by Ken Kleppel
From his home in Lisle, Ill., Glenn Earl Sr., basks in the bright glow of football prominence created by his namesake. After a remarkable four-year journey at Notre Dame, one which saw him rise from scout-team receiver to arguably the most prolific hitter in the country, Glenn Earl Jr. is now just months away from a degree in the College of Arts and Letters and possibly a career in professional football.
“We all realize that everyone will stumble and fall in their lifetime, but it is how you get up and persevere that really counts,” Earl Sr. says.
Each time he has fallen the younger Earl has gotten back on his feet, standing a little bit higher the next time. Today, he stands tallest.
“It is Glenn’s attitude and his effort,” adds senior cornerback Vontez Duff.
“If you put your mind to things, you can definitely go out and get it. In life when you want things, you have to go out and get it. It’s not just given to you. You have to go out and earn things.”
So gather the children and the grandchildren around the dining room table for this story. Bring in your mother and father too. Start up the fireplace, eat an apple pie, grill hamburgers and wave the star-spangled banner because the Glenn Earl story – right out of the heart of Americana 20 miles west of Chicago – is as American as it can get.
The senior safety indeed offers an example for us all to follow.
For most, anonymous is a negative word. For Earl, it foreshadowed this personal Notre Dame story. And he ultimately broke the anonymity in the most customary of ways: by outworking his peers and capitalizing upon opportunities. But his story is anything but usual.
“People can’t really figure me out,” says Earl.
“They are kind of like, ‘What’s his deal? What’s up with him?'”
“You never really know where Glenn’s going to come from,” adds roommate and senior offensive tackle Jim Molinaro.
“He’ll tell you how it is sometimes, good or bad, but you know you’re going to get a different opinion when you hear Glenn’s side of it.”
Although his teammates have come to grips with Earl, his straightforward, almost biting sense of humor, to the average fan is surely difficult to swallow.
Not the flair of a Vontez or the alliteration of a Julius Jones, Earl’s name is vanilla. The moniker Glenn Earl sounds more like that of an astronaut, or perhaps accountant, than a football player.
Not the typical build of a safety, the 205 pounds carried on his 6’1″ frame brings with it an imposing, yet unassuming, stance.
Not the fitting tribute for one of the game’s most aggressive hitters, Earl shares his uniform number on the Notre Dame roster with, of all positions, a kicker.
Not the most successful athlete in his own family, his cousin, Acie, starred as a collegian for the Iowa Hawkeyes before playing professional basketball with the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors.
Not a captain for his high school team, Earl served as a single-game captain for the Irish in 2002 against Michigan State and a multi-game captain thus far in 2003 against Washington State, and at Purdue and Pittsburgh.
Not a fan of the Fighting Irish, Earl admittedly hated Notre Dame football as a youngster.
“I just wasn’t feeling it,” says Earl.
“The way they would win, things always would go their way. They always played the fight song and it was just annoying to me.”
Not even the proper start to his collegiate career. Lost in the shuffle as a freshman, the coaching staff relegated Earl to role of flanker while his closest friend on the team, Jamaar Taylor, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and then transferred to Texas A&M.
“When you sit out your first year, you tend to get lost in the shuffle,” says Earl.
“People kind of forget that you exist and no one really has an eye out for you. You are always trying to make a name for yourself.”
Against the Air Force Academy on the afternoon of Oct. 28, 2000, Earl finally established himself and the Notre Dame family thought they had him pegged.
With the score tied, a leaping Earl took advantage of a strong surge from the Irish line and was able to deflect a 28-yard field-goal try as time expired in regulation. Notre Dame went on to win 34-31 in overtime, enabling the Irish to qualify for the school’s first Bowl Championship Series appearance in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
He was not supposed to leap to block the football as the designated cover man for a fake. He was not supposed to be on the field as a starter at safety. But, instantly, he was the 13.5-Million-Dollar Man, the Duke of Earl and the Leap of Faith to adoring fans of the program.
These identities meant nothing to Earl.
“The block was something that got me attention but I guess it wasn’t 100 percent a good thing because I couldn’t really shake it,” says Earl.
“Everyone only knew me as the guy who blocked the kick. I couldn’t get out of my own shadow for awhile.”
Starting at safety in place of an injured Ron Israel, Earl responded with eight tackles and recovered an Air Force fumble while playing every defensive snap. His performance throughout the contest, swears Earl, was a much better indicator of his progress as a sophomore than the shadow which had emerged.
“Some things I have a feel for, and I make mistakes just like everybody else, but I like to think of myself as having football savvy and being a smart football player,” says Earl.
“That’s the thing I pride myself on.”
In reality, these early stereotypes helped propel Earl’s career. Overcoming challenges, as pointed out by his father have defined him.
