By Joanne Norell
Former Michigan offensive lineman Blake Bars may be entering his second year of study at the University of Notre Dame Law School, but if there was any ambiguity around who he’d be cheering for when the No. 14 Wolverines renew the rivalry with the No. 11 Fighting Irish in the season’s opening game Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, it was quickly squashed.
That’s because Alex Bars, a preseason All-America and Outland Trophy candidate at left guard — and Blake’s younger brother — will be suiting up for his first game as one of four Fighting Irish captains.
“We’ve had this conversation,” Alex said. “He’s cheering for Notre Dame.”
Blake will join the rest of the Bars family, which makes every effort to catch each of the four Bars siblings’ games — and there have been a lot of them throughout the years — in the stands Saturday, sporting his brother’s blue and gold.
That’s just the way they’ve always done it.
In many ways, Alex Bars has just the kind of pedigree one would expect from someone looking to assume an Irish captaincy and 2018 First Round NFL Draft pick Quenton Nelson’s spot on the offensive line. His father, Joe, was a linebacker on Gerry Faust’s Irish squads from 1981-84, registering 29 career tackles. His oldest brother, Brad, was a four-year letter-winning defensive end at Penn State from 2010-14 before serving a stint with the New York Giants from 2015-16. Blake, of course, played with the Wolverines from 2012-15.
But the athletic pedigree doesn’t stop there. The youngest Bars sibling, Lauren, played in all 138 sets at setter for the Ole Miss volleyball team as a freshman in 2017, helping lead the Rebels to the National Invitational Volleyball Championship. The family matriarch, Sally, swam for a season at Michigan State.
Then there’s Joe’s father — also Joe — who pitched in the minors for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His brother, Mike, played tight end and offensive tackle at Notre Dame in the 1960s. Sally’s father, Doug Eggleston and uncle, Don Kolcheff, played halfback and end, respectively, at Michigan in the 1950s.
As the youngest brother, Alex naturally benefitted from the experiences of those who came before him. Growing up, weekends and nights were spent on football fields with his dad and brothers, going through drills or running bleacher steps. There was always a game to go to.
“Football has played a tremendous role (in my family life),” Bars said. “My dad played here in the ’80s, so we grew up big Notre Dame fans, but he kind of took us away from it in middle school and high school. Both of my brothers went away to play college and they’d come back and I’d be doing drills at my high school all the time. They really made sure I was in the best position to play collegiately.
“I got to see a lot of college football games between recruiting and going to see my brother (Brad) at Penn State and my brother (Blake) at Michigan and see their programs and how they approach their players.”
Nothing quite compared to Notre Dame, though. It wasn’t just the father-son connection — one that Alex says makes Joe proud, but will never admit to — but everything that goes with it.
“When my dad brought me here (the first time), I think we met at a game with some of his buddies when I was really young. We were playing football out near Legends (the restaurant just south of Notre Dame Stadium), throwing the ball around, and we had an RV. (When it came to picking schools), we sat down one night, talked about my options and what would be best for me academically, athletically, spiritually, just to get everything I wanted in life and Notre Dame was the fit.
“As cheesy as it sounds, I knew in high school I would regret not running out of that tunnel. That’s one thing I didn’t want to regret, so that was the big deciding factor.”
Now, he’ll run out of that tunnel as a prospective All-American and Notre Dame captain, a designation he copped on the morning of the the 2018 Blue-Gold game — joining Drue Tranquill, Sam Mustipher and Tyler Newsome — after setting his sights on the vacant fourth captain’s spot and earning the votes of his teammates at the conclusion of spring ball.
On Saturday, Bars will make his 25th straight start for the Irish. As a junior in 2016, he slotted in at right tackle, making the move to right guard in 2017 and contributing to an offensive line that snared the Joe Moore Award. That offensive line paved the way for the nation’s seventh-ranked rushing offense at 269.3 rushing yards per game and helped the Irish set a slew of program rushing records in 2017.
Of course, that was a line that featured consensus All-Americans and top-10 draft picks in Nelson and Mike McGlinchey at left guard and left tackle, respectively. In 2018, it will be Bars in that left guard slot, lining up next to Liam Eichenberg at left tackle and Mustipher at center.
“It was pretty special having those guys as mentors and being able to follow in their footsteps,” Bars said. “They taught everyone so much, day in and day out, how to tackle, guard, perform under pressure, how to weight lift, how to run, how to lead. Taking on that role (after them), was really something.
“It falls on Sam Mustipher and me to continue that. We’ve done a great job stepping into that role. As soon as the (2017) season ended, we texted each other and said this was our team and were ready to step into that role and continue what Q and Mike started.”
In many ways, his Notre Dame teammates — past and present — have become an extension of the family that has formed Bars into the player and leader he’s become.
And despite the Bars family’s conflicting allegiances, Alex insists any underlying rivalry is virtually nonexistent. Maybe it’s in the way he carries himself, but instead of the good-natured trash talk that might exist between members of rival programs, there’s just respect.
“Both of my brothers have seen how much I put into this program and they understand my loyalty to the program and my love for Notre Dame,” he said. “They’re 100 percent behind me all the way. That’s what you want from your brothers.”