Nov. 12, 2000

By Bo Rottenborn

In the 1999 hit song Higher, Scott Stapp, lead vocalist of the band Creed, melodically intones the simple yet poignant question “Can you take me higher?”

As a fan of the band, Irish fifth-year defensive tackle Lance Legree must have recalled that lyric thousands of time prior to last winter when he met with the Notre Dame coaches to decide whether a fifth year in the Notre Dame football program was in his future.

Suddenly, Legree was confronted with the familiar lyric in many forms.

The coaches asked it of him, feeling he could be an asset to the team and specifically a key leader on defense.

Legree asked it of the program, pondering if he could reach his ultimate goal, given one more season of hard work.

Most importantly, Legree asked it of himself, wondering if he could be more productive than he already had been during three solid years as an anchor on the Irish defensive line.

Fortunately for Irish fans, coaches and players, the answers to all those questions were affirmative.

“They (the coaching staff) all told me it was in my best interest to come back, because I could help the team,” Legree says.

“I felt that, being a veteran player, I could help the team in many different ways, not only on the field, but also being a person to help other guys when they’re down. A lot of these guys haven’t seen what I’ve seen in my years of playing. (Defensive Coordinator) Coach (Greg) Mattison, (strength and conditioning coach) Mickey Marotti and (Head) Coach (Bob) Davie all helped me in my decision.”

A burning desire to improve from last season’s record provided the main motivation for Legree’s return:

“You always want to do well,” Legree says.

“We went 5-7 last year and obviously that’s not a great season. A big part of the reason I came back (for a fifth year) was to try to see if I could be a part of a team that could do it well.”

It would have been inherently against the St. Stephen, S.C., native’s nature to abandon his football career knowing he could have improved on it.

“I never quit anything,” Legree says.

“I like to finish what I start. I wanted to finish my career by playing one more year to see what I could do. I wanted to see if I could gain a little bit. I feel I’ve learned a lot more this year and have been more productive than in past years.”

With the Irish standing at 6-2 and 14th in the Bowl Championship Series standings, helped by Legree having the best season of his career, is he happy with the decision to return for a fifth year?

“Definitely. It was a great decision,” Legree says.

“I’m so happy to be around these guys every day. They’re like family to me. I have made so many great friends and met many great people so it was definitely a great decision for me to come back.”

Legree is also going Higher, academically this year, working on an economics degree in addition to the history degree he has previously earned.

It should be no surprise that Legree expected to take his on-field performance Higher, in 2000 since that has been a theme since he came to Notre Dame. Legree, who loves to eat grits and country ham for his pregame meal because it reminds him of his home in South Carolina, did not play at all as a freshman in 1996.

That season did expose him to the incredible size and athleticism of players in the college game. He realized how much bigger he needed to get and worked hard in the weightroom to put on 25 pounds in that first offseason.

With the added bulk, Legree was moved from linebacker to nose guard, where he saw action during 10 games in 1997 (including four starting assignments). Legree played over 133 minutes his sophomore season and showed signs of being able to be a solid player.

The following year, Legree played in all 12 games and started nine of them, while recording a then-career high 33 tackles.

In 1999, he missed the first two games after spraining his right knee in preseason drills, but came back to have a strong season, playing in 10 games and earning five starting assignments.

As a fifth-year veteran, one of the important things Legree has had to do this season is take his teammates Higher, by leading through example.

“I try to do my thing and hopefully they see me working and giving 110 percent. By doing that I think that helps to give them some kind of motivation. If you’re not a senior or a person that’s played a lot, you don’t have the advantage of being comfortable in what you’re doing. My being comfortable and confident can help others,” Legree says.

His teammates agree that the 6-1, 285-pound defensive tackle has been a positive influence on the entire team.

“Lance Legree is a huge part in the success the defense has found and the turnaround it has made this season,” senior defensive end Grant Irons says.

“He is a key component to the defense. He is one of the leaders with his attitude and his intensity. He’s not only a role model for younger players. I, as a senior, even look to him as a role model. He is a proven leader.”

His teammates also point to Legree’s incredible work ethic as another reason he is so well respected.

“His work ethic is unbelievable,” Irons says of his fellow defensive lineman.

“He gives 110 percent all the time and for a fifth-year senior to do that speaks volumes about him. When I was able to play I did not fully appreciate the work ethic he has. Now from the sidelines, I am able to witness his intensity not only in every play of every game, but every day on the practice field, too.”

This year’s Irish defense has been much improved, putting up many solid performances against some top offensive squads through the first eight games of 2000. Legree feels the improvement can be attributed to the team unity, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

“We just came together as a group in the spring and the winter. We said that when we go out there as a team, we’re going to give 110 percent on the field every time and put the best product on the field every time,” he says.

Another reason for this season’s improvement, according to Legree, is a heightened aggressiveness by the entire group on the field.

“Coach Davie and Coach Mattison always tell us, ‘If you make a mistake, do it at full speed.’ That’s just the thing we live by and we show it on the field.”

Legree has taken that to heart this season, putting together the most productive campaign of his career. He has started all eight games and leads defensive linemen in playing time. Legree has already made 40 tackles, double the number he registered in ’99.

Plus, he has a career-high three tackles for loss. His best performances of the season were against defending Pac-10 champion Stanford and then-number one Nebraska, recording a career-high seven tackles in each game.

Legree was pointed out as the defensive line’s most consistent performer a season ago and that has not changed in 2000 as he has finished with between four and seven tackles in each contest.

“I’ve made a lot more plays this season than I have in the past and have made a lot more quick-decision calls, but I am not satisfied yet. I still think I can play 10 times better than I am now. I am just waiting for that perfect game when everything is clicking and everything works right,” Legree says.

After playing in 39 career games and having just three regular season tilts left in his career, it might seem that Legree already has accomplished most of the things he has set out to do on the field. That is not the case.

He feels that this program can still go Higher.

“I have not fulfilled all my goals in football yet,” Legree says.

“The main goal of any team in Division I football is to go to a BCS bowl. I think that is my dream. After what we’ve gone through the past couple of years, I think it would be my dream to go to a BCS bowl and be able to say we were successful and be acknowledged for that.”

After this season, Legree looks to take his game to a truly Higher level, the National Football League.

“I want to see what football can do for me. I want to go ahead and try to make it in the NFL,” Legree explains.

“You have to take everything with a grain of salt and look at what you’re given. I know whatever happens will happen and it will happen for the best. But I think I can do it.”

“He is starting to draw the attention of pro scouts,” Davie says.

“He’s not the prototypical defensive lineman size-wise, but he is playing very well.”

Taking into consideration how much Higher Legree has taken his ability, team and mind this season, NFL teams should be willing to welcome him “With Arms Wide Open.”