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In His Own Words

This is a big season for me in 2003 as it is my final year playing for the Irish. I cannot believe how fast my career has gone at Notre Dame. It blows my mind sometimes to think I am already a senior and that this year is it for me wearing the gold helmet and running out of the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium.

There has not been a day that goes by where I have not thought about this year being my last, and more importantly, how I can make it my best season yet. During the summer, I participated in a number of strength and conditioning workouts with the team and on my own, trying to get into the best shape I could for camp.

I came into camp this fall by preparing myself the same way I have every year. It really doesn’t change. I think I have had that same attitude and desire coming into the season each year – the one to be the best you can be and doing whatever it takes to help your team win. The one thing I have learned over the years is you have to continue to make sacrifices in reaching that ultimate goal of winning a national championship.

There were many things I needed to work on in my game over the summer, but probably the most critical component was my backpeddling. Coach (Trent) Walters kept telling me I needed to improve on that, and I think I definitely got better over the summer. Coach Walters is always reminding me that “he makes more money than I do, but someday I am going to make more money than him if I listen to him.”

It is still hard to believe this is going to be my last year at Notre Dame. You try not to think about it, but it is hard. It is going to be a big adjustment when I leave here, but for now, I am not trying to take anything for granted and am making the most of being here. There are so many unique things about Notre Dame, but the best has to be the atmosphere and the people. Everyone is so great to you and really wants you to succeed. It is also important to know that I came here, took advantage of what it had to offer and will one day leave a mark not only on the football program, but the school as well.

Looking back, Notre Dame has been more than I ever expected it to be. You never really know what you are getting into when you first come to college, especially at somewhere like Notre Dame. There is so much tradition and history here, but you soon find out, there is much more to the school than that. You do not recognize what opportunities are available to you at Notre Dame until you get here and live it. It isn’t always easy and you have to be willing to make tremendous sacrifices while you are here, but it is all worth it in the end.

I mentioned the history and tradition before. It is so hard to live up to all of the great people and events of the past that make up Notre Dame. That is one thing they emphasize here – to make the people who have gone here before you be proud of what you are doing now to preserve the name Notre Dame. It can be a lot pressure, but I think that all of us should embrace that type of pressure on ourselves and try to live up to those standards. That pressure makes me focus even harder on the task at hand and helps me have that determination and attitude to become great.

I have heard I have earned some preseason accolades. I try not to read the papers too much, but my mom always calls me and tells me what the newest magazine is saying about me and the team. The coaches are also telling me that I have a chance to be a great player. The coaches are really into awards as well because that is a reflection of them and what they are teaching. I am trying to live up to their expectations and play, not only for me, but for them, since they cannot play anymore.

My coaches have obviously had a big impact on my improvement as a player over the years, but I was also lucky to have such a great mentor in (former Irish cornerback) Shane Walton. He has had a tremendous impact on my life. You have to love Shane, although there are times when you hate him as well. When I first arrived at Notre Dame, he was the one that taught me the basics of being a defensive back. He also made me have that attitude and confidence you need to have as a defensive back. I still talk to Shane once a week about what it is like for him in the League (National Football League), how practices and games are going and what it is going to take for me to be in the League. He keeps telling me that it is not all about making plays, it is having the desire to make plays and wanting to win more than the other person you are up against. He also reminds me to focus on the little things because that is what is going to make me stand apart from the rest. I think about what he tells me all of the time – whether it is on the practice field, watching film or in the classroom.

Being a senior, I also need to be a leader. I need to make sure everyone around me becomes a better player through my leadership and attitude on the field. I am an on-the-field leader. I show more by my play than my mouth. I am not much of a talkie-talkie type of player, although I can be that when I need to be. Don’t get me wrong, I can and like to talk, but right now, it is all about my play on the field.

My personal goals are private and I have been keeping that away from everybody. I am going to let you see on Saturday’s, but team goals are the most important. We have to be better than 10-3 this season and we need to contend for national championships.

I am also striving to be the best person I can be. Coach Willingham has taught me to be a great person, but also how to be successful as a person. He wants us to be more than athletes – socially, spiritually, in the classroom and on the field. He wants us to be the best people we can be. He is like the father I never had. I hear Coach Willingham in my head all of the time in my daily life. His little quotes and sayings go through my mind all of the time. Just knowing that he is somewhere doing right means you do not want to be somewhere doing wrong. We are a reflection of not only ourselves, but Coach Willingham as well.

There is no doubt that Coach Willingham epitomizes what Notre Dame is all about. There is not a better job for him in the country than at Notre Dame. All of the things they tell you as a student they want you to strive for to be a successful person, he does all of that and more.

I have a chance to join the company of some of the greatest players in Notre Dame history in kick returns this season. I don’t really think about being in the same company as people like Tim Brown and Rocket (Raghib Ismail). I feel if I think about it, it might not happen, but if I just keep doing the things I have been doing, then success will come for me. God has given me a great opportunity. I am going to run with it and not talk about it.

Finally, people always ask me how I want to be remembered at Notre Dame. That is a hard questions for me in some ways, but when people talk in the future about me I want them to say he was a great player on a great team. We have a chance to do that this season.

God Bless and Go Irish!

Vontez Duff