Our family has never had a lot of money, so football scholarships have always been the boys' way out. My dad, Vic, was an orphan who had a tough youth and bounced around several jobs most of his adult life. He was a big man himself, and he loved all of us kids dearly, but we knew we would always have to scrap for whatever we got in life. Dad couldn't give us many material things, but he taught us how to think for ourselves. He died in 1984, the year before I went to Notre Dame, and I still miss him badly.
As an All-District tackle at Thomas Jefferson High in Dallas, I got offers from Cal, Arizona State, UTEP and TCU, among others. My family was used to recruiters, naturally, and my dad always told us to look for the right things in a college. We all remembered the time Barry Switzer came down from Oklahoma to work on Dave. There was a half-eaten brownie on the kitchen counter, and Switzer just picked it up and ate it without asking anybody. My mom also remembers Switzer's talking about how much money Dave could make by selling his game tickets. It wasn't long before we showed Switzer the door.
For me, it really wasn't much of a contest as to which school I'd attend. When Gerry Faust, who was then Notre Dame's coach, offered me a full ride, I couldn't turn it down. Faust had sent me a brochure in the mail entitled Notre Dame Offensive Linemen—A Tradition of Excellence, and inside was a picture of Dave, a member of the 1977 national championship team and a consensus All-America in '78. I felt so proud. My own brother. I knew Tim would have been in the brochure, too, if he hadn't been injured his senior season.
My first two years at Notre Dame were full of injuries, and I understand perfectly well how that could frustrate a coach who's counting on you. And I should say up front, Holtz wasn't the only head coach I had trouble with at Notre Dame. I had a run-in with Faust, too. It happened my freshman year, after I'd sprained my ankle when I caught a cleat on a stadium step. I missed a few days of preseason practice, and at the end of two-a-days, I went with about 12 other players to eat dinner at an assistant coach's house. Apparently I was supposed to be at a therapy session for my ankle at that time, but I didn't know that. At the next practice Faust asked me in front of the whole team why I hadn't been at the session. He was waiting for a response. I was scared to death, and I didn't know whether to say that I'd been at the coach's house or not. I said nothing. Faust said that as punishment he wanted me to run the stadium stairs the next day. Faust really wasn't a bad guy, and he probably thought that since I hadn't kept my therapy appointment, my ankle must be feeling a lot better. He probably figured he was teaching me a lesson about responsibility.
The next morning I got up early and started limping toward the stadium. Then I stopped and said, This is stupid. I'm supposed to run the stadium stairs on a bad ankle? I don't need this. I went back to the dorm, and then I rented a car and drove straight to Dallas. It was a dumb thing to do, but I was confused and homesick.
After a few days at home, I realized that I needed to get back to Notre Dame, and I talked with Faust on the phone. He questioned why I had left over such a minor incident, but we ended up agreeing that it had been a misunderstanding, and he encouraged me to come back. Soon after I returned to the team, I was snapping the ball in a drill, and after making my block, I stopped when the whistle blew. I turned to go back to the huddle, and all of a sudden the guy I'd been blocking grabbed me from behind and threw me down. I landed hard on my left shoulder and heard a pop. I would find out much later that my shoulder had partially dislocated. It hurt so much, I couldn't even talk at first. After a few minutes it started feeling better. Not great, but better.
Both my ankle and shoulder continued to bother me, but for three weeks I practiced in pain. Maybe I shouldn't have. Maybe if I'd spoken up at the time, things would have worked out better. But I didn't want to make waves. I just wanted to play ball.
We hadn't played our first game, but already I was having trouble with some of my courses. I felt that I was slipping further and further behind, and my biggest concern was that I would be tossed out of school. With a bum shoulder, I wasn't doing as well as I had hoped on the field, either, and I made up my mind that I would leave and enroll in summer school at Notre Dame and start all over the next season. Faust wished me well and said he hoped I'd be back in the fall.
I knew that wouldn't be a problem, because I had the letter that Faust sent me when I first agreed to play ball at Notre Dame. I still have it. "I just want you to know how pleased and excited I am that you have chosen to attend the University of Notre Dame and become a part of our football program," it begins. Then it says that my scholarship "is one-year renewable, but don't worry about that. You can count on it being renewed for the four years of your college term. God bless you and your family always. Yours in Notre Dame, Gerry Faust."
But two unfortunate things happened before I returned to campus in the summer of 1986: Faust resigned as coach, and I came down with mononucleosis, dropping to as low as 235. When I rejoined the team for fall practice, I weighed only about 250 and was still weak from the mono. And Lou Holtz was the new head coach at Notre Dame.