Jan. 4, 2004
By Pete LaFleur
When Matt Nussbaum and Jeff Perconte played for the Notre Dame baseball program during the late 1990s, it was head coach Paul Mainieri who “laid down the law.” But things have changed in the past few years, with both of the former Irish team captains on the fast track to great careers in the legal field.
Perconte is in the midst of serving a prestigious two-year stint as a law clerk with federal judge (and fellow Notre Dame graduate) Timothy J. Corrigan in Jacksonville, Fla., while Nussbaum will serve in a similar role (for one year) beginning in Sept. of 2005, with federal judge Edward Harrington of Boston. Both have attended the Notre Dame Law School, remaining within shouting distance of Eck Stadium while preparing for the next exciting stages in their life stories.
“It might be the first time that two classmates from the same college baseball team have gone on to clerk for federal judges,” proclaims Dick Nussbaum (’74), the proud father of Matt who followed the same path as his son, from the Notre Dame baseball fields to Notre Dame Law School.
The Mainieri era at Notre Dame has included some 60 former players and a significant number of them – including Perconte, Nussbaum, George Restovich, Scott Sollmann, Pat O’Keefe, Alex Shilliday and Ben Cooke – have moved on the academic “big leagues” of law school (in addition to several others who have entered the medical field).
“So many of our players have gone on to impressive postgraduate endeavors and they truly are a great inspiration,” says Mainieri.
“When you look at young men like Jeff Perconte and Matt Nussbaum, they were part of that class of 2000 that helped light the spark for the big steps we have taken the past few years. They had that impact based on the way they played – most notably in that memorable NCAA regional at Mississippi State – but they also have left an imprint because of their great leadership, helping set a standard that which continues to be handed on to each successive class.”
Jeff Perconte earned distinction at Notre Dame as a first team Academic All-American and Byron Kanaley Award winner.
Perconte logged seven straight years on the Notre Dame campus, following up his stellar undergraduate career with three years in the Law School. The Arlington Heights, Ill., native was a versatile player for the Irish during the 1997-2000 seasons – playing every position aside from pitcher and catcher – but his career was hindered by a series of injuries. He was batting at a .428 clip in his senior season before reaggravating a shoulder injury, starting that 2000 season with 34 error-free games at second base.
Off the field, Perconte received Notre Dame’s Byron Kanaley Award, presented to senior student-athletes who are exemplary as student and leaders. He was named a CoSIDA first team Academic All-American after graduating with eight Dean’s List semesters and a 3.76 GPA as an economics and government major, closing with a 4.0 in the 2000 spring semester.
Nussbaum played baseball and tennis at South Bend’s St. Joseph’s High School but had an uneventful start as a Notre Dame baseball walk-on, batting 0-for-16 in spot duty during the ’97 and ’98 seasons. Things changed dramatically in 1999, as a beefed-up Nussbaum started the season by batting 5-for-16 with a pair of home runs. He quickly became known as an aggressive hitter who rarely got cheated at the plate, making 57 starts in ’99 as a left fielder/DH while ranking sixth on the team in batting (.314) and fifth in RBI (33).
The success continued in 2000, when Nussbaum split time as a starter in left field and behind the plate. He again finished fifth on the team in RBI (37) and was one of the heroes in the 2000 NCAA Regional at Mississippi State, making several diving plays after making the switch to second base (in place of the injured Perconte) for the first time in his career.
Matt Nussbaum went from a little-used walk-on to major contributor during his Irish baseball career and received the Notre Dame athletic department’s Francis Patrick O’Connor Award.
A major award also was waiting for Nussbaum at the 2000 student-athlete banquet, as he received the Francis Patrick O’Connor Award in recognition of embodying virtues such as team spirit, inspiration, caring, courage, honesty and patience. He went on to graduate with a 3.30 cumulative GPA, as a government major.
Perconte’s ties to Jacksonvile can be traced back to his days with the Irish baseball program. Notre Dame traditionally spends its spring break in San Antonio, Texas, or Jacksonville, playing a full slate of games while the players stay with host families.
“We played at the Kennel Clubs Class in Jacksonville during my senior season and I had a great host experience, with a Notre Dame grad Jim Sebesta and his family,” remembers Perconte, who passed the Illinois bar in July and currently is on a leave of absence (while serving the clerkship) from the law firm of Winston and Strawn in Chicago, where he had served as an associate in general litigation.
“I applied to be a law clerk for federal judges in several cities, including Jacksonville, and I also had the chance to meet judge Corrigan when the Notre Dame football team played at Florida State last year. He told me that I did not get the position just because I went to Notre Dame … but there’s no question my experience as a Notre Dame baseball player helped put me on the path to where I am now.”
