Modern day 'Rudy' makes his mark
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Mike Anello lay beneath about 2,000 pounds of USDA choice Big Uglies on Saturday afternoon. His arms cradled the football lodged in his gut. Though no one could see it under all that beef, his smile stretched from the grotto to Touchdown Jesus.
"Oh my God. You can't even imagine," the tiny Notre Dame special teams dynamo said. "I was sitting there, and I was like, 'This is happening right now.' It's been a surreal experience."
Finally, after the bodies untangled, an official gave Anello the go-ahead to stand. The senior sprang to his feet and thrust the ball to the heavens. His first-quarter fumble recovery following a Notre Dame kickoff led directly to a Fighting Irish touchdown. A few hours later, after Notre Dame had vanquished Michigan, 35-17, the students stood in a deluge of biblical proportions and chanted Anello's name.
Not bad for a guy who was told he was "a couple of inches too short and about 15 pounds too light" to make his high school team. That's right, after he played on the Orland Park (Ill.) Carl Sandburg High JV team as a sophomore, a coach told Anello to stick to wrestling as a junior. Anello returned to the gridiron as a senior and played well. In fact, he played well enough to consider walking on when he enrolled at Notre Dame. You know, just to stay in shape.
Four years later, Anello has earned a scholarship -- bestowed at the end of preseason camp last month -- and cult hero status as the guy who made four solo tackles last week against San Diego State. He followed it with a fumble recovery and a forced fumble against the Wolverines.
So exactly how small is Anello?
"I'm about 5-9, and I am 180 pounds," he said. "Actually, I'm probably about 175 now."
"Five-eight and three-quarters," he said. "That's what I got measured at. Don't tell the girls that."
Anello handles the inevitable and constant Rudy comparisons with grace. In fact, through wrestling, Anello is friends with Danny Ruetigger, the nephew of Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, the patron saint of walk-ons. The past and present Domers have chatted plenty of times.
But there is a difference between the two. Rudy struggled through practices for two seasons and received a few plays at the end of his senior year as an award for his inspirational play on the practice field. Anello is a vital cog in the Irish kickoff and punt coverage teams. How vital? At one point Saturday, the Wolverines double-teamed the future investment banker. Without Anello, the Irish might not roar to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter. Of course, Anello doesn't see it that way.
"I just happened to be in the right place at the right time," he said. "I don't really consider myself a playmaker. Things just kind of unravel in front of me."
Anello's tale is almost unlikely as a guy spending four years at Notre Dame as a member of the general student body and somehow, years later, winding up as the Irish coach. Sure, Charlie Weis has taken his lumps for bragging about a "decided schematic advantage," getting blown out in two BCS bowl games and leading the 2007 Irish to a 3-9 record, but Saturday, the fourth-year coach took one for the team.
As Weis watched a second-quarter play develop, linebacker John Ryan came careening over the sideline and into Weis's left leg. Weis said he tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee, and he'll need surgery this week to repair them. But Saturday night, still dripping from the ice bath his players gave him when the clock struck zero, Weis didn't seem to feel the pain.
"How do you like that?" Weis asked with a grin. "I feel like an athlete -- for the first time in my life."
Weis went on to praise his players for learning from last year's misery. And if he made a little too much out of the win -- let's be honest, Michigan handed Notre Dame the game by losing four fumbles -- he can probably be forgiven just this once.
"We wanted to make a statement," Weis said, "that Notre Dame is not some garbage school that everybody can just crap on."
No, it's actually a fine academic institution that refuses to lower its standards as much as some other schools do to admit football players. Actually, that's the problem from a competitive standpoint. Notre Dame has to work that much harder to recruit elite athletes, because only a few elite athletes can get into the school -- and everyone else still wants those athletes.
The Irish have a few youngsters who fit that description. Freshman receiver Michael Floyd drew several pass interference calls Saturday as Michigan defenders struggled to cover him. Meanwhile, sophomore receiver Golden Tate caught four passes for 127 yards Saturday, including a 60-yarder and a 48-yard touchdown.
Yes, Notre Dame beat Michigan, but that does not mean anyone should automatically pencil in a nine- or 10-win season. To keep a fan base raised on national championships happy, the Irish will need to bring in more Floyds and Tates. Of course, they'll also need a few Anellos to lay smiling under 2,000 pounds of humanity and make everyone else appreciate their place in the college football universe.
"Sign me up," Weis said. "Give me a bunch of Mike Anellos on special teams that run like that and show heart, and he doesn't just show heart, he's a playmaker. I'll take a bunch of guys like him."