What It's Really Like to Be a Notre Dame Student-AthleteOctober 14, 2014
After months of official investigations, honor code hearings, student appeals and university "no comments," it appears Notre Dame's football team will officially move on without its five suspended players.
Last week, star cornerback KeiVarae Russell acknowledged via Instagram (follow required) he won't play this season, though he plans to return in 2015. Tuesday, Phillip Daniels took to Twitter to announce that his son, DaVaris, the Irish's leading returning wide receiver, won't play this season and will move on from Notre Dame.
He later deleted the tweet and revised his statement, saying "There is an option for DaVaris to return in 2015."
In his Tuesday morning press conference, head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged that he spoke with defensive end Ishaq Williams, who shared with his head coach that he won't return this season but hopes to play out his eligibility in 2015.
With backup linebacker Kendall Moore taking to Instagram to announce his time at Notre Dame is over, only reserve safety Eilar Hardy has yet to make a statement. But both the Chicago Tribune and Irish Illustrated have previously reported that all five are unlikely to play this season, a finality that seems all but assured.
The five Notre Dame football players become the latest in a string of high-profile academic blemishes that in the last 18 months have taken stars from the football (Everett Golson), basketball (Jerian Grant) and hockey (Robbie Russo) teams out of uniform.
These prominent academic failures at a university that proudly trumpets its elite status both on the field and in the classroom have turned Notre Dame into an easy target. What isn't publicized is just how difficult the daily grind is both academically and athletically in South Bend.
"Notre Dame is not for everybody," former linebacker Danny Spond told me. "It's not. It's plain and simple. Doing everything and anything to uphold that standard is very difficult. So you need help. You need help to get it done. Not to do your work, but to get it done."
That's where the office of Academic Services for Student Athletes (ASSA) comes in. Tucked inside the Coleman-Morse Center on the campus' South Quad, ASSA supports every student-athlete in Notre Dame's 26 varsity sports. If you want to know what it's really like to be a Notre Dame student-athlete, your journey should begin here.
Open seven days a week, ASSA is a huge part of life for many student-athletes. Open before class and until midnight five nights a week, the office's stated mission provides "a wide range of services including general academic support, tutoring, monitoring of academic performance, team orientation, time management assistant, information about post-graduate and scholarship opportunities and academic recognition."
Put into simple terms, the full-time staff oftentimes serves as your head coach away from sports. And if you thought Kelly was tough, you haven't met Adam Sargent.
Sargent serves as the associate director of academic services. Along with Colleen Ingelsby, Sargent works solely with the football team, making sure everybody on the roster is succeeding in the classroom, staying up to speed with his work and doing everything he can do to help continue the Irish's success both on and off the field.
A former Notre Dame lacrosse player, Sargent's career as an athlete was cut short after a car accident nearly killed him and forced him into a wheelchair for the rest of his life. But, unwilling to be defined by the accident, Sargent credited his development as a student-athlete at Notre Dame for his transition to life after the accident.
He not only returned to campus and finished his degree, but he decided to never leave, transferring his passion to the student-athletes he now helps.
Sargent said during a WatchND profile (above):
Because I made the decision to come to Notre Dame, a school that I probably would not have been accepted to without my sport. Because I was challenged and supported by my coaches, by my faculty members, by people in this office, when I had my car accident and I was recovering and recognizing that the outlets and options that I could engage in for the rest of my life had been reduced significantly because of my physical disability.
It was a source of comfort, a source of reassurance that I had developed more than I think I would have at many other places. That my intellectual capacity, that my interpersonal skill set, all of those things really were farther along than I think they would have been had I been at some place else. Because of that, I was well equipped to one, finish my degree, and two, find an outlet and profession that I could engage in, feel passionate about and do at a high level in spite of the physical disabilities that resulted from the injury and that was a great thing.
The respect Sargent garners from players and coaches alike is universal. In a feature written during Notre Dame's BCS run, Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel put a well-deserved spotlight on a man who does his best to shy away from it.
But former Irish All-American Manti Te'o was just one of many Irish players who was unequivocal in his praise.
"Without Adam Sargent, there would be no Notre Dame football," Te'o told Thamel.
Of course, respecting Sargent and wanting to be around Sargent are two very different things. If you are doing things right, you spend as little time with Sargent and his team as possible. But for some Irish football players struggling with the very stark transition to life at Notre Dame, the academic services program became a safe haven.
Former offensive lineman Chris Stewart serves as a recent role model for success both on and off the field for Irish football players. Currently in his final year of law school at Notre Dame, Stewart spent time with both the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals organizations before getting on with life after football.
But before he was the first student-athlete to ever enroll in law school while playing for the Irish, he was a homesick football player frustrated with life both on and off the field.
“It all came kind of socially into a perfect storm," Stewart recalled. "It was freezing cold. I was trying to do all these things with football. I made some good friends, but it was just a little bit different. Everything was different.
"I think that’s all part of broadening your horizons. The world that we’re all going to go into is hopefully, if you are doing it the right way, should be starkly different than the world you’re growing up in."
