Oct. 9, 2015
By Curt Rallo
Connor Klekota didn’t see Michigan score its first goal against the University of Notre Dame men’s soccer team Wednesday night.
Notre Dame’s senior midfielder and tri-captain was lying on the grass beyond the Fighting Irish bench, ice pack pressed to the left side of his face after getting bashed by an elbow inadvertently.
Klekota wasn’t out long. As soon as he passed a concussion test, the 5-foot-8, 158-pound force ran back out onto the field for the Irish.
Decked in the first few minutes of the game, Klekota ended up playing 88 minutes and helped Notre Dame rally for a 1-1 tie against the Wolverines. He is expected to be back in action when the No. 7 Irish (7-2-3, 2-1-1 ACC) take on Duke Saturday, with admission to the noon (ET) game at Alumni Stadium free of charge.
“Connor is a warrior,” teammate and fellow senior midfielder Evan Panken said. “He really does a lot of work in there, and sometimes it goes unnoticed. He plays really well.
“We missed him when he was out,” Panken said of Klekota. “I don’t even know if he could see by the end of the game out of that eye, it was so swollen. We were lucky he was able to come back.”
By the end of the Michigan game, Klekota’s eyelid and surrounding area was already a deep shade of purple with streaks of red. He shook off the pain and put a smile on his face as he signed autographs for a local youth soccer team lined up to meet their champions of the Irish cause.
“At the end of the day . . . it hurt a lot, but there were not concussion symptoms,” Klekota said. “I went through all of the tests. All I wanted to do was get back into the game.
“I knew I could come back and help,” Klekota added, “We’ve been training well, and I thought it was a game where we could come in and get a result. I just wanted to get back on the field. I love playing. I just love playing soccer.
“Whenever I’m on the field, that’s when I feel the best. I get to come out and play with 26 of my favorite friends, my teammates. I really wanted to get back and battle with the guys.”
Panken said Klekota’s presence always gives the Irish a charge, and that the fire and passion he brings onto the field have an impact on the Irish.
“Connor inspires everyone around him to work hard because if they see him working hard like that, see him sticking into tackles, everybody else can feel it and wants to get in on it as well,” Panken said.
According to Panken, Klekota wears bruises as regularly as he wears Notre Dame’s colors.
“Connor doesn’t get beaten up like that every game like he did against Michigan, but he gets stuck in the tackles,” Panken said. “He works really hard. His numbers show that he works harder than anybody. That’s true toughness, mental toughness. He’s always optimistic and always ready for the next play. It’s something that is really contagious to the rest of the team.”
Klekota’s fearless play is putting the Irish in position for a championship season.
“I understand I’m not the tallest and I’m not the fastest, but I have a desire to win and I want to work as hard as I can to win,” Klekota said. “I think there are a lot of kids on the team with that same desire. Sitting out was pretty hard for me, even though it was only 15 minutes. I just love playing soccer with these guys.”
Klekota insisted he’s not the only player putting the fight in the Irish this season.
“I think toughness is one thing that our team possesses,” Klekota said. “There are a lot of kids on this team with that edge about them. A lot of kids love coming out and playing together, and we want to win at all costs.
“A lot of times, we just turn to each other before we play and say, `We leave it out here for each other.’ We walk off this field knowing that every single time we went out, we leave as much as we can for each other. Every single thing we do, it’s not for ourselves, it’s for our teammates, our coaches, everyone who works to be a part of this program. That’s a thing that I think can drive us forward.
“Drive is a huge part of being successful, but I also think we have the mixture of talent, as well as hard work and teamwork.”
— Curt Rallo is a special correspondent of Fighting Irish Media