Sept. 17, 2002

By Peter Stuhldreher

Growing up in Everett, Wash., sports were a huge part of senior inside linebacker Carlos Pierre-Antoine’s life. He ran track and played baseball and soccer. Then, in seventh grade, all of his friends were playing football, so Pierre-Antoine asked his mother for permission to join his friends on the football team.

Out of fear that her son would be injured at a young age, Pierre-Antoine’s mother initially refused her son’s request. But, after a good deal of coaxing from some other parents, she conceded and allowed him to play football. What then seemed like a simple concession led Pierre-Antoine to discover the sport he loves, and through football, to discover things about himself he might never have had the opportunity to learn.

At Bishop O’Dea High School in Seattle, Pierre-Antoine first began to realize he was blessed with enormous talent in the sport he loved. He won four letters in football and was twice named most valuable player of the Seattle Metro League. In his senior season at O’Dea, he was named a Parade prep All-American and a USA Today second-team All-America pick. Pierre-Antoine had discovered a gift, and many college recruiters caught on fast, including Irish defensive coordinator Kent Baer, then at Stanford.

“In high school, Carlos was a dominating player,” remembers Baer.

“There weren’t many guys with his kind of size that could run that well in high school.”

In fact, Pierre-Antoine’s unique combination of size, speed and skill had defensive coordinators across the nation salivating. Needless to say, he attracted many suitors from the nation’s top college football programs. However, when the paper cuts from all the recruiting letters finally healed and it came to decision time, the opportunity to play for the Irish and gain some independence by going to school away from home led Pierre-Antoine to Notre Dame.

“My mom wanted me to go to Stanford, but I wanted to get farther away from home,” he recalls.

“I had been on the West Coast and to California, so I didn’t want to go to school there. I had never been to South Bend and I liked the idea of a change of scenery and the chance to grow on my own.”

Pierre-Antoine arrived at Notre Dame as one of the most highly-touted recruits of 1998 due in large part to his physical ability, which allowed him to dominate the high school game. Once at Notre Dame, he learned that college football tests a whole other aspect of the game beyond simply physical size and strength. The mental facet proved for Pierre-Antoine, as it does for so many other young players, to be the toughest part of the transition to the college game.

“At first it was hard adjusting,” Pierre-Antoine said.

“I just tried to keep my confidence up and increase my knowledge of the game every day.” Over the past four years, Pierre-Antoine has worked hard to prepare himself physically and mentally to contribute at Notre Dame.

“He has worked tremendously hard,” said defensive line coach Greg Mattison.

“Carlos is a very accountable guy. He’s doing everything the program is asking him to do. He has worked extremely hard and that gives you great confidence in him.”

This year, as a fifth-year senior, Pierre-Antoine will be tested mentally as he tries to learn a new system with new terminology and new coaches. The process is taxing, but important at Pierre-Antoine’s position. His spot requires a player to be smart, in addition to being a good leader on the field.

Baer describes Pierre-Antoine’s linebacker position as “the quarterback of the defensive huddle.”

“He makes the calls, he makes the checks and he makes the adjustments.”

At 6-4, 245 pounds, Pierre-Antoine looks like the prototypical middle linebacker blessed with all the physical tools most coaches dream about. Physically, he is perfectly suited for his position. However, he also adds an extra dimension with his superior speed.

“With Carlos, you have the ability to have a big, strong guy that can run,” says Baer. “He runs like a Will (weakside) backer.”

Entering his final season with the Irish, Pierre-Antoine will also be looked at to be a leader on and off the football field. Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham is one person who expects that of his veteran linebacker.

“It is so important that a person who has been in our program and had the experiences he has, step up and be a leader for our team,” Willingham said.

“Whether you are a starter or a backup, just the title of fifth-year senior means you must bear that mantle of responsibility.”

Pierre-Antoine both realizes and accepts his role as a team leader. He also admits to not being a very vocal person, but says there are two types of leaders – those who lead by words and those who lead by actions.

“I lead through my example, doing the right thing, both on the field and every day in life. Coach Willingham always stresses doing the right thing, even when nobody is looking and I want to lead by setting an example and doing that every day.”

