Nov. 20, 2014
By Todd Burlage
At 6-foot-4 and not many pounds shy of 300, University of Notre Dame defensive lineman Isaac Rochell has grown accustomed to the public stereotypes most college football players endure every day, especially the bigger guys.
Be it quips about having all brawn and no brains, or football first and studies second, the Irish sophomore has heard them all, and he can’t help but laugh every time. Enrolled in Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, Rochell, however, uses his smarts, diverse interests and musical talents to blow up all the misconceptions football players routinely face.
The McDonough, Georgia, native grew up playing the trombone and added guitar to his musical profile in high school, an instrument he has become accomplished with and passionate about.
“Having the stereotype of a football player, music has kind of given me an opportunity to be a different person from what people think a football player would be,” Rochell says. “Playing guitar, learning new songs, jamming with the guys, it has kind of given us an opportunity to show we are different from what people think we should be.”
Rochell isn’t the only Notre Dame football player busting up stereotypes by busting out some tunes. In fact, add a few musical teammates, and building an “All Irish” band with Rochell as the lead guitarist wouldn’t be out of the question.
“Playing music is an opportunity to build kind of a different sort of friendship with the guys,” Rochell says. “It’s not like your typical gossip or football talk. It’s just something that is completely different and a lot of fun.”
Rochell, along with sophomore wide receiver Corey Robinson, senior tight end Ben Koyack and senior quarterback Everett Golson, are just a few of the Irish football players making music as a way to help them cope with the intense demands of being a student-athlete at Notre Dame.
Impromptu jam sessions and sing-alongs are just part of the regular routine for these guys when they find some rare down time between academics and athletics — all in the name of having a little fun and doing something they love.
“For me, music is very therapeutic,” says Robinson, arguably the most gifted of the musical Irish. “It’s just kind of something that I enjoy because it brings me to a nice place where I don’t have to worry about anything and just kind of get lost in everything. There is something about playing music that is very relaxing for me.”
A product of a musical family, Robinson plays the piano, guitar, flute, mandolin, drums, saxophone, ukulele and even a pan flute he bought at a flea market in Costa Rica. Robinson says his love of music comes from an interest he inherited from his father, former San Antonio Spurs star and NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson. The elder Robinson is a gifted musician in his own right and plays everything from the bass guitar and piano to the flute and saxophone.
“Dad is a very curious guy, and that curiosity was given to me,” says the younger Robinson, pointing out that his grandfather also was a gifted organ player. “And growing up around music just established the foundation and made me curious about it. I got into some rock music, so I wanted to play the guitar. I got into jazz music, so I wanted to learn the saxophone. I just branched out until I had kind of a basic understanding of about seven instruments.”
Robinson is such a talented musician that a future in music is possible after his playing days in football are over, which obviously may be years up the line. As well-rounded a young man as you’ll meet, when Robinson sets his mind to something, passion always boosts performance, and his music is no different.
“The importance of music to me, it’s hard to put into words,” he says. “I don’t want to say it is a lifestyle but music definitely improves my quality of life. You just convey so many different emotions. It can make you happy, and it can feel for you when you’re sad or disappointed. It is so therapeutic and it also very comforting. Music will always be a big part of my life.”
With a digital playlist that includes everything from reggae by Bob Marley, to alternative rock from the band Phoenix, to indie rockers Walk the Moon, to just some casual French music, Robinson’s musical tastes are as diverse as his personality. “Everything you can imagine,” he said, “I listen to it.”
But when it comes to having a little fun with some musical ad-lib, jazz always will be Robinson’s genre of choice. Be it renowned trumpeter Louis Armstrong or legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, Robinson listens to and learns from the best in the blues business.
“There is such a freedom to jazz music,” Robinson says. “There’s structure, but jazz also provides you a chance to demonstrate your creativity.”
Ukulele is Robinson’s instrument du jour because it gives him and Koyack — also an accomplished ukulele player — a chance to “jam out” together, sometimes to learn a specific song or harmony, other times just to improvise and have a little fun.
“We’ll just find a song we like with good chord structure, try to learn it and then play it together,” Koyack says. “We occasionally harmonize some together also. We sound pretty good together. We just kind of jam out when we can find some time, obviously not as much this time of year as during the summer months.”
Like Robinson, Koyack gets his harmonious roots from a musical family. Koyack still remembers frequently waking up to a melodious morning. Whether it was from his father, sister, brother or mother, the entire Koyack household was always filled with the sound of music.
“I was just raised with it. We all played and enjoyed our music. It was a big part of our family,” Koyack says. “I am very thankful my parents involved me in it at a very young age.”
Ben’s mother, Karen, and his father, David, majored in music during college and both remain very active in their artistic endeavors — Karen as a terrific saxophone player and a music teacher back in Oil City, Pennsylvania and David as a tuba player in the local orchestra there. Ben’s sister plays the saxophone and his older brother plays the drums.
“Early on in our lives, music was just kind of emphasized because it was such a big part of our parents’ lives,” says Koyack, who plays guitar, piano, ukulele and several other instruments. “It always has been something I enjoy and something that I could kind of escape with. It is something that is very important to me.”
When he can find the time, Golson often joins Robinson and Koyack for these jam sessions. Golson, a gifted piano and keyboard player, agrees music serves as an outlet and an escape from the everyday rigors and pressures of being a student-athlete at Notre Dame.
“There is a lot of relaxation in it for me,” the Irish quarterback says. Interestingly, Golson learns his music by ear, meaning he can almost immediately process and play any song by simply hearing it a couple of times.
“It’s mostly improvising and playing what I feel,” Golson says of his musical inspiration. “I think that is what translates over to the field also. Being able to improvise allows me to be there as a guy just trying to make a play.”
What’s most fascinating about this group of talented Irish musicians is just how varied their interests and abilities are. Robinson struggled to remember the long list of instruments he’s mastered. Koyack played the trombone in grade school and the euphonium horn through high school before gravitating to the guitar and ukulele in college. In addition to piano and keyboard, Golson plays the drums. And Rochell not only plays the guitar, he teaches the instrument to his roommate, Irish sophomore safety Drew Recker.
Following the influence of Rochell and the other musicians on the team, Recker says he began playing guitar about a year ago as a way to strengthen friendships and share something special with his teammates. Now, he wishes he had started playing guitar a long time ago. Recker’s latest musical endeavor is perfecting the timeless hit by Van Morrison, “Brown Eyed Girl.”
“I’m trying to catch up with my teammates,” says Recker, who jokes that if a professional career in music doesn’t blossom, his rigorous pre-med work at Notre Dame should give him something solid to fall back on. “Playing music is definitely an escape, it’s nice to have a creative outlet. It is something that is a complete 180 and polar opposite of football.”
Recker’s “music instructor,” Rochell, played some trombone years ago but became hooked on the guitar after taking an elective music class at Eagle’s Landing Christian High School outside of Atlanta.
“I almost immediately fell in love with playing guitar the first time I picked one up,” says Rochell, whose brother, Matt, is a gifted piano player. “It was just kind of something that I could do. It was just kind of peaceful and chilled. It’s something I really enjoy.”
And something that helps to build friendships, relieve some stress and showcase just another reason why Notre Dame student-athletes are often so much more than that.
“I’m not sure people understand just how much the guys on the team here are involved in so many other areas beyond football,” Rochell says. “It’s a different brand of person who plays football at Notre Dame.”