NOTRE DAME — A meeting at the request of your coach — not exactly how a college football player wants to start his day.
On a Friday morning last June, Joe Schmidt heard that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly wanted to see him. Chad Klunder, director of football operations, notified the Irish walk-on linebacker.
“I really didn’t know what was going to happen. Chad said, ‘Look, Coach Kelly wants to talk you,’” Schmidt said. “I was a little worried at that point because normally you’re not called into the coach’s office for anything.”
Good or bad, something had to be up.
Like a linebacker hitting a blocking sled, Kelly opening the conversation by popping Schmidt right in the proverbial chops — by rewarding him with a scholarship.
“That was an unbelievable dream-come-true moment for me. I called my dad ... that was an amazing conversation,” Schmidt said. “To be able to tell the guy who’s been paying for your school that you don’t have to do that ...”
Later that same day in a team meeting, Kelly shared the good news with the rest of the players.
“That was such a blur ... such a rush of emotions,” Schmidt said. “It was amazing to feel all of that support.”
“He was worthy of one of our 85 scholarships. But he also, from a character standpoint, the team was excited to see Joe Schmidt on scholarship as well,” Kelly said. “So that’s measured as well in offering a scholarship to a walk-on. Because they, too, trust in Joe and believed in him.”
Senior captain Zack Martin said he got a kick out of Notre Dame’s walk-on-turned-scholarship-player and that Schmidt’s selection was a no-brainer — his hustle and determination, especially as a scout teamer, was worthy of the accolade.
“He really deserved that scholarship ... he was one of those guys who outworked everyone on a day-to-day basis,” Martin said. “For him to have his opportunity, to make a big play, was fun to see.”
A career special teams performer and scout team regular, Schmidt, getting more reps after Jarrett Grace was injured in the Arizona State game, found himself thrown into the white-hot intensity of a USC-Notre Dame game at its most compelling moment.
The Trojans pushed slowly downfield looking for a game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter when Schmidt came up with a critical pass breakup on third down, knocking the ball from Nelson Agholor, USC’s most gifted player on the field.
The Irish held serve again on fourth down and saved a 14-10 victory.
“I basically dropped back, I was reading the receiver, I was reading the quarterback and something told me to look left,” Schmidt said. “The quarterback looked left and I broke. Thank God I got there in time. I wasn’t going for the hit, I was going for the ball. As soon as I hit the guy, I knew the ball was coming out.
“It was a surreal moment ... totally divine.”
Kelly said he and his staff didn’t hesitate to throw Schmidt into the fire.
“Knew his role and how to do his job. We’d like him bigger, faster ... we’d like him stronger. But we knew putting Joe Schmidt in the game, he was not going to get a seat. And that’s the mark of the next man in,” Kelly said. “And he continuously worked on getting stronger and getting faster. But at the same time he was getting smarter as a football player.
“And you saw a couple of plays that he made ... just those little things, he’s a football player. We knew that about Joe Schmidt, that if you put him in the game, he was not going to get you beat because he was a smart football player.”
Schmidt, all 6-foot, 230 pounds of him, said the sideline welcome he got as the defense made the final two stops was just as memorable as the play on the field.
“I remember Dan Spond going ballistic, (Dan) Fox was going crazy as well. I think Troy (Niklas) almost killed me,” Schmidt said. “I was so excited I couldn’t breathe.”
As the humble Schmidt took a battery of media questions on Tuesday, Spond enjoyed the scene from about 20 feet away.
“Joe’s been awesome. Ever since Joe got here he’s been a great friend of mine on and off the field,” Spond said. “I know how hard he works behind the scenes, all he does to be the best he can and just be ready for the opportunity. It’s exciting. I know he’ll do great things.”