Notre Dame Football: From Walk-on to MVP—The Joe Schmidt Story

Keith Arnold@@KeithArnoldNotre Dame Lead WriterDecember 15, 2014

Matt Cashore/USA Today

Stop me if you've heard this one. Walk-on football player. Humble beginnings. A lifelong dream to play football at Notre Dame.

What? You already knew about Notre Dame linebacker Joe Schmidt?

The Fighting Irish's latest "Rudy" story has long since surpassed the original legend, with Notre Dame's senior linebacker, who has a fifth year available for the 2015 season, doing more than serving as a tackling dummy on the practice fields. And Friday night, Schmidt added a page to his own feel-good story, winning the team's MVP award, as voted by his teammates.

"This is probably the greatest honor of my life," Schmidt said from the stage, crutches under his elbows and a long cast on his left leg.

Much has been made about Schmidt's rise. A profile by Newsweek. A guest stint on The Jim Rome Show. A glossy profile during an NBC broadcast. So unless you've been under a rock this fall—and you couldn't blame Irish fans for spending the last month in hiding—Schmidt's story isn't new to you.

But walk-on stories usually end with one shining moment—a special teams tackle or a garbage-time touchdown. Not with an MVP award and a surefire captaincy for the 2015 season.

Schmidt's impact on the Irish roster is incalculable. His leadership, work ethic and shining example had freshman defensive end Andrew Trumbetti taking to Twitter to name Schmidt the only worthy husband to his future daughter. (Teammate Jesse Bongiovi pointed out that Trumbetti's future son-in-law would be four years his senior. Awkward.)

That the most respected player on a roster filled with 4- and 5-star talent was once a 2-star nobody serves as the ultimate uniter. For unheralded prospects, Schmidt's ascent is a blueprint. For blue-chippers, Schmidt is a reminder that your recruiting ranking disappears once you're on campus.

Oct 4, 2014; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Joe Schmidt (38) reacts after Notre Dame defeated the Stanford Cardinal 17-14 at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

On the field, the analysis of what Schmidt brings to the team is much easier. With Schmidt playing middle linebacker, the Irish were 7-1, their only loss a narrow defeat to Florida State. Without him? The Irish are 0-4, with the defense giving up an average of 44.5 points a game.

"As coaches, when we sat down and we looked at the most valuable football player for 2014, we looked at not just what he did on the field, but what our team did not have when he was not on the field," head coach Brian Kelly said before handing Schmidt the team's MVP award.

"What we lacked was somebody that brought that leadership, that energy, that passion that is needed in this game of football on a day-to-day basis. So when we talked about most valuable, it was pretty clear in our minds that the 2014 most valuable football player was Joe Schmidt."

Schmidt was the first former walk-on to earn the team MVP award since consensus All-American Shane Walton did in 2002. (Walton walked on to the football team after starring on the men's soccer team.) At the time of his injury, Schmidt led the team in tackles (both solo and assisted) while the defense limited opponents to under 20 points a game.

Schmidt's impact on the field will be suspended until he's healthy. Surgery performed at the beginning of November on an ankle and fibula injury makes it a waiting game before he's capable of returning to lead from the huddle.

But as the Irish set out to prove 2014's late-season collapse was an anomaly, Schmidt's leadership will be critical to the team's success. And it's why Schmidt was short on words before sending the ultimate message to his teammates.

"I love Notre Dame. This is where I always wanted to be," Schmidt said from the microphone. "As my dad says, I've wanted to come to Notre Dame since I was five years old. So let's go beat LSU. Let's kick the hell out of them and let's get ready to win the national championship."

The Joe Schmidt story is far from over.

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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