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Battle In The Trenches

by Ken Kleppel

There is no other place that senior offensive guard Sean Milligan would rather be than at home fishing in the mountains of North Georgia, just miles from his native Norcross. After all, it is on these streams, rivers and lakes that Milligan, with a cooler full of beverages and lunch, is most at ease.

“I lay back and let my mind wander as everything in terms of football and school just drift away,” says Milligan.

He will catch a little bit of everything, but swears Milligan, always something.

As deference to this relaxed utopia, some teammates call him “the trucker” while others tab him “Uncle Milly.” Neither moniker is an exaggeration.

He wears the look of a trucker well and, by virtue of his age and game experience certainly plays the role of uncle to his fellow offensive linemen. Weighing in at nearly 300 pounds and sporting a Bass Pro Shops mesh-net hat accompanied by his distinctive goatee, Milligan would more likely be found at a rest stop on Interstate 80-90 than at Saks Fifth Avenue on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

For these reasons Milligan’s tenuous claim as the best dressed member of the team has come into question. Honored by ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit as a member of his All-Uniform team, Milligan was recognized as the best dressed offensive guard in college football prior to the start of the season. The offensive line disagrees with what they describe as a facially dubious assessment.

“I just want to know how much he paid them,” says junior offensive tackle Mark LeVoir, with a laugh.

“I don’t know how he got best dressed anything. It is a mystery to all of us. He’s a beast of a man.”

“He honestly looks like he’s 35 years old,” laughs sophomore center Bob Morton.

“No comment on the award or how he won it.”

“I guess everyone has their own opinion, but to each his own” adds senior offensive tackle Jim Molinaro.

“I personally think I’m the best looking of the group.”

While best-looking lists generally conjure images of beautiful people, low-cut dresses and awards shows, for Milligan none of the above thankfully apply.

Rather, images normally associated with offensive linemen are those of pot bellies, muddy uniforms and the proverbial battle in the trenches. For Milligan each serves as a much better description, especially the latter.

“My favorite classes have always been ones dealing with war,” says Milligan.

“That’s the kind of mentality you have to have to be an offensive lineman. I took a peace studies class once and that wasn’t for me. It was too passive.”

Perhaps a metaphor to war and his region’s history best denotes Milligan’s ability to grow as a student-athlete throughout the past five years of his personal Notre Dame journey.

In the fall of 1864, General William Tecumsah Sherman marched his Union troops through the state of Georgia, capturing and destroying Atlanta and in so doing the spirit of the Confederacy. But as the decades passed, the city of Atlanta has since become the economic center of the Deep South, a media hub of our nation, and home to the world as host of the Summer Olympic Games in 1996.

Milligan, like his home city, has rebuilt himself. His older brother Matt Milligan would make sure of it.

“Matt would always say, ‘when you make your first start, I’m coming out to see you,'” says Milligan.

In his beat-up Chevy Camaro, Matt Milligan fulfilled his promise to his little brother and indeed completed the 1,250-mile, 20-hour car ride from Savannah, Ga., to Lincoln, Neb., in September 2001 to witness Milligan’s first collegiate start.

“Whenever things get bad, he would tell me ‘I’d kill to be in your shoes and have the athletic ability and opportunity you do,'” says Milligan.

“My older brother has always been there for me. He was never the athlete we were, but he always believed in me and in my younger brother.”

A full 49 months since he first enrolled at Notre Dame, Milligan now makes his mark by believing in others. But he only did so by first believing in himself as well.

“Early on in my career I came in banged up with my left shoulder, struggled with the offense, and let school cave in on me,” says Milligan.

“I put school off, put it off, put it off, put it off, and it soon overwhelmed me. I got my head on straight and tried to work through all my injuries and be a player you can count on.”

With the guidance of first-year advisor Holly Martin, Milligan quickly learned how to adjust to the rigors of balancing football with a full academic course load. He will graduate this December from the College of Arts and Letters with a double major in history and computer applications.

“Holly would always reassure me that it was not the end of the world, things were going to change,” says Milligan.

“She provided direction in terms of teachers and classes and anything that I would possibly need. She was a real big influence early on when I was having some problems. Even when she was not my advisor any more I would always go to her for help and guidance.”