As a wide receiver at Naperville North, Earl played beside high school All-American Chris Brown, who would play at the University of Colorado before being selected in the third round of the NFL draft. During Earl’s senior season, the Naperville quarterback injured his ankle forcing the coaching staff to utilize a more run-oriented offense. To gain the attention of college coaches, who were there to watch Brown, Earl would now have to serve as a blocking wide receiver and ultimately increase his effort on the defensive side of the ball.
“Chris was kind of a headline guy and Glenn was moving up the charts faster and faster to the point where he was making a name for himself,” says the older Earl.
“That was the point where he continued to work hard. Glenn realized that for him to get his due, he had to work a little bit harder.”
On his official visit to Notre Dame in December of 1998, the school failed to offer Earl an athletic scholarship. Not until later in the signing period, upon the urging of then defensive coordinator and current defensive line coach Greg Mattison, was Earl formally extended the offer to join the Irish.
“I told him having it any other way would not be a part of a Glenn Earl story, anything that comes easy would not fit,” says father Earl.
“Coming in without being on preseason high school All-America lists that a lot of the players were on, he was presented the challenge of showing that he can compete with those that had those accolades.”
Again, Earl rose to the occasion.
As a flanker on the scout team during his freshman season, the coaching staff took note of the aggressive nature of Earl’s play in butting heads with former Irish linebacker Rocky Boiman and a host of other Irish defensive starters on the practice field. By the start of spring conditioning, Earl was promptly moved to the defensive side of the ball.
“His next challenge was to earn a starting spot on defense, to be able to do a little more than just being a special teams player,” says Glenn Earl Sr.
Hit after devastating hit, Earl continues to establish himself as a premier collegiate safety.
Against Pittsburgh in October 2002, he stripped Panthers quarterback Rod Rutherford and recovered the football on Pittsburgh’s 12-yard line to set up the game-clinching touchdown.
Two weeks later against Florida State, Earl registered a season-high 11 tackles, recorded his first interception since 2000, forced a fumble, and broke up three passes.
Earlier in the season against Stanford, despite giving away 20 pounds and six inches, Earl laid out Stanford wide receiver Teyo Johnson on a crossing route.
A common thread emerges.
“I’m a silent assassin,” smiles the younger Earl.
It is thus no surprise that he leads the secondary, and the squad, by example today.
“He brings a kind of confidence with him, an attitude,” says running back Julius Jones.
“He knows what he can do and the way he plays shows that. People watch Glenn and try to model themselves after him.”
As an underclassman, Earl watched former Notre Dame players Brock Williams and Tony Driver, both who found their way into the National Football League, and surely observed their distinctively outspoken approach to the game. But Earl would follow a different path. That set by Gerome Sapp, former travel-squad roommate and current member of the Baltimore Ravens.
“I take some traits that I picked up from Gerome last year, some things he does on the field to get the defense together, and take on that role,” says Earl.
“He’s definitely someone I try to emulate in some sense, just his leadership qualities because he is a great leader. By nature I’m a quiet person, laid back and real easy going. But I feel right now that it is kind of appropriate for me to be more vocal, make myself more noticeable as a leader.”
Always opportunistic and always blue collar, Earl continues to find ways to get things done.
“I don’t take anything for granted. I don’t think of myself as a physical freak or anything like that. I’m just somebody who works hard. I’m a testament to a lot of people – especially kids. If you work hard, you can accomplish anything. You can go anywhere you want if you just keep working. A lot of people won’t work as hard as you are going to work.”
For the past five years, Earl has done just that.
Often times overlooked as a high school prep star, Earl was not named captain of his high school senior team. In four years he would captain the Irish and emerge in what has become, over the course of the past several seasons, a star-laden Irish secondary to become perhaps its brightest figure.
Deemed a one-tip wonder following a heroic performance against Air Force in 2000, the media and fans alike overlooked a career game in favor of a blocked kick. Ironically today, perhaps his penchant for hard hits overshadows his all-around play at the safety position.
Circumstances did not find Glenn Earl. Rather, Earl made them happen himself.
“Just knowing that life is short and you have to basically make the best of it while you’re here drives me,” says Earl.
“Each day is a different challenge, a different opportunity to either get better, do something good, or waste it. Everyday is an opportunity. I try to look at each day as a blessing.”
The father pauses for a moment, a brief interlude in his stream of reminiscence and conveys one final message.
“My son has been an opportunistic guy, a blue-collar player. That’s really all there is,” says the elder Earl.
“He’s going to play tough and gritty. What makes me proud is his ability to stand up and face the challenge.”
Therein lies your American story. Therein lies Glenn Earl. He was never handed anything and had to work for everything, but in the end he has received the most.
His formula cannot fail.