Joe Schmidt's dream coming true at Notre Dame

Joe Schmidt's dream coming true at Notre Dame
October 24, 2013, 9:45 pm
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It was about 5:30 on a June morning when Joe Schmidt III got a phone call.

Half-asleep, Schmidt III answered. It was from his son, Joe IV, who had spent the last two years as a walk-on at Notre Dame, 2,000 miles away from his Southern California home.

"He sometimes plays some jokes on me," Schmidt III recalled in a phone interview with CSNChicago.com, "and he's like 'hey dad, how would you like to make $100,000?' And I think my comment back was 'yeah, Joe, how am I going to do that?

"And he goes, 'there's these things called scholarships.' "

It wasn't a joke. For Schmidt IV, the season he's described as a dream was only beginning. 

***

The Schmidt family had connections to Notre Dame long before their son suited up for the Irish and made a game-saving play against USC last Saturday. Their daughter, Catherine, ran track at Notre Dame and married former baseball team captain Greg Lopez. 

That connection gave Schmidt the experience of a lifetime. In 2005, he and his family visited Notre Dame for the infamous Bush Push game against USC -- but that wasn't the defining experience of the trip.

Schmidt's sister and Lopez were good friends with tight end Anthony Fasano, and Lopez set Schmidt up to shadow Fasano around campus for a day -- and even take notes in one of his classes. 

[MORE: Nix out for Air Force game, Lombard done for year]

Schmidt wasn't even in high school back then. 

"Joe to this day still talks about how cool that was to be able to hang out with a Notre Dame football player as a kid," his father said.

On another one of the family's trips to South Bend, they got their son on the field at Notre Dame Stadium. It was after the season, and snow covered the field. There's a photo of Schmidt playing around with a football on the field, pretending to be part of his beloved Fighting Irish. 

Whether it was at Notre Dame Stadium or in his family's backyard, Schmidt would always pretend to play for Notre Dame -- and he'd always face USC, his dad said. 

So when Schmidt broke up Cody Kessler's pass intended for Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick late in the fourth quarter of Notre Dame's 14-10 win over USC, it felt "surreal."

"It's honestly a dream come true," he said after Saturday's game. "Since I was a little kid I've been dreaming about playing Notre Dame football, playing against USC."

"It was really strange as a parent to be sitting in the stands and see your son come in and you go boy, this is just like (he imagined)," Schmidt's father said, "and then you're thinking I sure hope it plays out the way it did when he was a little kid."

But things rarely play out that way. In Schmidt's case, he nearly wound up at USC.

***

Schmidt attended Southern California prep powerhouse Mater Dei, developing friendships with a number of classmates who went on to attend USC -- including quarterbacks Matt Barkley and Max Wittek. 

For a while, that's where he figured he would end up. He didn't know if he could get in to Notre Dame, and the program wasn't showing him much interest. He could've walked on at USC, and he had scholarship offers from Air Force, Arizona and Cincinnati, according to his father. 

Schmidt IV made one final call to Notre Dame, telling them he had to make a decision and asking if they were interested in him. He and his parents flew to South Bend to meet with coaches, and it was then that defensive coordinator Bob Diaco told him he'd be given a shot as a walk-on. 

"The other offers were just kind of fluff," Schmidt IV said. "I really wanted to come here."

[MORE: Smith becoming a force for Fighting Irish defense]

Some around the community questioned Schmidt's decision to head to Notre Dame as a walk-on. There were those three offers, and his father said Miami (Fla.) came on strong late. USC was nearby, and he had plenty of friends there. But the answer to all of them was the same: Thanks, but no thanks.

"(USC) was the comfortable choice, but at the end of the day I got to my senior year and I started to realize more and more that I can make the comfortable choice and go with the money and easier route, or I could go chase after my dreams," Schmidt IV said. "In my eyes, you only have so many opportunities to go after a dream. 

"This is my opportunity. And I wasn't going to let it pass."

***

Schmidt didn't play his freshman year, but worked his way onto Notre Dame's special teams units in 2012. That's where he earned his scholarship, but it took a serious injury to Jarrett Grace for him to crack the defensive rotation when he did. 

When Grace broke his leg Oct. 5 against Arizona State, Schmidt became one of the next men in at inside linebacker. He's mainly filled Grace's role in Notre Dame's dime package, and coach Brian Kelly said he's liked what he's seen. 

"Played hard, next man in," Kelly said Sunday. "… A great example of coming in, losing our middle linebacker in Jarrett Grace, a guy stepping up. Here is a guy that was a walk‑on that earned a scholarship."

Schmidt earned the walk-on bid, then the playing time, then the scholarship, then more playing time. For someone who's had to work hard to get where he is, he isn't going to fall into a trap of complacency now. 

"I don't think I'm ever going to say that I made it," Schmidt said. "There's a lot more that we as a team want to accomplish and me, individually as a player, I want to accomplish. In no way do I think I've made it at all."

But that doesn't mean he hasn't been able to enjoy what he accomplished against USC, even if it was just a handful of plays. The gamut of emotions in the Schmidt family ran from tears and "sheer joy" for his parents in the stands to utter euphoria for their son on the field. 

"I was so excited I couldn't even breathe," Schmidt IV said, "it was a complete and total rush."

And with every game, the dream continues to come true.