Notre Dame football and Yankee Stadium, the site of this year’s clash with Syracuse and home to one of New York’s baseball teams, have a long history together. In fact, the Irish and the Orange have played here before, a 1963 contest in the original Yankee Stadium in which the Irish prevailed, 14-7. That’s in addition to 25 other games Notre Dame has played in the Bronx venue.
And, considering Notre Dame’s long history of football players who also played baseball during their Irish careers, it seems all the more appropriate.
“I’m really excited that I get the opportunity to play there,” said Irish tight end Cole Kmet. “That is one place I’ve wanted to go and, even though it’s not for baseball, it’s still pretty cool.”
Kmet just happens to be one of Notre Dame’s current dual-sport athletes. The Lake Barrington, Illinois, sophomore has grabbed 13 catches for 134 yards for the No. 3-ranked Irish through nine games this season, but will once again focus on baseball after Notre Dame wraps up its postseason play. The left-handed pitcher led the Irish baseball squad with eight saves in 2018, and hopes to build on that.
You’d have to go back almost 100 years in the history books to find one of Notre Dame’s first football-baseball crossover athletes.
During Notre Dame’s 1920 championship title run, halfback John Mohardt shared the backfield with George Gipp, and then went on to captain the ’21 baseball team. He eventually played both sports professionally before becoming a doctor. Andy Pilney, another halfback who was part of the “Game of the Century” versus Ohio State in 1935, earned All-America baseball honors that same year. Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli earned a monogram with the baseball team as a catcher and first baseman.
In 1962, George Sefcik, another successful starting halfback, had the rare distinction of leading the baseball team in batting average (.367), home runs (4) and RBI (23). Punter Dan McGinn played three seasons with the Irish football team, and paced the Irish baseball team with 69 strikeouts in 1965. Even famed Irish quarterback Joe Theismann played some games with the Irish baseball squad in 1970 before being drafted by the Minnesota Twins in ’71. Teammates Pat Eilers and Frank Jacobs, who were key members of the 1988 national championship team, also played Irish baseball. Eilers lettered as an outfielder, and Jacobs still holds the record for most home runs in a season, a feat he accomplished in 1991 with 20. Jacobs also led the squad in home runs in ’90 with 11, and paced the team both those seasons in RBI as well.
Nowadays, however, the feat is less common. Once an athlete gets to the collegiate level, sports have very little, if any, off-season. So making the two mesh isn’t easy. For Evan Sharpley, though, it was a deal-breaker when he started considering colleges.
“Pretty early in the recruiting process I wanted to pull the trigger and try and do both,” recalled Sharpley who played Irish football and baseball from 2006-09. “So it was trying to find schools that were a good fit academically and athletically that would allow me to do both. And that was a challenge within itself. There were some schools that flat-out said no, and some that were very interested in allowing that to happen.”
Kmet notes that it wasn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for him, but both will agree that the biggest obstacle they faced was time management.
“It was difficult at first in the spring when baseball is getting started and then we also have spring football,’ Kmet noted. “But after a couple of weeks I was able to get into a routine, and it wasn’t as bad as it seemed.”
The first couple of years were particularly daunting for Sharpley. The football staff that recruited him left before he even signed his National Letter of Intent and then the baseball coach who recruited him left after his freshman year. He briefly considered dropping one sport but, in the end, dug in and made it work.
“It’s really a year-round process for both sports, so I always felt like I was ‘on,'” Sharpley said. “I never had that little bit of time to re-set and re-focus. In high school you could get away with your talent and athleticism a little bit more without preparing or getting your work in. But that minimized at the college level quite a bit, and it became necessary to put in some extra work.”
In recent years there have been a handful of Irish stars that have juggled football and baseball careers at Notre Dame. Sharpley, who owns an athletic performance facility with his wife and also works for Dicor Corporation as a sales rep, had a team-leading 13 homers in 2008. He chose baseball after his time at Notre Dame ended, and played professionally for a couple of years.
Jeff Samardzija also went the baseball route once he left South Bend. He was an All-America receiver for the Irish from 2003-06, during which time he set single-season school records for receiving yards and touchdown receptions. The right-handed pitcher was a member of the baseball squad from 2004-06 and, in ’05, he notched an 8-1 record to go with a team-leading 51 strikeouts. Currently, Samardzija is a starter for the San Francisco Giants.
Sharpley’s teammate, Golden Tate, also was part of the dual-athlete’s club. Tate was a unanimous All-America wideout who won the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver, following his junior season on the gridiron in 2009. That same year Tate had a .318 batting average in addition to 16 stolen bases … the last time he played baseball. Tate entered the NFL draft after foregoing his final season of eligibility and was selected by the Seattle Seahawks, which won Super Bowl XLVIII in 2013. Tate’s currently a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
When all is said and done, both Kmet and Sharpley agree the lack of sleep and hectic schedules were worth it in order to achieve their goals of playing both sports. And when asked about what advice they would give others who want to do the same, both are adamant that it takes a lot of hard work.
“And you really have to love both sports,” Kmet said. “You can’t waiver on one or the other.”
“If you have aspirations to play both there’s going to have to be some give and take,” added Sharpley. “Don’t just make things up as you go along. Force (your coaches) to come up with a plan that you’re part of, and take your present and future athletic career into your own hands. That puts you in a good position to be successful.”
While Kmet will get his chance to play inside the hallowed walls of Yankee Stadium, albeit the new one which was constructed in 2009, Sharpley just missed his chance. The Irish met Army there in 2010, the first season after Sharpley’s Irish football career ended. Still, Sharpley, who grew up a fan of former Yankee star Derek Jeter, looks forward to seeing how Notre Dame football and New York Yankee baseball will come together in one uniform.
“I like the helmets,” Sharpley said. “I’ll be interested to see how the pinstripe pants play on TV.”
Chances are, like all the past, present and future Notre Dame football and baseball dual-athletes, the Irish will find a way to make it work.