Sept. 25, 2013
By: Todd Burlage
Like any loving mother, Ann Calabrese wanted only the best for her son, Carlo, when the time came for him to make his college choice.
And like any red-blooded Italian mother, keeping her mouth shut and her opinions to herself about exactly where she wanted him to go was never easy.
So when the scholarship offers arrived and the options included Notre Dame, Boston College, Florida, Miami, Rutgers and Pittsburgh, Carlo and his parents took the selection and education process very seriously, even if mom knew all along what was best.
“(Carlo) would never tell us what school he was thinking about but he would always ask me what I thought,” Ann says. “It wasn’t always easy, but I told him I couldn’t help him with his decision because he was the one that was going to have to live with it for at least four years. But in the back of my mind I’m thinking, `Notre Dame all the way.’ That is where I thought he belonged.”
Ann and Carlo, Sr., provided their son with all the necessary data and advice to make an educated decision, but the final choice would ultimately be left up to Carlo, Jr.
“We traveled to schools all over. So we got to see all the surroundings, the environment, all of the town that the schools were in,” explains Ann of the extensive diligence the Calabrese family put into Carlo’s selection process. “The moment we got to Notre Dame, that was it for me. It was Notre Dame all the way. But I never quite said it because it was Carlo’s decision. I didn’t feel like it was right for me to tell him, but I was praying he would choose Notre Dame.”
The choice for Carlo ultimately came down to Boston College (only about a four-hour drive from his hometown of Verona, N.J.) and Notre Dame (about an 11-hour trip). In May of 2008, Calabrese made his decision and Notre Dame had won the recruiting battle for the best high school player in the state of New Jersey. Calabrese was not only a terrific linebacker, but also an accomplished receiver with 27 catches, 488 receiving yards and four touchdown catches as a senior at Verona High School.
All In The Family
The Calabrese clan is extremely close. Ann and Carlo, Sr., are in constant contact with their son and share every detail between what is going on with Carlo in South Bend, and what’s happing with mom and dad back home in New Jersey. In many respects, the entire Calabrese family committed to Notre Dame almost five and a half years ago.
Wanting to be close and savor their son’s football career and development, Ann and Carlo, Sr., bought a house in South Bend about a mile from campus where they live, eat, drink and entertain on home game weekends, building a scrapbook of life-long memories with every passing football Saturday.
“Carlo going to Notre Dame is not anything that you can put into words.” Ann says. “It’s been the most awesome five years of my life.”
Ann was in active chemotherapy during her battle with breast cancer when Carlo was a freshman in 2009. Finding the energy to get to campus and football games was never easy, but the atmosphere and the beauty of the Notre Dame grounds continually raised her spirits and became almost therapeutic.
“I forced myself to go to games because when you walk on that campus it is just unbelievable,” recalls Ann, now a cancer survivor. “Everything about the campus is unbelievable, the whole atmosphere of the whole place. It’s a magical place, it really is. I couldn’t be kept away.”
Fast-forward four years, and Carlo Calabrese and his family have seen everything from the firing of head coach Charlie Weis and the coaching staff that brought him to Notre Dame, to a run at the national championship last season. And what a ride it’s been, going all the way back to a mother trusting that her son would make the right decision as both a student and an athlete.
Carlo has his industrial design degree, so academics were just as important as football when he settled on Notre Dame as his place of higher learning. “You have no idea how proud I am of my son, and I tell him that every time I talk to him,” Ann said. “It’s an awesome experience and something I will never forget, and I’m just a mother sitting in the stands.”
Taking The Fifth
Carlo Calabrese is the first to admit that earning the chance to come back and play for a fifth year was a blessing beyond belief.
Calabrese has lived an atypical career here where his sophomore season – his first on the field as an Irish player – remains his most productive with eight starts and 60 tackles. Calabrese recorded 37 tackles as a junior in 2011 and 49 tackles last season playing next to All-American Manti Te’o and splitting time with classmate Dan Fox.
“There are some things that I still need to work on and there are some things I wish I could get back and been able to do more for my team over my career sometimes,” Calabrese says. “Overall I think I’ve had a great career here and I’m just excited to give it my all through my last season.”
As a physical linebacker known for his hard hits and nasty on-field disposition, Calabrese has never been the type of player to leave any effort or emotion on the field. But in watching Calabrese play and practice this season, he’s clearly added an urgency to his game – both as a leader and a player – in his final go around at Notre Dame.
“Having a chance to return for a fifth year was very important to me because I feel like there is so much more to prove to myself and my team,” Calabrese says. “It is my last year here, my last chance. I’m very dedicated. I want to be remembered as a dominant linebacker who was very physical and would do anything I can for my teammates.”
And at least one of those teammates is also thrilled to be back for a fifth season, and equally excited to finally be starting full-time next to Calabrese for the first time since they arrived together on campus in 2009. With Te’o in the lineup for almost every snap the last four seasons, Fox and Calabrese have split time and snaps through most of their careers. This year, they are fittingly starting next to each other.
“Carlo has been one of the best teammates I have ever known,” Fox says. “He is completely selfless. Even when me and him were splitting time together, we were always rooting each other on. There has never been any selfishness there.”
The promise Calabrese made to make his fifth season his best season began in the summer when he worked with strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo on a plan to round out his game. Calabrese will forever be known as a bullish defensive run-stopper, but his work in pass coverage has often been an area of needed improvement, and a shortcoming that would take him off the field for opponent passing situations.
Mainly through a better diet, Calabrese leaned up, trimmed down and returned to training camp more athletic and better equipped to be more than a situational player.
“Coach Longo did a great job during offseason training to help me get my body right, and eating right,” Calabrese says. “I’m a fifth-year senior and being a leader on the team we both thought it was important for me to be on the field as much as possible. The workouts were pretty much the same, I just changed up my diet and that helped me get where I wanted to be.”
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly affectionately dismissed the notion that Calabrese made a conscious effort to lose some weight and rebuild his body. “I think he eats too much pasta to reshape his body,” Kelly said. “But I will tell you, he reshaped his game. He’s playing physical. He’s playing downhill. And as a senior, he’s really impacting our special teams game, as well … so we like the way he’s reshaped his game.”
The overall improvement has been obvious so far this season for Calabrese. And while this bruising linebacker remains absent from any 2014 NFL Draft projections, Calabrese hasn’t given up the hope of reaching a dream he has held almost his entire life.
And like so many Notre Dame student-athletes, if a career in professional sports isn’t in the cards, Calabrese is equipped to leave his mark on the game he loves nonetheless.
Armed with bachelor’s degree in industrial design, Calabrese said someday he’d like to work for an athletics outfitter to help design safer and more advanced football equipment.
“I would love to be in the NFL, of course,” Calabrese says. “We all know that doesn’t last forever. But I know for sure that I want to stay involved in football. The game has given so much to me. That’s what I want to do.”
And be sure, mom and dad will be next to him all the way, with a supportive word, some strong opinions, and plenty of pasta.