Oct. 13, 2000
The architects and designers of Notre Dame Stadium simply planned it as an entranceway. It qualified as the easiest way to move the amount of people on and off the playing surface and into the locker room area. Nearly every stadium in the country has some version of a tunnel. Throughout the years, though, the tunnel in Notre Dame Stadium has become a special place. It has been documented in books, seen on the silver screen in movies and felt by each player on Notre Dame home football Saturdays. Joey Getherall’s first experience in the tunnel was even more special. It was Sept. 6, 1997, the day Notre Dame Stadium was rededicated. Getherall sprinted out onto the field, surrounded by Notre Dame football alumni from days gone by, and realized what makes the tunnel so special. “I can honestly say the greatest athletic moment of my life was running out of the tunnel my freshman year,” Getherall says. “The atmosphere was electric with the opening of the Stadium and the football alumni there to greet you. To know how it feels, hearing the band playing and running out on the field, it gives you chills. I almost started crying. No one can understand what it feels like until they run out the tunnel.” Getherall was standing on Notre Dame’s field, with 80,000 fans cheering, just an 18-year-old freshman who was full of emotion and maybe just a little nervous. It was his first game at Notre Dame and he was in the starting lineup. Getherall would not let emotion get the best of him, though. He made five catches for 47 yards in the game, including a 10-yard grab on the second play from scrimmage. “The game is the game,” Getherall says.
“I feel like I am a game player. Nothing on the outside affects me once play begins.” Able to perfectly blend emotion with performance, the 5-7, 175-pound receiver with outstanding speed was on track for the perfect Irish playing career. The experience of Getherall’s first victory in Notre Dame Stadium was still fresh in his mind when a sprained knee suffered in the game kept him out of the next three contests. It is quite different to walk out of the tunnel in street clothes than run out of it wearing a gold helmet. Getherall would face his first of many personality tests while at Notre Dame. “As the (first) game was going on, I was thinking, ‘Okay, this isn’t that tough,'” Getherall says. “But one little setback can knock you back down to earth. You find that things actually don’t come so easy. It made me work a lot harder throughout my first season. After I hurt my knee, I came back to practice and tore my abdominal muscle. I might have tried to come back a little too early. It proves that you have to work harder than the average person to get what you want.” What Getherall wants is his team to succeed at all costs. Whether it be a key block, a punt return or a fourth-down catch, he is ready to do what it takes for the team to be successful. “I take pride in what I do when my number is not called,” Getherall says. “Sometimes I have to run a dummy route to clear out the safety. I take a lot of pride in that because if I clear out that safety, my teammate will have a chance to score. I am trying to do everything I can to help the team win.” Winning is a tradition to which the Getherall family is accustomed. Joey’s two older sisters, Anna and Tina, played softball at the Division I level. Anna won an NCAA title at Cal State Northridge and Tina’s Florida State team participated in the College World Series. “Our family is very athletic,” Getherall says.
“Both of my sisters played softball at big-time colleges and they know what it is like to play in big-time games. Hopefully, this is the year I will get to play in a big-time bowl game. We need to keep on winning, not fold up, and make a Bowl Championship Series game this season.” So far, Getherall’s sisters have spared him the typical brother-sister bravado because they know how hard he works to help the Notre Dame football team succeed. “They are kind of easy on me,” Getherall says.
“They know how rough losing is on me. They are the ones who made me as competitive as I am today.” The Irish virus has spread through the Getherall family as quickly as their son and brother can return a punt (Getherall was once timed at 4.23 in the 40 during high school). Joey’s father, Joe, a graduate of USC, seemingly has retired his Trojan class ring. “He doesn’t even wear it any more,” Getherall says with a smile. “I think he might have put it in storage. He is 100-percent blue and gold right now.” Religion has played a large part in Getherall’s development at Notre Dame and is another gift he received from his family. He lists his priorities as religion, family, football and school. “I come from a big catholic family,” Getherall says.
“My father always preached that going to church was the right thing to do. When I was little, I never understood what it meant to go to church. All I heard was, ‘You have to go.'” “When you come to Notre Dame, you realize that you have religion and faith for a reason and that God has a plan for you. My freshman year was a little rough. I had to think things out. I visited the Grotto and (Sacred Heart) Basilica many times my freshman year crying and wondering why I was here. Fortunately, everything has panned out for me now.” Getherall walked through two tunnels his freshman season. The first was before the Georgia Tech game. The second was a personal journey through injury rehabilitation and personal reflection. He has experienced the light at the end of both tunnels. “I know that this is my last go around,” Getherall says.
“All the seniors know that this place is tough athletically and academically. Notre Dame makes you a better person. I know that I am more well-rounded now than I was when I started here. I understand what the real world is about. If I went to another school, I don’t think I would be the person I am right now.” His experience at Notre Dame almost over, Getherall knows not to take one moment for granted. “The little things have become more important this season,” Getherall says. “Walking from the Basilica to the Stadium (before the game), going to Plymouth on Friday nights with the team and the pep rallies. It all means so much to me. I might have taken those things for granted before, but not in my senior year. I am appreciating everything the coaches, media and fans have done for me.” The Irish flanker has done a lot for the coaches, media and fans as well. Who can forget the flanker reverse Getherall ran in for Notre Dame’s first touchdown during the Michigan game last season? Or the six-catch, 133-yard performance against Oklahoma in 1999? Not to mention his signature Notre Dame play, the 83-yard punt return against top-ranked Nebraska that forced the game into overtime earlier this season. “He is an amazing guy,” head coach Bob Davie says.
“He is a really fine receiver. You are not going to get Joey Getherall off the field. He is very disciplined, a great route runner and has great hands. He does things that surprise me at times.” Getherall also is known to Notre Dame fans for stubbornly returning each of the punts he falls back to receive. He doesn’t prefer to fair-catch unless absolutely necessary. “I always take a glance to see if it is clear,” Getherall says.
“If it is a high, short kick I am going to try to fair catch it. If my teammates are blocking well, I am going to catch it and go with it. I am not really thinking about the punt return average, I am thinking about the field position.” Currently ranked fourth in nation in punt return average (21.86 yards per return), Getherall has played a large role in the resurgence of the Irish special teams. His return against Nebraska was the eighth-longest in school history and the first the Huskers had given up since 1988. The senior is also attempting to lead the team through an era when it seems the Irish can’t catch the breaks they need. He hopes to end that streak this weekend versus Stanford. “That is one question we have to learn to deal with,” Getherall says. “When are things going to go well for us? Once you lose that edge and start to feel negative, that is when things will fall apart. When that happens, it becomes a snowball effect. This year everyone is staying positive. We have proved we can play with any team in the country and strongly believe we can win the rest of our games.” Adversity, losses and injuries aside, Getherall cherishes his time at Notre Dame and knows that all the hard work he has put in has been worth the effort. Just ask him if a major bowl game appearance this season might trump his original greatest moment of stepping out of the tunnel in 1997. “Playing in a national championship game would be great, but it does not compare to playing at Notre Dame. I would never trade anything for the experience I have had here.”