Nov. 22, 2013
By Lauren Chval ’13
If you want to understand Stephon Tuitt, you better check your pre-conceived notions at the door. The six-foot-seven, 312-pound junior may look like he would fit perfectly into the stereotype of a typical football player, but from the second he opens his mouth, Tuitt busts right out of it.
To start, the defensive lineman is incredibly soft spoken. He has a gentle manner about him that you will be hard-pressed to find in other first-team All-Americans.
“I think a lot of people would say I’m not quiet on the field,” Tuitt admits. “But off the field, I’m super quiet. I’m like a ghost — people never realize I’m there until I start talking. I’ve always been that way.”
His history with the game inspires double takes as well. While his teammates might have been in junior leagues from the time they were in kindergarten, Tuitt didn’t step onto a football field until he was in high school.
And even that was by chance.
“I had just moved from a different area in Georgia to go to Monroe Area High School,” Tuitt recalls. “I had no intentions of playing football at all — just going to school — and I was walking down the high school, and the head coach of the football team, Matt Figg, saw me and said, `Do you play football?'”
He never had, although Tuitt confesses he had thought of playing quarterback or tight end long before Figg approached him. Those thoughts vanished in a hurry, though.
“We went out there and of course I got moved right to D-line,” he laughs.
And he wasted no time in catching up. By the time Tuitt was set to graduate from high school, he was highly ranked on recruiting lists by ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Sporting News, to name a few. And in the heart of SEC country, it seemed like a given that he would sign to one of the football powerhouses in his state. But then, with Tuitt, nothing is a given.
“I had this feeling that I needed to go here,” he remembers. “It was comfortable. It wasn’t too big, just like the area I was from. It just reminded me of home a little bit. Not too rowdy–the perfect environment for football and education.”
What sticks out most in his memory is the sight of Touchdown Jesus, extending high above a campus that was eerily quiet when he first got into town. But within 24 hours, the Notre Dame fan base delivered on his expectations and came to swarm campus for game day.
“When I got my scholarship, when I got that gold letter at my house, I didn’t know anything about Notre Dame,” he confesses. “I was like, `What is this sparkly, gold letter? Did the girl scouts make this up to try to joke around with me?’ My grandmother was excited and knew about Notre Dame because she was around in the era when Notre Dame would win back-to-back championships. Notre Dame was a school that people dream about going to. It’s very hard to get into. So to have a chance to go to an institution like this was just breathtaking.”
Tuitt recalls that he gave prayer to the decision and discussed it over with his family. He was unnerved by how unfamiliar he was with Notre Dame but couldn’t shake the feeling that the place reminded him of home. At the end of the day, Notre Dame could offer something the other schools couldn’t.
“It’s definitely going to challenge you,” says Tuitt, who tallied a team-high of 12 sacks in the 2012 season. “I come from SEC country, and it’s totally different. You definitely get challenged. Overall, development of myself here is probably something that I wouldn’t have gotten if I went somewhere else. I like that.”
Tuitt will be quick to say that his development at Notre Dame hasn’t been limited to the football field. As passionately as he talks about football, the junior is just as eager to discuss his major, psychology.
“It’s just something that fits into how I am in general,” he remarks in his quiet timbre. “I think experiencing different ways to understand the brain and how we think and why we do things is awesome. It’s really interesting. I kind of think, personally, being able to understand other people makes me better. It makes me better at interacting with all different kinds of people.”
Psychology isn’t something that Tuitt always had in mind for his eventual career or even his major, but he fell into it during his early classes at Notre Dame and enjoyed the class readings. The subject paired well with his quiet nature, and Tuitt says that as he matured, he realized psychology fit in well with who tries to be.
“I’m a huge observer,” he explains. “I think in general people say I’m a great person to talk to because I understand. I’m able to parallel myself with them a little bit.”
In football, Tuitt’s gift for empathy and understanding manifested itself in his ability to be a good teammate and bring many types of people together.
“I’m very adaptive,” Tuitt says. “We have different personalities — a lot of different personalities — on this team and I’m able to cooperate with all of them. I’m not the person who screams and shouts. I help by the way I play. I go out there and show them that I care about them through the way I play football with a passion.”
He compares all of the players and working parts of the Notre Dame team to puzzle pieces that have to be put together. All the raw materials are there, it is simply a question of execution for Tuitt. When everything came together, the Irish pulled off its first undefeated regular season in 24 years.
“I knew coming here that we were going to have a good team, we just had to figure out how to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. I came up here and had a great class that came up with me as well, and we helped the upperclassmen put in those pieces that took us to a national championship game. I’ll always remember that.
“That’s something that everybody dreams about if you play football. To be able to be a part of those teams who get to be a part of the championship game — 50 years down the road I’m still going to be bragging about it.”
There is almost certainly plenty more to come in Tuitt’s career that he will be bragging about in 50 years. Currently, he ranks sixth in career sacks for all Notre Dame linemen and second in sacks per season, behind just Justin Tuck. Whether he will return to Notre Dame for a senior year or enter the National Football League draft in 2014 is still up in the air, but considering how much deliberation he gave to his college decision, it’s not surprising that the junior still hasn’t made up his mind. When reminded that his NFL career will be coming up sooner rather than later, he quickly corrects: “Maybe.”
But regardless of the year he will enter the draft, Tuitt knows his days under the Golden Dome are winding down. He cites — as so many do — the people of Notre Dame as what makes the university special. As they all inevitably move on to the next stage in their lives, Tuitt acknowledges it will be hard to keep those connections.
But as the lineman says, he is adaptive. And whether his teammates are collegiate or professional, he’ll do what he’s always done – thrive on the field and genuinely care about people off of it.