Frustrated after almost two years of being buried on the depth chart, Stewart remembers when he sought out time with his academic team, looking for a Saturday morning study session to remove the frustration of not traveling with the Irish.
"They probably thought I was a terrible nerd," Stewart said with a laugh.
But things turned around for Stewart on the field. After seriously considering leaving the program, Stewart won a starting job in 2008, starting 10 games for the Irish at guard. As a senior, he started all 12 games as well, with some NFL advisors believing that the 6'5", 351-pounder could be a third- or fourth-round draft pick.
But Stewart decided to play out his eligibility. And while some fifth-year college football players earn notoriety for taking ballroom dancing classes or other cushy electives, Stewart became a trailblazer almost by accident.
"I graduated early, and here I am with a fifth year and part of the year left," Stewart said. "So basically a year-and-a-half of education. I graduated and knew I wanted to do something. A lot of programs wouldn't accept me, just thinking I couldn't handle the workload.
"The ironic twist to the story is that I have [former Notre Dame All-American] Chris Zorich and a number of people taking me around, wondering what they can get this kid. We happen upon the law school and the dean says if you can do the work, we'll give you a shot. So lo and behold, I'm the first kid to do law school and football.
"Family, faith, the Notre Dame family and blind luck."
"Make the 40-year decision, not the four-year decision."
For outsiders, the recruiting pitch Kelly often sells carries the same type of boastful pride that makes Notre Dame one of the most polarizing schools in college sports. But with the university's First Year of Studies program putting student-athletes into an academic course load that's no different than the rest of the student body, the Irish staff sells the academic challenges as a positive.
"I think one of the greatest things that I ever heard, that really drew me in during recruiting was remembering what Coach [Tony] Alford said to me sitting in my living room," Spond recalled. "Notre Dame is not for everyone. For a coach to tell you that and be honest with you, that speaks volumes."
If ever there was a player who embodied the 40-year decision, it's Spond. A starting linebacker on Notre Dame's 2012 defense, Spond had his career cut short by debilitating migraine headaches during 2013's preseason camp. That forced him to get a jump-start on life after football, transitioning his competitive nature from the football field to the health care industry, where he's now living and working in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
So while Spond's dreams of finishing his football career on his own accord didn't happen, the habits he learned at Notre Dame have continued to guide him. It's part of why he doesn't blink at 12- to 14-hour days. He was working them in college.
Spond graduated with a degree in political science. He took classes in Portuguese. And while the recent suspensions have some outsiders calling for relaxed standards or easier majors, from the inside Spond doesn't see any of those suggestions as anything more than excuses.
|Danny Spond's Notre Dame Schedule|
|7:00 a.m.||Wake up|
|9:30 a.m. - 10:45 a.m.||Political theory class|
|11:00 a.m. - 12:15 p.m.||Constitutional law seminar|
|12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m.||Portuguese class|
|1:45 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.||Grab lunch|
|2:15 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.||Football meetings|
|4:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.||Football practice|
|6:30 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.||Team dinner|
|7:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.||Film study|
|8:15 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.||Homework in dorm|
|11:00 p.m.||Lights out|
"Notre Dame recruits a certain type of guy. He's the type of guy that can perform at a high level on the field and off the field," Spond said. "When we've had former teammates of mine and guys come in that can't make it in the classroom, a lot of them, and I'll speak very honestly and it might not sit well with people but it's true, a lot of it comes down to effort.
"If you're willing to give the effort and you're willing to work with professors and put in the time, you can do it. There are thousands and thousands of examples across all sports that have made it happen. I was not the smartest person in my class. I would not have been at Notre Dame if it weren't for my athletic ability. But I put in the effort and I put in the time and I was able to get it done.
"It's not about the academics. It's not the intelligence level of the people being recruited. Let's figure out instead how to change their motivations and work ethic. Let's focus their time on something more productive."
For Stewart, the issue is viewed the same way. And it's why he serves as a student representative on the Faculty Board of Athletics. It's also why he has a hard time seeing former teammates and friends become the unflattering face of an issue that doesn't exist in most athletic departments around the country.
"I'm friends with some of the guys that are suspended right now," Stewart said. "It's a difficult thing. It's not something pretty for the university, it's not something good for their careers. But to say that the school should be more lax in its academic pursuits, I don't think that's the right answer.
"The better answer is to say, 'Are we doing everything we can as a university to give our athletes the ability to succeed?' If the answer to that is truly yes, and that's part of your mission, then we need to uphold it.
"But it still doesn't remove the emotional part of it."
Notre Dame's official statement about the five players is no official statement at all. While that's made for some uncomfortable weeks for head coach Brian Kelly, the university considers this an academic matter, a process that will remain confidential and a part of the honor code process.
The uproar that came along with months of uncertainty for the five players awaiting their fate will die out. And while there are certainly improvements that need to be made, both the university and the athletic department will move on, assuredly a little worse for the wear, but with their integrity intact.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Keith Arnold is a lead writer for Bleacher Report, covers Notre Dame football for NBCSports.com and was also a former student-athlete at Notre Dame.