"Michael simply plays the game the way it should be played—clean, hard, intelligently and within a total team concept," says Irish coach Lou Holtz.
Stonebreaker, Pritchett and Stams are the core of a Notre Dame defense that ranked third in the nation in scoring defense (12.3 points allowed per game) and 10th in stopping the run (112.4 yards per game). Stams, a senior defensive, end, collects Three Stooges videos, does impressions of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson and, without much encouragement, will re-create entire scenes from old movies. Pritchett, also a senior, likes to pretend he's a highly paid model or a famous Hollywood actor. At team meetings, he occasionally recites Shakespeare. On the flight back to South Bend after Notre Dame's victory over Southern Cal on Nov. 26, Pritchett belted out his own rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas: "Ten coaches screaming, nine senior starters, eight national championships, seven Heisman winners...three points from [placekicker Reggie] Ho...and a national championship ring!"
"There's great chemistry between the players and coaches," Stonebreaker says. "Each week, we've been under tremendous pressure, but nobody has felt it. Having a sense of humor helps keep football in perspective."
It also keeps players from being overwhelmed when they first set eyes on Notre Dame's defensive playbook. The black three-ring binder weighs about five pounds and is stuffed with 350 typed pages, but it's well-organized and easy to understand. Chapter 2, entitled "Food for Thought," contains inspirational quotes from Sophocles, Emerson, Molière, Goethe, Virgil, Disraeli, Thoreau, de Gaulle and Theodore Roosevelt. Chapter 4, "The Winning Edge," explains some of the nuances of football that often turn a game around, such as how to milk the clock and what to do when the other team fumbles on either goal line. There's also a chapter defining the terms used in the Notre Dame defensive scheme: Oskie is an interception; Eagle and Mike designate the inside linebackers—Mike (Pritchett) lines up on the strong, or tight end, side of the field, and Eagle (Stonebreaker) lines up on the weak side.
The middle section of the play-book is devoted to diagrams of the 200 or so defensive formations. Under every diagram is a corresponding chart that analyzes how each defender should react during a play. Some of the names of the defensive sets sound dauntingly complex: Split Directions Jets 23 Star, Rambo to the Field Weak Zero, ND Mad Dog Cross, Rock 'n' Roll and Tite Olé 23.
In fact, these are merely variations of the Irish's six basic fronts—alignments of defensive linemen and linebackers—known as ND, Split, Tite, Nickel, Goal Line and Backer. Each lineman is responsible for closing a specific hole, or gap, in the offensive line, depending on the flow of the ball. Linebackers have a choice of two gaps to fill, except for Stonebreaker, who is usually free to follow his instincts.
"Michael can sense how an offense is attacking us very early in the game," says defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez. "That's invaluable for a coach. I can't see schemes and blocking from the sidelines, and even for the coaches upstairs, it's hard. But because Michael sees the whole picture, we can make adjustments quickly on the sidelines."
That Stonebreaker is a natural at linebacker should not be surprising. His father, Steve, played the position from 1962 through '68 for the Minnesota Vikings, Baltimore Colts and New Orleans Saints. Now 50 and a retired business executive in New Orleans, Steve has attended all of Michael's Notre Dame games. Once a week he phones Alvarez to check on his son's progress. Thus far, Steve has noticed only one similarity between his and Michael's styles of play—aggressiveness.
"I marvel at how fundamentally sound he is," says Steve. "I wasn't blessed with his innate skills. He's so much quicker and stronger."
The youngest of Steve and Carol Stonebreaker's five children, Michael was born in Baltimore and grew up in New Orleans. When he was two, he had a frightening accident. Upon returning home from grocery shopping, Carol was ushering her other children into the house when Michael climbed onto the front seat of the family station wagon. He shifted the car into reverse, and though the engine wasn't running, the vehicle rolled down the driveway. Michael fell out of the car and partially under it, slamming his head on the cement. His oldest sister, Andrea, then nine, yanked Michael to safety, just as the left front wheel was about to roll over his body. Michael suffered a fractured skull, and the hammer bone in his left ear was knocked out of place, leaving him totally deaf in that ear. "It hasn't been any great handicap," he says. "Then again, I've really never known any other way."