The title of fifth-year senior also carries with it another connotation. It serves as notice that your time in college is almost over and forces you to examine your life and where you want it to go. Many of the Irish coaches, including Willingham, have seen this sense of accountability in Pierre-Antoine as he sorts out what direction his life will take.

“There reaches a time in a young man’s life when he starts to really figure out a direction in his life,” said Willingham.

“Carlos is reaching that point in his life where he is starting to see his future unfold and find his direction. Maturity is used as a label for a lot of things, but it’s good when you can find your direction and he’s doing that. When you talk about maturity and starting to understand your role, and also having a sense of urgency about where you are in your life, that’s important.”

In his five years at Notre Dame, Pierre-Antoine has taken advantage of the opportunities afforded him. He has done everything the football program has asked, as well as getting the most out of his education. He has used his time at Notre Dame to gain a valuable education that gives him many options in life beyond simply football and the National Football League.

He graduated in May of 2002 with a degree in sociology, and is currently working towards his master’s degree in social work. Whatever direction his life and career take, Pierre-Antoine wants to help and give back to children. Taking advantage of opportunities in all facets of life is an important lesson that Pierre-Antoine will take with him from his Notre Dame experience.

“I have learned that you have to make the most of your opportunities,” said Pierre-Antoine.

“I want to make the most of my opportunities on the field this year, but at the same time, I realize that there are other opportunities for me in my life beyond football.”

A person does not go through an experience like playing football for, and attending, Notre Dame without learning a lot about one’s self. In Pierre-Antoine’s case he learned a very valuable lesson about his priorities and goals in life. In high school, football was everything to Pierre-Antoine and he could not see anything in his life beyond the football field.

Notre Dame is a place where football can often seem like everything to some people. Perhaps ironically, Notre Dame had the opposite impact on Pierre-Antoine as he learned that football is not everything in life.

“There are different facets of life other than football,” Pierre-Antoine said. “You have to be ready to take on each challenge as it comes.”

“Football is not the be-all and end-all. It’s just another part of your life, as big a part as it may be while I’m at Notre Dame.”

That being said, Pierre-Antoine is looking to take full advantage of all of the opportunities that come his way in his fifth and final year at Notre Dame, especially on the playing field. He wants to contribute to the team and have some fun doing it.

“I want to contribute to the team the best way that I can, whatever way that is, on the field playing or off the field in whatever capacity,” said Pierre-Antoine.

“I also really want to win. That’s the most important thing, to win.”

Looking back on the past four years, winning has a new and more urgent sense of meaning to Pierre-Antoine. He wants to contribute not only to this particular Notre Dame team, but also to the history and legacy of this football program.

“I have more of a sense of wanting to represent the players that came before me and keep the tradition going,” explained Pierre-Antoine.

“That’s what we want to get back to, consistently winning every year, and this year could be the jumping-off point for that. I really want to do my part to make that happen.”

It is this sense of loyalty to those who have gone before him and given him great opportunities that has pushed Pierre-Antoine to excel and, by doing so, give back to those people. He is especially loyal to his parents, who left Haiti before he was born to give themselves and any children a better life. His loyalty to them has pushed him to success both on the field and in the classroom in hopes of being able to take care of his parents and family.

“Since I’m graduating now, whatever happens, I can give back to the people that helped me,” Pierre-Antoine said.

“If I go to the pros, I can use that money to help my family, or just graduating from Notre Dame, I will be able to get a good job and help my family out that way. So I have lots of options.”

Carlos Pierre-Antoine came to Notre Dame searching for a place to challenge and cultivate his physical talents on the football field. What he found was a place that challenged and cultivated his mind, both on the field and in the classroom, perhaps even more than his body. He found a place that challenged him as a complete person, through which he learned that he has a lot more to offer beyond simply football. He came to Notre Dame hoping at the end to find a pro contract with which to provide for his family and give back to the country of Haiti.

Instead, in his five years at Notre Dame he found something much more important and valuable: himself.

Senior Peter Stuhldreher, of Houston, Texas, is a student-assistant in the Notre Dame Sports Information Office.