Oct. 14, 2005
By Katie Stuhldreher
The Irish have seen their share of ups and downs over the years, and even more than their share of coaching changes. If any team can weather tough times, it’s the Irish of Notre Dame. Just ask the guy whose job it is to come into the game and execute when it’s fourth-and-long.
Fifth-year senior DJ Fitzpatrick remains a reliable constant for the Irish as a leader on special teams, performing all three kicking responsibilities: kick-offs, field goals, and punts.
“Being a fifth year senior, I know how it is to go through a coaching change, or several. I know every up and down that you can have over the football year, so it’s just my job to keep the younger guys focused on the big picture and what we can accomplish. I keep pushing everyone to give as much as they can,” says Fitzpatrick.
If nothing else, Fitzpatrick has been consistent throughout his career, appearing in the last 20 consecutive games as both place kicker and punter, making 22 of his last 28 field goal attempts inside the 50-yard line, and ranking eighth in Notre Dame history for career field goals made with 23 to his credit.
“I like to think that I contribute to the overall atmosphere of the team and go out there and make a big play when everyone is looking at me to do that. I don’t get too many opportunities to do that, so I try to capitalize on the ones that I am in on,” says Fitzpatrick.
During the 2004 season, however, there was talk of spreading the kicking tasks among several players, including junior kicker Bobby Renkes and junior punter Geoff Price. Despite the competition, Fitzpatrick showed no signs of slowing down. If anything, he says his increased responsibilities with the team keep him motivated and focused.
“I really like doing all three because it keeps me that much more involved in the game,” says Fitzpatrick.
“At any given moment, the defense could take the ball away and score a touchdown and I’ve got to be ready to go. There’s really never a time to get tight or cold or fall out of the mental aspect of the game. It’s just that aspect of the game — that I could be called upon at any moment.”
Fitzpatrick’s accomplishments and broad responsibilities are even more impressive when one takes into account that he didn’t come to South Bend as a scholarship athlete. Rather, he fulfilled a childhood dream to suit up in gold and blue when he walked on to the team in 2001.
Fitzpatrick says, “It was intimidating because there were guys I’d been watching for years that I respected so much. There are just so many good athletes and players here and being able to see myself on the same level as them was difficult. But after a lot of hard work, I found out that I can do the same things that these guys can do.”
Fitzpatrick said that although joining the team was initially challenging, he looked up to then place-kicker Nick Setta and punter Joey Hildbold for guidance.
“Nick Setta and Joey Hildbold both have been great mentors to me,” explains Fitzpatrick.
“When I came in as a freshman they helped me with the conversion, the speed of the game, and, realizing how mental the game really is. Learning how to stay strong and hold under pressure, things like that.”
Fitzpatrick has improved tremendously since his freshman year and now holds a strong leadership role on the team both on and off the field. At the beginning of the season, Fitzpatrick became one of 10 Irish players to be named to the newly established Leadership Committee by a vote of his teammates. Irish head coach Charlie Weis implemented this new feature in order to give different elements of the team an equal voice in team decision-making.
“Being on the leadership committee, it’s just another chain-of-command that Weis has set in place to make sure that everyone is on the same page and that everyone can get their voices heard,” says Fitzpatrick.
“My role is to represent the special teams and that distinguishes me more as a leader on the team. I think that as the seniors, we need to be the captains of this team and lead everyone in the right direction. I need to set an example both in what I say and do.”
The Leadership Committee is one of the many changes Weis has made to the team this year. He also introduced a new emphasis on special teams and devoted more coaching staff to that area.
“Coach Weis has just taken special teams under his wing because he puts so much emphasis on them,” says Fitzpatrick.
“He doesn’t just look at football as offense and defense, but as equal thirds with offense, defense, and special teams. He’s always telling us how special teams is the best way that a team can get good quickly.”
So far this season, Fitzpatrick’s hard work in the off-season has paid off in demonstrating that Weis’ special teams are vastly improved. Fitzpatrick recorded three field goals against Washington, a 48-yard field goal against Michigan State, and a 60-yard punt against Michigan.
“We worked really hard in the off-season and sometimes it just takes a new attitude and if everybody takes on the attitude that Coach Weis is trying to send down the ranks, then I think we can do great things on special teams. It all starts with a kick or a punt. I just want to have a solid, solid year. I want to help the team as much as I can,” says Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick had fostered a desire to attend Notre Dame both for academic and athletic reasons since he was five years old. He explains that with a grandfather who graduated from Notre Dame and growing up in Granger, Indiana, he couldn’t help but dream of one day taking part in a legacy that he had been exposed to for most of his life.
“I’ve been coming to games since I was five years old,” recalls Fitzpatrick.
“My parents and grandparents brought me to games, and I just got a feel for the atmosphere on campus on game weekends and in the stadium and an appreciation for all the great players that came before you. Since I’ve been close to it all along, I appreciate it and have gotten that much more out of the experience.”
Due to his close proximity to Notre Dame as a child, Fitzpatrick believes that he can more fully appreciate the variety that Notre Dame offers as well. While football dominates a large portion of his experience under the Golden Dome, he also equally appreciates the academic and social opportunities at Notre Dame.
Fitzpatrick says, “I came to Notre Dame because I grew up in the area so I knew how special this place was and the doors it can open for you down the road with the great education you get when you attend a great university like that. I’m in the masters of accounting program, and it plays a huge role in my life because it takes up so much time. But academics are why I came here–I was a walk-on. It’s always been my first priority, but I’ve been thankful that football has paid off, too.”
When Fitzpatrick isn’t on the football field or in the classroom, one can often find him practicing his swing on the golf course. An avid golfer for years, Fitzpatrick says that one of the most interesting conversations he had at Notre Dame was with former head coach Lou Holtz about their shared hobby.
“[Coach Holtz] said it’s amazing the similarities between golf and kicking. There are all the same principles of keep your head down, follow through, everything in a straight line, the balance of the body. So sometimes when I’m struggling with my kicking and I need to give myself a reminder, I kind of think of golf and link the two together, and it’s almost the same thing,” says Fitzpatrick.
After graduation in May 2006, Fitzpatrick looks to break into the NFL or the business world as a result of his time in South Bend.
“After this year’s over, I’d like to — if my performance on the field is good enough — give the NFL a shot. If that doesn’t work out, I have a lot of options because of the education I got here, so I’d like to do a number of different things in the business world,” says Fitzpatrick.
If his career at Notre Dame is any indication, Fitzpatrick should have no trouble establishing him in athletics or other endeavors after graduation. Whether it’s his golf swing, his field goal attempts, or his leadership role on the team, Fitzpatrick has never failed to follow through.