Nov. 21, 2014
By Denise Skwarcan
Two years ago during what would be the beginning of the University of Notre Dame’s run to an undefeated regular season, linebacker Joe Schmidt got the opportunity for which he had been waiting. With a commanding lead over the Naval Academy in the season-opening game in Dublin, Ireland, Schmidt was approached about taking the field for kickoff duties late in the game.
“Next thing you know, I am in the game. I ran down there, got myself off a block and just threw myself at the Navy player with the ball. And then I thought, `I just made a tackle for the University of Notre Dame’… for which I never got credit. I was really upset about that.”
Oh, how things changed since that first stop which never showed up on the stat sheet. Through the first eight games of the 2014 season, Schmidt was Notre Dame’s leading tackler — 65 tackles (42 unassisted) — and defensive quarterback after navigating a path in which he began his collegiate career as a preferred walk-on, made an impact on special teams, earned a scholarship in the summer of 2013 and became a starter in 2014 after an unfortunate injury to a teammate.
But then Schmidt’s senior season came to a screeching halt against, ironically, Navy, when he suffered his own injury in the third quarter of what would eventually be an Irish victory (49-39) over the Midshipmen on Nov. 1.
“There’s different pains that you feel during a game, and this was kind of one of those white-hot excruciating pains,” the senior says “As soon as it happened I just had the worst images in my head, and I kind of knew right away it wasn’t something I could just walk off.
“The first thing is just kind of shock and disbelief and disappointment really. You work so hard for the opportunity to play with the guys on the team and that’s such a sweet moment. But then it was first things first. I wanted to get my parents up there. I called my mom as I was getting wheeled through the locker room after the X-ray because I knew she was freaking out. Then it was all about getting back on the field and helping them (my teammates) out as well as I could from the sideline.”
The ensuing week wasn’t much better for Schmidt who spent seven days in the hospital, during which time his dislocated and fractured ankle was surgically repaired, and then watched his teammates suffer a tough loss at the hands of Arizona State.
Schmidt already has had the chance to follow his dreams to Notre Dame and make them a reality…dreams that had started to develop at a very young age.
Schmidt grew up in southern California surrounded by athletes. His dad, Joseph II, was a football captain and safety at the University of San Diego, while his mom, Debra, coached professional soccer. Older sister Catherine, was a member of the Irish track and field team, while Schmidt’s other older sister, Mary Grace, was a standout for the Texas A&M women’s soccer team. Younger sister Margaret will attend A&M next year on a soccer scholarship as well. Schmidt admits soccer was his first love, but a well-known movie sparked his eventual desire to head north to South Bend for college.
“I must have been like four or five years old and I’m sitting on the floor somewhere…it was a room somewhere and my whole family was there,” Schmidt says. “We were watching the movie Rudy and I remember thinking to myself, `Wow this is amazing!’ That was my earliest memory of Notre Dame.”
That moment was furthered along by Saturdays spent watching the Irish on TV with his dad and trips to campus to visit Catherine. Schmidt received a whiff of interest from the Irish after a successful sophomore prep season at well-known Mater Dei High School, a pipeline for football recruits for Notre Dame for years. But a lackluster junior campaign kept the Irish at bay, and Schmidt thought his career might go in a different direction.
“It didn’t really seem like Notre Dame was interested in me anymore, but there were other schools that were,” Schmidt said. “So it was kind of like, `Wow, I have this dream but the way it looks right now it’s not going to play out the way I want it to.’ So I was kind of forced to look at some other schools. By the end of my senior season I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to go to Notre Dame, and I visited several other schools…University of Pennsylvania, University of Arizona, USC, Stanford. I knew that I could get into Notre Dame but I also had scholarship offers from several other places.
“And there were a lot of great opportunities out there. Arizona, Pac-12 school, had a good football program and a great entrepreneurial program that I was interested in pursuing. There were great opportunities in academics with the Ivy League schools and Pennsylvania, and there was the `safe’ school — USC — which was right down the road. All of my friends were going there. Stanford also was an option and, at the end of the day, it was not an easy decision.”
Still, Notre Dame tugged at Schmidt and, while he would need to get his parents on board to pick up the hefty tab, he also had to convince himself first.
“I needed to sell myself on making the right choice,” Schmidt says. “Everybody has dreams and I think it’s so important to follow those dreams. That’s really what it came down to, but I also had to make sure that I wasn’t just turning a blind eye to a great opportunity somewhere else. At the end of the day, though, I decided it was more important to not have any doubts or regrets in my life and go after my childhood dream.
“I said, `Dad I know I can go to this school for free and this school has a really great education, but this is really what I want to do.’ And my father and my entire family were so supportive. They said, `We’ll make it happen somehow if that’s what you want to do and you think it’s the place for you.’ And it was.”
By the time Schmidt had enrolled at Notre Dame, Catherine had married Greg Lopez, a former captain of the Notre Dame baseball team, who wrote some letters to Notre Dame officials urging them to take another look at his young brother-in-law.
In August 2011, Schmidt’s dream became a reality when he suited up with the rest of the Irish newcomers. As much as there had been some comparisons to him and Rudy, he bristles at the idea of being compared to the other famous walk-on whose inspiring movie started it all for him.
“I think that what Rudy did was amazing, but I want to be my own person,” Schmidt says. “I want to be Joe Schmidt, not Rudy 2.0. I want to take this experience and build on it…I don’t just want this to be my whole life. So with all due respect to Mr. Ruettiger, I just want to be Joe Schmidt.”
Schmidt has given little thought to the fact that his presence at the Louisville game, despite being sidelined, could be his last in Notre Dame Stadium. But the silver lining to not playing as a rookie gives Schmidt the possible chance to suit up for the Irish once again next season…something he had been thinking about before the injury.
“Yes, I’ve thought about coming back for a fifth year,” Schmidt says. “But that’s something where Coach (Brian) Kelly and I will have to sit down and talk about it at the end of this year. That’s the way it works at Notre Dame. In my head, when I think selfish thoughts about my future, now I’m thinking more about it because obviously I’m not going to play again in 2014.
“It’s just so crazy. I feel like the season started yesterday, and now I’m hurt and not playing anymore. It’s all coming to a close, but it really hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Still, the season isn’t over yet. Schmidt knows he has work to do for the football team this year, albeit in different ways.
“For now, my job is to help my teammates as much as I can,” Schmidt says. “Coach Kelly thinks I have some abilities to help with the thought process and try to build the younger guys up and teach them how to play at a high level consistently. Hopefully I can help them achieve that. I also want to make sure I’m still leading in some way. It’s important to me that this team finishes on the right note. I think we will, and I think we can.”
Schmidt will graduate in May 2015 from the Mendoza College of Business with a degree in management entrepreneurship with thoughts of eventually starting his own company and leading a group of people with the idea of “building a championship culture while trying to work together as a team.”
Decisions to be made about football, whether it’s college-related or professional, all will come in due time. And, while Schmidt knows there’s more to life than playing on the gridiron, it’s certainly been a great part of his life up to this point.
“Hopefully I will be living a lot longer than I will be playing football, and if I’m remembered as a good man then that’s what I want,” Schmidt says. “I’m not going to rule out anything, but playing professional football was never my dream. My dream always was to play football for the University of Notre Dame.
Check … and then some.