Sept. 10, 2004
Mike Goolsby couldn’t help but feel a little bit responsible. After breaking his collarbone in Notre Dame’s 28-6 loss to North Carolina State in the 2003 Gator Bowl, the senior linebacker aggravated the injury during the spring. As a result, Goolsby was forced to watch from the sidelines in 2003 as his teammates struggled through a 5-7 season.
“It was real tough, especially with everything that went on in the spring. I felt like I should have been out there, and that I was letting the guys down. Just to see them put everything they had into those games and not get to win, it was real tough for them to stomach and it was real tough for me to just be a bystander,” says Goolsby.
Irish fans may remember Goolsby as the defensive terror who burst into the national spotlight with a breakout junior campaign in 2002.
A special teams stalwart his first two years, the Joliet, Ill., native used a combination of speed and tenacity to rack up 75 tackles, including 13 tackles for loss, four sacks, three passes defended and an interception en route to leading Notre Dame to a 10-3 record and its’ second Gator Bowl appearance in five years.
Having not seen game action in over a year and a half, however, the Mike Goolsby stepping onto the field for the Irish won’t be the same one who was named to last season’s Preseason Butkus Award watch list and earned him mention as the nation’s 12th-best inside linebacker in Lindy’s season preview magazine.
The 6-4, 242-pound Goolsby vows he’ll be even better.
“I’m stronger and faster than I’ve ever been, and I’m in the best shape I’ve been in. I’m ready to go, 100 percent,” he says.
While Goolsby looks to move forward for the Irish on the gridiron, he is also trying to put behind him something that has plagued him off the field since he arrived on campus in 2000 – the perception that he is, to put it bluntly, brash, cocky and loud.
“Just to set the record straight on that whole loud and brash thing, that came from my high school persona and the way people built me up to be coming out of high school,” says Goolsby, who earned high school All-America honors from Parade, USA Today and Reebok and was named the 1999 Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois while at Joliet Catholic, says. “I’m a vocal guy, but, at the same time, we have a lot of guys on this defense who know how to motivate themselves. I bring a little bit of attitude to the game, but as far as outspokenness, that’s a thing of the past.”
Having worked to shed that negative stigma, Goolsby says he looks forward to taking on a leadership role for the 2004 Irish squad. That role is one that, according to Notre Dame’s senior inside linebacker, has been developing since he first donned the blue and gold.
“Going through my years here I’ve seen what some of the older guys have done, the good and bad things and things that I’d like to change. Now that I’m finally in that position, and it’s kind of been handed to me, I’m really looking forward to running with it,” says the veteran linebacker.
As one of the cornerstones of an experienced linebacking corps that boasts a combined 11 career monograms, 352 career tackles and 16.5 career sacks, Goolsby knows the success of the Notre Dame defense in 2004 begins with the play of he and his cohorts.
“We’re the epicenter of the defense. We have to get everybody lined up and get everybody going, and we have to do it every play,” he says.
“We have to have accountability as a unit because linebackers are supposed to be the quarterbacks of the defense. So, we’re looking for accountability as linebackers, and to carry that over to the rest of the defense.”
As for himself, though, Goolsby says he realizes the importance of playing within himself and not trying to do too much.
“I have a lot of goals for myself, but right now I’m just trying to take everything one practice at a time, one game at a time. We’ll see where things take me from there, but I’m just trying to put myself in the best position possible,” the fifth-year senior says.
Despite his day-to-day approach to this Notre Dame football season, Goolsby has given some advance thought to his post-collegiate days. Those thoughts, he says, all center on something he’s wanted to do since ever since he was just a kid in Illinois who loved to play football.
“My whole life’s dream has been to play in the NFL. It was always one of those kinds of things where you say `Oh, I want to play in the NFL.’ My grandmother always wanted me to be a priest,” say Goolsby, who is currently pursuing graduate studies after graduating from Notre Dame in May 2004 with a degree in American studies.
“It was my sophomore year (at Notre Dame) when (Coach) Willingham and his staff came in that I really decided that I was going to do everything in my power to make that dream happen. That’s always been my ultimate goal.” For the time being, however, Goolsby’s thoughts are focused on his last season as a member of the Irish football program. Having been granted a fifth year of eligibility, Notre Dame’s senior inside linebacker feels as if he’s only begun to cement his legacy in the annals of the university’s lore.
“I want to be remembered as a guy who loved his team more than anything else and would do anything for them, but, above all else, I want to be remembered as a national champion. If that’s going to happen, we have to make it happen this year.” Goolsby says.
One major step on the road to achieving Goolsby’s goal is today’s game – the 2004 home opener, against arch-rival Michigan. For Notre Dame’s senior inside linebacker, however, facing the Woverines means more than just another game on the road to the top.
Goolsby hasn’t set foot on the Notre Dame Stadium field in game action since November 23, 2002, when he recorded a team-high seven tackles and notched two sacks in a 42-0 drubbing of Rutgers.
When faced with the prospect of being able to charge onto the Stadium turf again with the number 41 proudly stretched across his shoulder pads, Goolsby can sum up his feelings quite concisely.
“I’m going to feel unbelievable,” he says.
“I’ve put so much work into getting back, and the first home game is going to be the icing on the cake. To get out in front of those fans again is going to be a great feeling,” he says.
While the fate of the 2004 Notre Dame football team remains to be seen, there is one thing for certain. Mike Goolsby is going to feel responsible for what happens to the team, and this year he’s going to have a say in the action from the field.