There is a macho component to the latter stages of a season, even more than the typical amount that permeates the psyche of a football player.
Ten games and 11 weeks into the season, what’s at stake for 9-1 and No. 4-ranked Notre Dame ratchets up the motivation. You’re facing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You do whatever it takes.
What is pain? A speed bump in the life of a football player that is greeted with a shrug, an obstacle no higher than an uneven sidewalk on the road to glory.
Two more regular season games. Put the pain out of your mind. Treat it and move on.
“You start feeling it for sure,” said Notre Dame wide receiver Torii Hunter, Jr. “Your body starts aching and your legs start getting heavy. But you’ve just got to push through it. We’ve got two more weeks and you’re trying to get to the top of the mountain. We’re really close to where we want to be.
“So you suck it up. We’ll have a little break after these last two games to get better. We’re all just pushing through and trying to be numb to the pain. We feel it but we’ve got to grind, man.”
The grind of a season is something only a football player can understand. Your threshold for pain as one advances from the high school to collegiate level evolves. There are injuries; there is pain. A man’s limits expand.
“It’s a bigger conversation than people realize,” said Notre Dame head football athletic trainer Rob Hunt in a 2013 interview with Irish Illustrated.
“It helps that some guys are older and they’ve faced these circumstances before. Younger guys haven’t quite built that trust. When you say, ‘I think we can get you through,’ some of them just hear, ‘I think.’”
As the Irish prepare to travel to Boston to take on Boston College, followed by a flight to the opposite end of the continental U.S to take on Stanford, a mindset envelops the players who are the driving force behind a playoff run.
Trying to get a Notre Dame football player to say he’s not healthy or feeling banged up becomes a test of manhood, a moment of weakness that they’re not inclined to reveal.
“Anyone would be lying if they said they felt 100 percent fresh,” said Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith. “But I definitely feel fresh in the sense that I’m able to compete at the best level.”
For fellow linebacker Joe Schmidt, still being on the active roster this time of year is enough motivation. By game 11 of the 2014 season, Schmidt was sidelined with a horrific ankle injury from three games earlier that launched a long road back to health.
“I feel great,” Schmidt said. “Everybody’s got their bumps and bruises, but I don’t have what I had last year. I count my blessings. I can’t complain.
“Obviously you’re going to get stingers that last a few weeks. Sometimes you break a hand and that’s an eight-week process. It depends on what you hurt and when you hurt it, but there are certain things that will just be with you throughout the year.”
“For me personally, I feel pretty good,” said defensive lineman Sheldon Day. “I’m not saying I feel like week one, but I definitely feel good right now. I feel explosive.”
Notre Dame, like all major college football programs today, has a long list of ways to help combat the physicality of the game. Massages, chiropractic work, cold and hot tubs, muscle stimulation, and a form of acupuncture are many of the ways to help offset the toll football takes on the body over the course of a season.
A football player reduces his chance for success if he doesn’t take advantage of the advancements in modern medicine and the treatment of athletic injuries afforded players today.
“Rob Hunt has a plan,” Day said. “We stick to the plan and trust the plan. You just have to stay focused on that plan and make sure you follow it.”
“It goes back to Coach (Brian) Kelly’s attention to detail,” said Irish center Nick Martin. “You spend more time in the training room, taking care of the little things.”
No one knows this better than future NFL first-round draft choice Jaylon Smith. His moneymaker is his body. Taking care of his meal ticket is at the top of his priority list.
“I’m probably the guy that’s in (the training room) the most,” Smith said. “Right from the beginning (at Notre Dame), I took advantage of it. I just love the environment. The (trainers) are nice and it’s safe.”
Hunter, who missed his first season with the Irish and part of the second one following a nasty leg break in a high school all-star game, had no choice but to depend upon Notre Dame’s medical staff to make him whole again.
“You just have to take advantage of all the resources we have,” Hunter said. “We have so many things there for our benefit.”
For safety Max Redfield, he had to learn how to play with pain and trust the professionals around him who had his best interests at heart. And yet when they say you’re going to have surgery for a broken thumb, and then we’re going to protect it and put you back on the field in short order, there’s a moment for pause.
“That was my first time having surgery and first time playing with a broken bone,” said Redfield, who suffered the injury in week one against Texas and still plays with a protective cast on his left hand.
“It’s about how you take an injury and get your mind to a place where you don’t think about it play by play. There’s stuff to think about in terms of not letting it affect your play.”
For quarterback DeShone Kizer, he’s learned the importance of building a protective shield around his 6-foot-4 body. As a 195-pound quarterback coming out of Toledo, Kizer arrived at Notre Dame accustomed to being beaten up by the end of a football season.
Now, about to make his ninth start in a row for the Irish, he feels fortified heading down the home stretch.
“I’m clean, thankfully,” said Kizer, referring to his physical health. “There are a lot of guys right now that have a lot of bumps and bruises. When you play the schedule we play, every game is going to be a tough one in which you’re going to have to fight through some injuries.
“But for me, I’m clean, which is definitely a blessing because when you get into November, those things can build up. It’s kind of freaky to think that I’m completely clean right now and I’m completely fresh. It’s always a blessing. You just have to focus on keeping it that way because these games coming up will be some big ones.”
Another way the Irish put pain and injury on the backburner is through a consistent maintenance program in the weight room. Twice a week – working around their academic schedules – each player spends time in the weight room. (For those not playing in games on a regular basis, their time in the weight room during the season is more extensive.)
“You have to lift, and I think our strength coach does a great job of trying to get us stronger throughout the year in order to peak when we want to peak,” said Schmidt, referring to Irish strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo. “We get in the weight room a little less than the off-season, but we still get in there.”
When Kelly arrived at Notre Dame following the 2009 season, one of the first things he instituted – with the university’s blessing and commitment – was a training table. Former Notre Dame players prior to the implementation of a training table often talk about the weight they used to lose over the course of a season, sometimes as much as 25 pounds for linemen.
“Once you get to a certain point it goes back to nutrition, what you eat, and how you take care of your body,” Martin said. “You get more sleep. You have to take advantage of the lifts. Little things add up.”
“Another part of it is me taking care of my body each and every day,” Jaylon Smith said. “I should know my body the best, better than any other person. That’s something I pay attention to. I’m always looking for ways to improve in that area.”
After that, you rely on an even higher power.
“First and foremost, it’s kind of God willing, based on what he wants as far as health and severe injuries and things like that,” Smith added. “He’s blessed me thus far.”
When it comes to staying healthy – or at least functioning at the highest level possible amidst the physical pounding – no stone is left unturned. It’s the only way to survive the long and grinding road of a football season.