by Ken Kleppel
Freshman John Carlson has paid his dues on the gridiron. A highly touted tight end out of high school, Carlson was relegated to scout team duties throughout his rookie campaign. His final 2003 stat sheet registered 0:00 in terms of minutes played, yet the least clairvoyant of prognosticators cannot help but predict the impact that Carlson is bound to make within the next several months of his football career.
Carlson has likewise paid his dues on the basketball hard court. Since joining the Irish cagers as a forward just in time for Big East competition in January, Carlson became the first football student-athlete to don an Irish basketball jersey since former Irish wide receiver Javin Hunter did so as a freshman in the spring of 1999, Carlson has not yet seen action under the formality of the Joyce Center lights.
Carlson-unassuming for a multi-sport standout and coolly mature for a nineteen-year old-never envisioned it any other way.
“I love to compete and that is what I’m doing,” says Carlson. “I’m blessed to be here and to be able to compete everyday in practice at one of the highest levels possible. I’m pretty unique and in a good situation here, this is Notre Dame. Obviously without Coach Brey’s support and Coach Willingham’s support this wouldn’t be possible. From a football standpoint, playing basketball is going to make me quicker, jump higher, and be a little more athletic. From a basketball standpoint, being a football player will probably make me stronger-I am used to pushing around big bodies.”
Growing up in Litchfield, Minnesota-along the shores of Lake Ripley and sixty-five miles west of Minneapolis and St. Paul-will provide you with this combination of optimism and humility. Right out of the heartland of Americana comes a feel-good story with all the essential elements-teamwork, hard work, and playing under and along-side family.
“It is a pretty small town, it has a Midwest feel,” says Carlson of his native Litchfield.
A small town, but one that offers big-time lessons-the majority of them in this instance taught by Carlson’s father John, Sr., who coached his son as offensive coordinator for the Litchfield High School football team and as head coach for both the basketball and tennis squads.
“I feel like my dad prepared me pretty well for athletics and life in general just by the way he coached,” says Carlson. “He always put the emphasis on team first. He taught me about going about it the right way, working hard, doing what is right, and if you do what is right and work hard, but do your best and lose, you can’t be sad about that. You just got to do all you can and let the pieces fall where they may.”
The pieces seem to fall in the right places, and at all the right times, for Carlson.
A four-year starter at tight end at Litchfield High School, Carlson garnered football honors as a three-time all-conference selection and two-time all-state honoree. Carlson also played varsity tennis, competing in number-one doubles with his brother Alex and notching a 106-22 record and a trip to the state finals.
A starting center on the basketball squad, Carlson helped pace his team to a 114-8 record during his high school career while winning the Minnesota state championship on three occasions. The five starters had played together since grade school.
“Our team was so balanced and played so well together, we played solid defense and motion offense and the open person shot the ball,” says Carlson. “When you play with the same guys so long you know them like you know yourself. You know how you’re going to get them open and they know how you’re going to get them open so it works both ways. Balanced scoring and the overall team game allowed us to be pretty successful.”
Carlson applies the same formula today, despite a grueling daily regimen of conditioning, practice, and academic studies.
A 6:00 a.m. wake-up allows just enough time for Carlson to venture from St. Edward’s Hall to the Loftus Center for football strength and conditioning exercises where his day unceremoniously begins. From the practice facility to DeBartolo Hall, Carlson attends class until noon before a brief stop in the dining hall and more classes in the afternoon. He then practices with the basketball team until 6:00 p.m., eats dinner, and studies until he finally falls asleep.
The next day is the same. Then again, and again, and again.
“Team first and hard work-with those two things you can accomplish a lot,” says Carlson. “Individual accolades are not that important, but success of the team is key. I just have to try to improve everyday and keep learning.”
He already has, and will continue to do so. Just keep a close eye on those upcoming box scores, but an even closer eye on the locker room.