Nov. 13, 2014
On the last day of fall camp for the 2014 season, head coach Brian Kelly gathered the University of Notre Dame football team around him on the Notre Dame Stadium turf.
Surrounded by the legend and lore of one of America’s most iconic sports venues, Kelly went over several matters with the team and then announced that the Notre Dame football program was awarding a scholarship to walk-on Tyler Plantz.
The Fighting Irish responded with cheering that woke up the echoes.
“My stomach dropped, my heart stopped,” Plantz remember. “It was one of the coolest things of all time. These coaches that you’ve looked up to your whole life have recognized you as being as good as any of the scholarship guys.
“The really cool thing for me was all 104 other players standing up and screaming and yelling, ‘T.P. This is you. You deserve this.’ As I was walking up, guys were giving me hugs, giving me high fives–and they all had something to say to me.”
When Plantz called his Frankfort, Illinois, home, to tell his parents, former Irish center Ron Plantz (a 1986 Notre Dame graduate) and Laura, about earning a Notre Dame football scholarship, emotions went into an all-out blitz.
“My dad started crying, my mom started crying,” Plantz said. “That moment was one of the most special things.”
Irish running backs coach Tony Alford remembers the day vividly.
“I get goose bumps thinking about it, because I am close to him,” Alford said. “That’s a great moment, because that’s what these kids are working for. It’s a great reward for all of the hard work he put in.
“God bless Coach Kelly in making those opportunities available to guys and rewarding them. We do appreciate all the work they’ve done, on the field, in the locker room, in the weight room, being a great representative of this school and the football program.”
Notre Dame’s roster gives Plantz the benefit of the doubt, listing the running back at 5-foot-8 and a half. There is no measure to the depth of the heart, toughness and dedication Plantz gives to the Irish program.
“Tyler is a guy who never, ever quits,” Alford said. “He never looks at things as though this can’t happen, it’s too hard, the mountain is too steep. He just keeps working and grinding and grinding and asking, `Coach, what else can I do?’ We have a lot of guys like that.
“Tyler is a great kid, and he comes from such a great family,” Alford continued. “He’s a consummate team guy. When you start talking about a Notre Dame guy … Tyler is a Notre Dame guy.”
Plantz, a fifth-year senior, first made it onto the field in the 2012 season opener in Ireland against Navy. He made a tackle on a kickoff, but Plantz doesn’t fully remember one of the most memorable moments of his life.
“The coaches hollered, ‘Get out there,'” Plantz said. “I went out on the field, looked around, started running, and blacked out for a second, actually. It was the adrenaline … this is it, you’re finally wearing a gold helmet, you’re on the field … I was giving everything and let all my emotions take over. It worked out for the best on that play. I got down there and made the tackle and everybody around me went nuts.”
Alford said he understands how Plantz developed his toughness.
“Tyler has two brothers, so he’s all boy,” Alford said. “I get it. I have two brothers, so I know.”
Plantz also credited his father with instilling a hurricane-force drive within him.
“I always looked up to my dad,” Plantz said. “I tried to be tough every day, because he’s tough every day. I’ve adapted his tough mentality going into every situation, and that’s really helped me.”
Alford said Plantz’s contributions to the program have been outstanding.
“Tyler has such an infectious attitude about the game, about his teammates, about his place and this football program. Not the football team, but the football program, which are two different things,” Alford said. “He’s a joy to be around every day. He will do whatever he has to do for this football team. It doesn’t matter. He’s the guy who will raise his hand and do it.
“To me, to this football coaching staff, to the guys in the locker room, Tyler Plantz has great value. It may not show up in the stat line, but all you have to do is go out and watch practice and see what he gives us on the look teams. All you have to do is sit in a meeting room and he’s engaged. My young running backs … Tyler’s a guy who would sit them down and say, `Hey, I’m going to tell you how this thing goes as far as being a student-athlete at this University.’ That’s invaluable. There’s not a selfish bone in his body.”
Another walk-on Irish football player, Eric Lee, said Plantz’s passion is unbridled on the football field.