Perconte understandably has a clear appreciation for the power of Notre Dame connections. “It’s always a good thing to meet Notre Dame alums. It’s just such a phenomenal network,” he says. “When somebody can help get you face-to-face with an influential person, that’s just priceless.
“I had great host families during my three years in San Antonio and I still keep in touch with them. The overall Notre Dame baseball experience truly altered what I did with my life and playing Notre Dame baseball has been the greatest thing in my life, based on the impact it’s had. Other people see that and they realize it’s special.”
Nussbaum – who is set to graduate in May before working for Chicago-based Jones Day, followed by the clerkship leave – had a similar experience to Perconte during the job interview process.
“Being a Notre Dame baseball player has helped me immeasurably,” says Nussbaum, who emerged with his clerkship from a pool of some 400 applicants.
“I would go into all of the interviews prepared to talk about the firm or discuss legal issues – but we’d always end up talking about my baseball experience. It’s what people want to know about and it makes me stick out. It’s something that most other applicants don’t have on their resume.”
Jeff Perconte currently is serving as the law clerk for federal judge Timothy J. Corrigan in Jacksonville, Fla.
Both players credit life as a Notre Dame student-athlete with providing time-management skills that carried over to law school life. “Managing your time is one of the most important things in law school, not just managing time for studying but also for relaxing,” says Perconte.
Another intangible element from their Irish baseball experience has fortified Perconte and Nussbaum for the rigors of the legal world.
“One of the things that Jeff and I both feel strongly about is the fact that being a Notre Dame baseball player truly prepared us for dealing with the stressful situations and pressure that is such a big part of getting through law school,” says Nussbaum, whose career plans center on litigation work.
“When you have to speak in front of a class or a professor, or do various types of speaking at a law firm, it’s really nothing compared to trying to perform on the baseball field in front of 10,000 screaming fans at Mississippi State. Of course, they are different situations but the mindset and confidence is there to help get you through it.”
Perconte – who began his clerkship in August – applies a baseball analogy to the last few years of his life.
“Coach Mainieri always stressed to us that we had to maintain a certain standard in how we practiced and then in how we played the games,” says Perconte. “Now that I’m out of school, I’m actually ‘in the game’ as a lawyer. Coach Mainieri also used to talk about doing things for your teammates and now I am affecting other people’s lives. The level and quality of responsibility that he instilled in us definitely has carried over to law school and to real life.”
Perconte’s current responsibilities center on helping to review items that come before Corrigan’s court. He completes research and helps the judge draft opinions that ultimately dictate the course of cases and shape the law.
Nussbaum was one of several former Notre Dame baseball players who were on hand to cheer the Irish at the 2002 College World Series.
Nussbaum delayed entrance into law school by one year, maximizing that “year off” by working alongside another former Notre Dame baseball player – former Indiana lieutenant governor and the state’s current governor, Joe Kernan (’68). The younger Nussbaum worked with Kernan on Frank O’Bannon’s campaign staff during the 2002 election year, traveling the state to help drum up support and then working in the statehouse after the election.
His duties on Kernan’s staff included overseeing and channeling correspondence. “I would draft letters of reply and the lieutenant governor would review them before we sent them out,” says Nussbaum, who credits Perconte with providing plenty of law school guidance once he rejoined his former teammate back on the Notre Dame campus.
“That whole year before starting law school year was a great experience for me and I learned so much about interacting and corresponding with the public.”
One of the advantages of attending law school at your alma mater is remaining in touch with favorite places … like a college baseball stadium.
“It really has meant so much to me to follow the team so closely during the past few years, even being able to go out to Omaha for the College World Series back in 2002,” says Nussbaum, who joined Perconte and several other ND baseball alums in Omaha for the historic CWS appearance.
“The team continues to reach new heights, with pro signees every year. It has reached the point of the program being a perennial contender for the College World Series and the national title. And that’s all a credit to coach Mainieri and how h e has built up the program.”
Perconte credits much of his postgraduate success to the lessons he learned as a Notre Dame baseball player.
Perconte “really missed being out there playing college baseball” during his law school years but has remained an avid supporter. “Coach Mainieri is such a great asset to the University, and you can see that in the way his teams always have handled themselves on and off the field,” says Perconte, whose ambitious longterm plans include possibly serving as an assistant U.S. attorney/federal prosecutor.
“There is nowhere to go for the program but up, although you really can’t get much higher. I’m always following the team on the internet and will be out to games when I return to Chicago. I also plan to catch the team this season when they play in the tournament at Florida Atlantic.”
He’s free to catch up with the Irish … now that we’ve all caught up with his great story.