971 and became a two-year starter in a secondary that included All-Americans Luther Bradley and Mike Townsend on the 1973 national championship unit.

Rudnick intercepted six passes in those two seasons and his 10 pass deflections in ’73 were second to Bradley’s 11.

MIKE ORIARD (1968-69)
In his 1982 critically-acclaimed book, “The End Of Autumn,” Oriard revealed that a Spokane, Wash., dermatologist, who was treating his acne problem made the call on Oriard’s behalf to the Notre Dame coaches to take him as a walk-on.

“Not exactly the stuff of Hollywood epics,” Oriard wrote.

The book revealed in detail the discouragement and daily notions of quitting a walk-on endures. Yet after two years of getting hopes squashed, Oriard was the starting center midway through his junior year (after converting from defense) and was selected as a team-captain as a senior before partaking in an NFL career.

This duo became starters on the 1988-89 units that set the school record for most consecutive victories (23).

Brennan’s first start came in the epic 31-30 victory over No. 1 Miami in 1988 — a game where flanker Eilers scored the go-ahead touchdown on a running play. They also would play in the NFL, Eilers for six years as a safety/special teams stalwart, and Brennan three years as an offensive tackle. Both of their fathers were Notre Dame graduates, and they grew up imbued with its spirit. Their path to play football at Notre Dame, though, experienced severe roadblocks.

William & Mary told Brennan he could never play for them, and Eilers opted to enroll at Yale, where he shared time on the freshman team in 1986. Brennan played lacrosse as a freshman at Notre Dame, where he could have been a star. Instead, he decided to try out as a 180-pound tight end before shifting to tackle.

“I thought to myself, `If I go ahead and walk away from lacrosse in order to play football, I will throw everything I’ve ever achieved away and start all over from the bottom,’ ” Brennan said. “That was a frightening thought. But I knew it was my chance to test myself because it was an all or nothing situation for me, and fear can be a great motivator.”

Eilers transferred to Notre Dame after his freshman year to pursue an ostensibly crazy dream.

“I didn’t want to look back 20 years later and say, `I wonder how I could have done if I went to Notre Dame?’ ” Eilers said. “I knew what I was getting into when I arrived as a walk-on. But I just made up my mind that I wasn’t going to give the coaches any decision but to play me.”

Nick Rassas (1964-65)
Rudy had the best movie reviews — but it was Rassas who made a greater impact on film.

The walk-on out of Loyola Academy in Winnetka, Ill., tried out as a halfback for Joe Kuharich’s Notre Dame squad in 1961, but he was sidelined all of 1962 with a broken ankle. Midway through the 1963 campaign under interim head coach Hugh Devore, the varsity traveled to Stanford and Rassas stayed home and partook in a filmed scrimmage session.

Desperate to find a diamond in the rough amidst a 2-7 season, Devore, after watching the film, told Rassas to “put on a white jersey” — meaning he was the new starting halfback.

When Ara Parseghian arrived in 1964, he utilized Rassas in the secondary and at halfback at the start of the campaign before changing his mind after a 12-yard run by Rassas.

“When I got to the bench, Ara said, `From now on, you’ll play only defense,’ ” Rassas recalled. “I guess I must have looked tired or something.” Rassas went on to become a consensus All-American on defense, placing eighth nationally in interceptions (6) in 1965 and first in punt returns, with a school-record three going for scores. He also was a second-round draft pick.

Shane Walton (1999-2002)
Speaking of making an impact on film…

In the spring of 1999, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Jim Colletto was watching tape of a prospect from The Bishop’s School in San Diego, Calif. The athlete he intended to assess was pretty good, but he kept noticing someone else on the tape who dazzled him.

Thus, Colletto placed a call to the high school head coach and inquired about this new-found gem. How can he get in touch with this player?

“He’s on your soccer team there at Notre Dame,” replied the high school coach.

The said player was Shane Walton, who in 1998 as a rookie forward led the Notre Dame soccer team in scoring with 10 goals and seven assists, earning second-team All-Big East honors. Similar to lacrosse star, Brennan, though, Walton opted to start from the bottom by pursuing his football dream.

By 1999, Walton was put on scholarship, and he became a starting cornerback the following year, helping Notre Dame to a BCS bid.

A three-year starter, Walton earned consensus All-America notice in 2002 under first-year head coach Tyrone Willingham. Walton was the team MVP not only with his leadership in the locker room but he also paced the team in interceptions (7) and passes broken up (7).