She’ll be there tomorrow with her grandmother, tucked into the stadium’s lower bowl and probably dressed in a hand-me-down cheerleading outfit. Four-year old DeLayiah will see how vital her “Uncle Head” has become to Notre Dame’s defensive line as a two-time captain and the program’s most irreplaceable pass rusher.
She might not care how Sheldon Day’s performance against UMass will impact his NFL Draft stock next spring. DeLayiah will care more if she gets to read a book with Day or play games with him on his phone.
Known as Lay Lay to her family, she could probably call Day anything she wants and the senior defensive tackle wouldn’t protest. That’s proven by the fact she calls him Uncle Head, picking up on Day’s toddler nickname Head because it was so much bigger than the rest of his body.
“Lay Lay has his heart and she knows it,” said Day’s mother, Carol Boyd. “He’s literally wrapped around her little finger.”
During his senior season at Warren Central, Day found out his sister Shannyn was pregnant. Then he did the math that he’d miss the birth because of plans to do early enrollment at Notre Dame that winter. That got Day thinking he might be better off sticking around home that spring instead of getting a jump on his college career.
Boyd tried to reassure Day that just because he couldn’t be local in Indianapolis for delivery that his niece would still know him. Finally Day was convinced and pulled the trigger on early enrollment, which put him in position to play a supporting role on a BCS National Championship team.
“It was a hard experience for me, not being there and not being able to watch her grow up and things like that and to be a part of her life,” Day said. “I made the decision to come here early, and I felt like it was better in the long run but it was definitely a tough one for me.”
Lay Lay was born May 5, 2012.
She’s attended a game before, has free run of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex and was back in South Bend in August for Notre Dame’s open practice for families. Led around by Boyd, she paced between fields to get a better look at her uncle, who’s now three games into the most productive season of his career.
Returning to South Bend at all wasn’t a given for Day, who received a “Stay In School” grade from the NFL’s advisory committee for underclassmen last winter. After being re-recruited by Brian Kelly and Mike Elston, who helped win over Boyd, Day returned. He labored through spring ball with a knee injury Notre Dame didn’t scope. Boyd took out injury insurance against loss of NFL earning potential.
Now fully healthy and nearly graduated, Day has basically turned pro while still in college. He’s also held together a defensive line meeting room Kelly called “salty” with personalities and egos.
“Couldn’t be more proud of a guy in the way that he has matured and taken hold of his captainship in a manner that I didn’t know that he could,” Kelly said. “He’s now not afraid to hold others accountable, which is just a huge step in being a great leader.”
Just one class stands between Day and his undergraduate degree from the Mendoza College of Business. And it only meets twice a week.
That means Day can gorge on film and spend more time in the training room to protect against the injuries that have slowed him the past three years. He tweaked a knee celebrating as a freshman. He suffered a high ankle sprain as a sophomore. A MCL injury sacked him last November.
Now Day wears orthotics in his cleats to keep his knees healthy, finally buying into advice from high school coaches about the importance of self-preservation. Three games into this season he’s still healthy despite playing 71 real defensive snaps last week against Georgia Tech.
“Wake up, lift, watch film, do pretty much everything an NFL player does but still going to class,” Day said. “Well, one class.”
That leaves more minutes for FaceTime with Lay Lay, catching up between reconnections in Indianapolis. Day said he almost always finds Lay Lay first when he’s back home, taking her on tricycle rides around the neighborhood or throwing a football in the yard.
They might play catch again this weekend, maybe even in Notre Dame Stadium.
“How much she cares about me is kind of crazy,” Day said. “Just seeing her smile, and seeing her run around and laugh and play is something special.”