“So many times, the coaches have had to say, `Plantz, tone it down. We don’t want to get our guys hurt.'” Lee said. “It’s crazy what he does to people on the field, but he’s a really good teammate. He practices hard and he plays through pain.”
Passion and fearless play are the only ways Plantz knows to play football.
“Being five-foot-nothing, a 200-pound-nothing, that’s one of the ways to hold your own, to go out there and put your nose out there on every play,” Plantz said.
Forging a reputation as a hit man for Providence Catholic High School of the Chicago Catholic League, Plantz led the state of Illinois in tackles as a junior. He helped Providence Catholic win a Chicago Catholic League Blue Division title.
“We were an under-sized high school team on the south side of the city, but we knew nobody was going to out-tough us,” Plantz said of his prep days. “We’d go out there and be hitting these Division I kids in the mouth. They’d be rushing for 200 yards a game, but they’d only rush for 20 yards against us. That’s the mentality that’s been instilled in me. That’s where I’m from. That’s what I’ve gotten from my parents.”
When he decided to take a shot at being a walk-on at Notre Dame, he contacted former Irish star Mike Anello.
“Mike Anello is one of those guys who climbed through the ranks and became a star on special teams,” Plantz said. “I took on his mentality and the mentality of a lot of other walk-ons.
“This is the one thing I’ve wanted to do my entire life, to play Notre Dame football. Every time I strap on the helmet, I’m not going to leave anything on the field, whether it’s practice or a workout. I want to know, looking back, I did everything in my power to either contribute to this team or get on the field and know I’ll have no regrets about my experience at Notre Dame.”
Another walk-on scholarship winner, Charlie Fiessinger, said Plantz sets a gold standard for the gold helmets in terms of full-throttle play.
“I remember during the spring of my first year on the team, he was running down on kick-off drills,” Fiessinger said. “At that point, Ty had long hair and he had whatever facial-hair game was going on. Here was this absolute maniac running full speed, 60 yards on kick-off cover, and just plowing into people. This was my welcome to Notre Dame football.”
Among the walk-ons, Plantz is known as the leader of WOPU nation, WOPU standing for walk-on players union. More importantly, Plantz is regarded as a team leader.
“The fact that Ty has the respect to be the leader of the walk-ons is special, but he has the respect of everybody on the team,” Fiessinger said of Plantz. “It’s not just a walk-on thing. Everybody notices the work Ty has put in during his time here, and everybody appreciates it and respects it.”
At Notre Dame, walk-ons hold a special place in the soul of the football program.
“A lot of kids will walk on in college football, but they fade out. They give it a shot and then say, `I’d rather go out with my friends,'” Plantz said. “The cool thing about Notre Dame is that there’s a respect given to walk-ons. The guys who are scholarship players, they look up to the walk-ons. They know the walk-ons are out there, they’re paying their way through school, they’re working hard in the weight room, and they’re giving just as much time. Here, walk-ons aren’t looked at as walk-ons, they’re looked at as teammates.
“Here, the scholarship players know the walk-ons go through the same struggles. Somebody helps somebody else on the field, in practice, with the playbook, in the weight room. It’s not, ‘Here, hold the tackling dummy,’ or, ‘Go get me some water.'”
Plantz, who may consider a career in coaching, said the walk-ons understand their role: “There’s a really shared respect. There’s a Notre Dame family that is felt throughout the campus, and it’s especially felt in the locker room. It’s not that there’s 85 scholarship players and 20 walk-ons–it’s there are 105 teammates, 105 Notre Dame players.”
As Plantz nears the end of his Fighting Irish career, he isn’t satisfied with his accomplishments.
“I constantly motivate myself to get better every day,” Plantz said. “A lot of people can say, ‘I’ve made it.’ I think it’s tough to be satisfied that I’m just here. Every day, I ask myself, how am I going to improve my team, how am I going to improve myself? I wouldn’t say I’ve had a ‘made-it’ moment. I’m still working hard for it.”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent