Sam Mustipher realizes that his biggest fan is gone in body, but the Notre Dame grad student and Irish football team captain won’t even entertain the notion that she’ll ever leave him in spirit.
Tragically late last month, but not unexpectedly, Notre Dame’s three-year starting center and preseason All-American lost his grandmother to cancer, five days before the season-opening game against Michigan.
Linda Heatherman died at the age of 70, only about six months after she was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer.
“She was going to get her last treatment,” Mustipher explained, “then decided against it and let nature take its course, which I understand.”
Going all the way back to pee-wee football back home in Owings Mills, Maryland, and then through high school, and then into college, Heatherman logged mucho miles to attend as many games as possible to support Sam and his younger brother PJ, a freshman defensive tackle at Penn State.
Today, the way Mustipher sees it, Grandma has an aerial view to watch both of her grandsons play at the same time.
“She knew she was going to pass before the football season,” Mustipher said. “She didn’t want any distractions for us. That’s just the way I like to think about it.”
Joseph Heatherman survives his wife, and is left to carry on the tradition of taking in as many Notre Dame and Penn State games as his schedule allows.
From the Stanford and USC rivalries in the west; to the Hurricane Matthew game in 2016 against NC State, and the 100-plus degree heat game at North Carolina out east in 2017; to Notre Dame at Wake Forest last weekend, neither distance, nor elements, nor circumstance could ever interrupt game-day competition without grandparental representation.
“They’ve been there every step of the way,” Mustipher said.
He shared a story about how every summer he and his brother would stay for at least a week with their grandparents, and the lineman theorizes that those visits helped turn the Mustipher brothers into the football players they are today.
“I attribute the reason I play offensive line to (the visits) because every time I went to their house, I would gain 10 pounds,” chuckled Sam, who checks in at 6-foot-2 and 306 pounds, with PJ right there at 6-4 and 300 pounds.
Linda was not only proud of Sam the player, but proud of Sam the student, and proud of Sam the maturing young man. Even as her body failed, she insisted on making the long drive from Maryland to South Bend for her grandson’s graduation.
Mustipher walked off that commencement stage with a computer science degree. He’s considering an occupation in cyber security once his college and presumably NFL football career is finished.
Always carrying a calm and controlled demeanor, Mustipher admits in hindsight that his five-year journey at Notre Dame has been far from easy, especially during his freshman fall semester when he juggled 17 credit hours in a difficult major along with football and the other pressures that come with being a first-year student-athlete.
“This place is hard,” Mustipher said. “It’s hard academically. It’s hard athletically. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s not left to the weak, timid or non-committed.”
Mustipher, who initially came to Notre Dame to at least in part study rocket science, talks a lot about the sacrifices necessary to survive at Notre Dame. And there are plenty.
A full eight hours of sleep was never an option, especially during his early years here. Instead, Mustipher would literally have to run most days from class to the football complex for team meetings because the end of school and the start of football were only a half hour apart. And once practice was complete, hours of homework, class papers and lab work awaited.
“It’s really just sticking to a day-to-day grind,” said Mustipher, with the poise that made him a clear choice as a team captain this season. “It is easy to get stressed out but you have to do everything in your power not to let that happen.”
Mustipher survived, and ultimately thrived, pulling a 3.6 GPA and a spot on the Dean’s List last school year.
“You have to learn how to make sacrifices if you want to survive here,” Mustipher explained. “If you’re not willing to, this place will chew you up and spit you out, I’ve seen it happen to a lot of guys.”
Mustipher’s acceptance and outlook were fostered during his high school years when his mother sacrificed her own sanity to make sure everybody else was taken care of.
There were plenty of nearby high schools to attend, but none offered the level of competition on the football field or the challenges in the classroom as Our Lady of Good Counsel in Olney, Maryland. So Mustipher’s mother, Tricia, made the sacrifice every morning to load up her son — sometimes as early as 4 a.m. — for the one-hour one-way drive to school.
The Good Counsel roster was loaded with future NFL talent and about 20 players total who would eventually sign with Power Five college programs.
Competition was fierce but even on one of the best prep football teams in the country, Mustipher stood out, first as a reserve defensive lineman and eventually as a starting left tackle. He also excelled in the classroom, as he always has and still does.
Mustipher said the difficult curriculum, demanding schedule and time management lessons from Good Counsel helped steer him to Notre Dame.
“Part of the reason I came here is that I knew it was going to be more difficult than the other places I could have gone,” said Mustipher, whose offer sheet included Alabama, Clemson, Florida and Florida State, among many others. “It’s paid the dividends that I expected.”
Mustipher arrived at Notre Dame having never once played the center position or making a single snap in his entire football career.
But his Irish offensive line coach at the time, Harry Hiestand, had a philosophy of putting the five best linemen on the field and figuring out where all the pieces fit later, and that’s how Mustipher became a center for the first time, and eventually evolved into one of the best in the country.
“Notre Dame has a funny way of forcing you to grow up,” Mustipher said. “You can come in and resist change, and resist having to mature in order to handle the stresses and challenges, or you can embrace them, learn and grow. If you want to grow up fast, Notre Dame is the perfect place for anybody.”
Former Irish tackle Mike McGlinchey — a first-round NFL Draft pick in the spring — summed up Mustipher’s contributions this way.
“You’re never going to get a highlight reel pass blocking at center or run blocking because there’s always somebody next to you,” McGlinchey said in a story for The Atlantic. “The times he saved my (butt) or somebody else’s (butt) from doing the wrong thing is really what sticks out to you.”
Mustipher is fine with the lack of notoriety. After all, self-indulgence is not included in his DNA.
“The less my name gets called or brought up,” he said, “the better I am probably playing.”
With a degree in hand and the bulk of his heavy academic lifting behind him, Mustipher is taking three graduate classes this fall semester for a total of nine credit hours — Cybercrime In The Law, Music and Worship, and Digital Technology. It’s a lighter schedule, but one that will still keep Mustipher plenty busy, but not overwhelmed, knowing full well that somebody special is looking over him in any times of need.
Linda Heatherman made a living as a social worker, and it’s her giving spirit and selflessness that Mustipher says was passed through his mother down to him and his brother, a trait that makes for a better teammate, a stronger young man and what Irish head coach Brian Kelly calls an exemplary team captain at a university that asks so much from its student-athletes.
“You gotta be a guy that cares about his teammates, is not self-centered and just thinks about himself, he thinks about others,” Kelly said. “So the laundry list of things that hit Sam (also) hit the players here at Notre Dame. And I’m not saying he’d be a captain everywhere, but he’s a perfect captain here.”