April 20, 2004
by Greg Touney
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – In a way, D.J. Fitzpatrick’s kick was the most important one in the past 40 years.
Perhaps not in the past 40 years of Irish football as a whole — but Fitzpatrick made sure last year that Notre Dame’s 40-year win streak over Navy would continue with a fluttering 40-yard field goal at the end of regulation to upend the Midshipmen, 27-24.
Because of his game-winning boot, Fitzpatrick has etched his name in Irish lore after some late-game heroics.
“I told myself with about five minutes left in the game that it would happen, just because that’s the way you have to prepare yourself,” Fitzpatrick recalls. “I’m just glad that everything worked out, and the snap, kick and hold were all good.
“I’m glad it happened.”
This year, Fitzpatrick once again hopes to continue to write himself into Irish history. However, the senior-to-be, who last year took care of both the punting and kicking duties, is in a fierce competition for both jobs along with punter Geoffrey Price and kickers Carl Gioia, Craig Cardillo and Bobby Renkes.
“We have five kickers and punters right now,” he explains. “Everyone’s fighting for a job. No one’s job is safe ever because a coach is going to play the best player, so that’s what makes practice fun. It keeps you in that game-competition mode when you’re always competing against your teammates.”
Fitzpatrick has approached this year’s competition with the same cool determination that he displayed last year when he took over for injured kicker Nicholas Setta. After Setta pulled up hurt during the Pittsburgh game last year, Fitzpatrick, who had only served as Notre Dame’s holder and backup kicker at the time, was given the chance to step into the spotlight.
“[Nick] went out there and he kicked an extra point and everything was fine,” Fitzpatrick remembers. “As soon as Nick went down, there was no time to get nervous. It was just like ‘OK, this is what you practice for. This is why you’re the backup.’
“It was a little bit of a shock but there wasn’t a lot of time to overanalyze things.”
A native of nearby Granger, Ind., and a grandson of a Notre Dame alum, Fitzpatrick has grown up in the Irish football culture, attending Notre Dame games since he was “five or six years old.”
“I’ve been to practically every game since then, so it’s always been a huge part of my life,” he notes.
Fitzpatrick’s dream of donning the blue and gold has come true, and he’s at a loss for words in trying to describe the rush of adrenaline that comes when a player runs out of the tunnel onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium.
“You just can’t put it into words no matter how many times you’ve done it,” he says.
The business major’s next opportunity will come Saturday during Notre Dame’s 75th annual Blue-Gold Game, which kicks off at 1:30 p.m. (EST). Fitzpatrick has seemed especially focused on the year ahead during the recent spring practices.
“Spring ball is nice because you don’t have to prepare for anyone else,” he says. “We’re just preparing for ourselves, so you get to focus on your own techniques and practice styles.”
Fitzpatrick finished the 2003 campaign 12-of-17 from field goal range and 17-of-18 on PAT kicks, in addition to averaging 36.8 yards on 44 punts. He also will be Notre Dame’s top returning scorer in 2004, having tallied 53 points a season ago. This year, he is determined to pull double duty again for the Irish.
“Obviously, I want to do both jobs,” Fitzpatrick says. “No one goes in there saying, ‘I want to be a backup at this.’ You want to win that job.
“Now it’s time to show people what I can really do, so there’s no reason that I shouldn’t make every field goal. I just need to go out there with the mindset of doing the best I can every time.”
Fitzpatrick brought that mindset last year, and it helped him earn a place in the hearts of Irish supporters. This year, he hopes that his focus and confidence — as well as his kicking ability — will help create many more memories for himself and Notre Dame fans everywhere.
— ND —