When Joe Schmidt says he’s speechless, what he really means is that for one of the few times in his life with the cameras rolling, capturing his feelings with the spoken word requires a bit more reflection.
Accompanying his deliberate response to Thursday’s news was a tear-inducing rush of emotion.
“It’s the most humbling, greatest honor that’s ever been bestowed upon me,” said Schmidt following the announcement a few minutes earlier on the practice field that he and four others would bear the title of captain of the 2015 Notre Dame football team.
To say Schmidt never dreamed of such a distinction would be a distortion of the truth. From the day Schmidt was accepted at Notre Dame as a preferred walk-on out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif. – well, even before that actually -- he was plotting his strategy to make a splash on the gridiron for the Irish.
He had a plan for getting to Notre Dame. He had a plan for putting his name and his game in the consciousness of the defensive coaching staff. He had a road map to the starting lineup. He had a dream of leading the Fighting Irish with a C on his chest.
“You have to set very high goals and standards. I tried to be a guy that people could count on, someone people could come to if they needed something, and someone who drove the team to help us get better,” Schmidt said.
“Those were my goals and this happened to come along with it.”
Notre Dame’s reigning MVP is the first former walk-on to represent the Irish in a captain’s role since 6-foot-3, 221-pound center Mike Oriard joined two-time Irish captain/linebacker Bob Olson in 1969.
This also represents just the third time in Notre Dame history that as many as five players have held the title of captain. The Irish finished 9-3 in 1995 with Paul Grasmanis, Ryan Leahy, Derrick Mayes, Shawn Wooden and Dusty Zeigler, and 3-9 in 2007 with Maurice Crum, Jr., John Carlson, John Sullivan, Tom Zbikowski and Travis Thomas.
“Boy, what a representative for our program, in the community, in the classroom…class, distinction…and then on the field. (He’s) just a great communicator and a galvanizer as a leader,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of Schmidt.
Shortly into the start of fall drills in 2011 – Schmidt’s freshman year -- Kelly acknowledged that Schmidt “would play a lot of football here.” It was quite a statement about an undersized linebacker whose only offer and recruiting trip was to the Air Force Academy.
Although a military life appealed to Schmidt, he “begged” to come to Notre Dame, and when he arrived, he was concerned about finding his place within a team/program with such an overwhelmingly storied tradition.
“Before I got here, I was very nervous,” Schmidt reflected. “You go from being someone so valued at your high school to someone that’s a scout team guy. You transition from a position of leadership to a position of ‘followership,’ if that’s a word. You do everything you’re supposed to do. You have to flip your brain. It’s a difficult transition.
“I was always shooting for the main meeting room. I don’t think anyone comes here just to be on the scout team. You want to play in the games and that’s what I shot for.”
Schmidt became a special-teams regular in 2012 and then began to see some action in ’13 with his playing time increasing when best friend and fellow linebacker Jarrett Grace went down with a season-ending leg injury.
Schmidt moved into the starting lineup in 2014, and despite playing just seven-and-a-half games, he performed well enough to earn the team’s MVP award before suffering a broken ankle.
He wouldn’t give up on his aspirations as a walk-on and wasn’t about to leave anything to chance coming back from last year’s horrific injury. Although Kelly said Schmidt still seems to be a half-a-step slower than his pre-injury speed, Schmidt has declared himself fit and ready for the 2015 season.
“Have a dream and go out there with everything you possibly can,” said Schmidt, summarizing his advice to underdogs like him. “Don’t ever give yourself a reason to have a regret. Don’t sell yourself short because you have some sort of limitation.
“The only limits on you are the ones you put on yourself. That’s what I would tell kids and people trying to go after the dream. My dream was to come to Notre Dame and do everything I could to make this university great. I have one more (season) do that.”
Along the way, Schmidt had his moments of trepidation, but he never let it prevent him from chasing the dream.
“You have a ton of doubts,” Schmidt said. “Anyone that says they don’t have a sleepless night or that they don’t doubt themselves is lying. I don’t know anyone with that much confidence.
“But you have to have the confidence to overcome those doubts and the courage to say, ‘If I fail, I fail,’ and still go after your dreams.”
In Joe Schmidt’s world, dreams always come true.