Fantasy Campers prepare for kick-off

Irish dreams come true for 2011 Notre Dame Football fantasy campers.

A light breeze and 75-degree sunny skies welcomed 31 Notre Dame fantasy campers Wednesday afternoon at the LaBar Practice Complex.

The event's seventh edition drew participants from 13 states, ages 33-74, for four days, three nights, two handfuls of meals, four practices, and a helmets-and-shells flag football contest inside the House that Rockne Built scheduled for Friday afternoon.

But before Friday's wrap-up contest and awards show was Tuesday's schedule of gear distribution (in the Irish locker room) and a pair of two-a-day practice sessions (Wednesday/Thursday), split into offense and defense tutorials from the Irish coaching staff.

On hand Wednesday morning were offensive staffers Tony Alford (wide receivers), Mike Denbrock (tight ends), Tim Hinton (running backs), Ed Warinner (offensive line), and special teams coordinator Mike Elston, who'll pulled double-duty Wednesday afternoon as part of the defensive staff practice sessions.

While the surface allure for campers is the dream-come-true of running through the Stadium's north tunnel for a football game, the week as a whole affords each participant his own moment of reflection on what Notre Dame means to their lives.

"It's been five great years," said veteran camper Country Balitsos, 39, from Nashville. "It's been great to be a part of this. Of all the vacations I've ever done, this is the best. It's special to me this year because I get my green jersey (denoting his fifth year as a fantasy camp participant). But no matter what happens on Friday or other years, last year will be the best because I got engaged at The Basilica with my wife (on camp weekend). It's a special place; it's the most special place on earth."

One of the younger camp veterans (seven of the 31 this year are under 40), Country is well-known to both staff and fellow participants. So too is the 2011 roster's eldest member, Larry "Touchdown" Leamy.

"I won't suit up this year," Leamy noted during our in-practice conversation that spanned everything from the current staff's imminent success, to the letdown season of 2006, to Irish football in the 40s. "I promised my wife I won't play this year. I wasn't going to come back for my fifth year, because as she reminded me, technically I don't have any eligibility here – I played all four previous seasons."

(Editor's note: Larry and other prospective fifth-years should look up the five-year career of former Irish starting defensive lineman Oliver Gibson, but that's a story for another day.)

Ruth Tarwacki, Anthony Travel's senior event coordinator who managed the schedules of the event's participants, noted that Leamy vowed to remain a spectator in last year's contest as well. But the competitive itch struck, he suited up, and fittingly, caught a touchdown pass.

Turning in his stripes?

The unspoken, welcoming aspect of the event is the reality that players' skill levels vary as much as their ages. Previous football experience is unnecessary for those living out their Irish football fantasies – just ask Division I (MAC and WAC) basketball referee and lifelong Notre Dame fan, John Paul Guerrero, who Wednesday morning donned a gold helmet, or any football helmet for that matter, for the first time.

"Its nuts. I feel like humpty-dumpty," the 41-year-old Guerrero joked. "They asked me how my helmet felt and I said, ‘I don't know, how is it supposed to feel?' The pads aren't too bad, but this bad boy, I might have to sleep with it tonight, just to get my bearings."

With two days, three practices, and a game remaining, Guerrero – set to compete at wide receiver in Friday's contest – had already lived his dream.

"Just being here. It's surreal," he noted when asked about the week's highlight to date. "We're all Domers, and being in the locker room…everything now is a cherry on top of a cherry. It just keeps getting better."

No stone left unturned

Campers enjoy/endure a true team atmosphere from Wednesday morning through Friday's contests, including bed check Thursday night prior to the next day's game, as well as thorough coaching from the Irish staff. Key to the week's experience are the trappings of a detailed Notre Dame football player's practice week and game-day schedule, including team walk-through and pre-game meals (in this case, Thursday night) with mass in the Basilica and the famed pre-game walk to the Stadium on game day.

Among those in attendance and leading practice drills for Wednesday morning's offensive practice session were former Irish legends Joe Theismann, Clarence Ellis, Luther Bradley, Shane Walton and Mike and George Kunz. Former All-America defensive end Mike McCoy spoke to the campers post-practice.

Ex-Irish great and current manager for the program's monogram/football relations, Reggie Brooks, was also on hand (and received the loudest post-practice ovation) while current Irish seniors Braxston Cave, Jonas Gray, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Dan McCarthy, Jamoris Slaughter, and Hafis Williams tutored campers throughout the morning, with McCarthy doubling at quarterback for coach Hinton's running backs drills.

Chad Klunder, director of football operations, presided over practice while director of football development Dave Peloquin and the bulk of the team's Strength & Conditioning staff and interns aided campers as well, as Jacob Flint and Lorenzo Guess ran the team's FSA session (aerobic stretch), and Scott Booker, Bill Brechin, and newly minted intern and former Irish wide receiver David Grimes were a consistent presence in the 90-minute, 14-session practice.

2011 Camp Facts:

  • 19 of the 31 roster members are first-year participants with Rick Peltz, 48, of Indianapolis and Mark Smith, 51, of Cleveland, Tennessee, attaining "Graduate" status (more than five years in the program).
  • Three states tied for the highest number of players (Indiana, California and Tennessee each placed four participants in the contest) with the farthest distance traveled belonging to junior camper P.T. Brent, 68, of Honolulu, Hawaii.
  • Also on hand are three campers from Ontario, Canada, and a trio from Nashville, including the aforementioned Country Balitsos (yes, a natural rivalry has formed between Nashville and the group "from up north," one likely to be played out Friday afternoon).
  • South Bend's lone camp participant is Steve Filbert, 62.
  • Of note: former Irish linebacker Brian Smith and current quarterback Matt Mulvey took in a portion of practice Wednesday morning as well.

  • Friday's flag football contest will kick-off at 1:30 inside Notre Dame Stadium. Top Stories