After redshirting his freshman year, Milligan played as a sophomore behind and beside former standout guards Mike Gandy and Jim Jones, but an ankle injury detracted from his playing time in 2000. When he finally did earn the opportunity to start, Milligan aggravated a knee injury that forced him to the sidelines in his first career start at Nebraska and would ultimately limit his production throughout the 2001 season.

Undeterred, Milligan never relented. Week in and week out he would strengthen his body.

His peers on the offensive line experienced professional success first. Each departed starter including left tackle Jordan Black, left guard Sean Mahan, center Jeff Faine and right tackle Brennan Curtin was selected in the 2003 National Football League draft. Even former high school teammate and a player to whom Milligan drew numerous comparisons as a prep star, Jeff Backus, currently serves as a two-year starter at the offensive tackle position with the Detroit Lions after a standout career at Michigan.

But instead of following their lead blindly, Milligan would follow them with a purpose. The consummate teammate, Milligan preferred to defer credit elsewhere, always the first to brag about Faine’s intense competitiveness as a senior, share stories from Thursday night dinners with Black and his family or describe in detail Mahan’s ability to lead by example.

Today he looks to his left and gone are Faine, Mahan and Black. He looks to his right and absent as well is Curtin. With Molinaro as the only returning senior to the offensive line, Milligan now casts a shadow of his own. And knowing Milligan, the shadow is a large one.

The most experienced offensive lineman in terms of age and playing time, Milligan started 17 career games prior to the opening kickoff of the 2003 campaign – more than four times the rest of the returning offensive linemen combined. Likewise, the 16 returning offensive linemen have combined to play fewer than half of Milligan’s career minutes.

“Overall he has become more aggressive,” says Molinaro.

“He has come into the leadership role. He realized what he needed to do to step up and take it to the next level. He tries to take charge out there. He tries to be a leader, set examples and coach the younger guys.”

What better example for an inexperienced offensive line to follow than how Milligan competed in the 2003 season opener against Washington State. Despite suffering severe back pain throughout Notre Dame’s 29-26 overtime win, Milligan lay across the team bench while alternating possessions with Morton at right guard, his back wrapped in ice by the Notre Dame trainers. Each time, though, Milligan managed to return to the playing field.

“No matter how banged up he is, he always comes ready to play,” says junior center Zach Giles.

“When I wake up in the morning, I have to push myself to get into what I’m doing,” says Milligan.

“Once I get going, it’s about getting better and being the best I could be. It takes a little bit to get going in the morning, but once I’m out there, I know what I have to do. It’s you versus them and you want to win. Winning is what drives me.”

Junior tackle Dan Stevenson best conveys Milligan’s influence on today’s line. Playing at guard behind Milligan for two years, and now beside him at tackle, Stevenson credits Milligan for his successful transition to a new position.

“He really made me into the player that I am,” says Stevenson.

“He often took me aside and showed me things I needed to work on, things I needed to get better at. He’s a very caring guy and really supports his teammates. That’s a big thing for him.”

“I’m not a vocal guy, not a yell at you rah-rah kind of person,” says Milligan.

“When something needs to be said I’ll say it, but otherwise I let them find their own way. You have to persevere through, play the best you can and use the guys around you to make yourself better and make them better.”

And he does it with humor whether he plays the role of trucker, Uncle Milly or just as Sean.

“He’s a jokester,” says Morton.

“Unless he’s hurting there isn’t a time where there is not a smile on his face. Even if he’s hurting half the time, he is still smiling anyway. He makes it fun to be out there. If you’re not in a good mood, he’ll say something to get you in a better one.”

They will remember Milligan for his work ethic. They will remember his ability to persevere through injuries. They will remember him as the link from one class of offensive linemen to the next. They may even remember his mesh hats, goatee and unique sense of humor.

But most of all, they will remember Milligan for the example he set on the field and the manner in which he carried himself off of it. While others around him won and others around him lost, Milligan managed to make the right decisions as an exemplar teammate.

Milligan, however, prefers a much more conventional forget-me-not.

“I want people to look at me as a guy that gave everything he had and as a guy who got it done.”

Perhaps it is fitting that Milligan was recently recognized as the best-dressed in an Irish uniform. While he always dreamed of wearing blue and gold, he has grown to represent so very well the ideals which stand behind those colors.

“He believes that his football team is his family,” says Matt Milligan.

“He likes to make other people better.”

Back on the lakes of North Georgia, Milligan is most comfortable with himself. On the campus of Notre Dame, however, he has become comfortable with the man he has become.