Throughout most of the history of Notre Dame’s participation in bowl games – which began on a semi-fulltime basis in 1970 and became a fixture virtually every time the Irish qualified a decade later – the names of the players have been placed on the back of the jerseys as a thanks-for-the-memories-type tribute.
This year, the tribute is to Team 127, one and all.
That’s one of the ways Irish head coach Brian Kelly knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that his own Team No. 6 at Notre Dame is ready to complete the 2015 mission on a high note when they take on Ohio State in the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl.
“I’ll give you an example,” said Kelly of how he knew his team was zeroed in on a victory over the Buckeyes. “Just little things, right?
“Every year, we put the names on the back of the jerseys. The seniors came to me and said, ‘Coach, we don’t want names on the back of our jerseys. We’re Team 127.’ Just little things like that where it’s been a continuation of the same demeanor, the same thought process, the same we’re-about-team focus.”
Blessed with an incredible amount of senior leadership – led by players such as Joe Schmidt, Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Chris Brown and Matthias Farley – it comes as little surprise that if any team would eschew the symbolic recognition of the individual, it would be this group.
“The decision to not have the names on the back of the jerseys is a team decision and something that we’re going to try to keep inside the locker room in terms of why we wanted to do it,” Schmidt said. “It’s something that we decided and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Pressed further to provide insight into the decision, Schmidt said it was a tip of the cap to a truly unified football team.
“All year we’ve been talking about Team 127, how special this team is, the brotherhood that this team has and how much we care about each other,” Schmidt added. “It’s fair to say that’s something we want to maintain into the bowl game and it’s something we want all of our games to represent, not just one.”
The notion perpetuated by the seniors, of course, was that the team is larger than the individual.
“That was a call made on the pulse of the team and what we had stood for all year,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Jarrett Grace, also one of the leaders despite limited playing time in 2015.
“We pretty much decided we had one last time to be on the field together, so let’s just keep this total buy-in we’ve had all year. We don’t need the names because we’re about Notre Dame, we’re about each other. Why single out the individual just for the name? That’s meaningless.”
One senior who wasn’t involved in the decision because he was tending to his rehabilitation and trying to get back on the field for the Fiesta Bowl was nose tackle Jarron Jones, who fully grasps the symbolic concept of this team’s unity.
“I respect it wholeheartedly,” Jones said. “This is Team 127. That’s been our philosophy the entire season and look where it’s gotten us. We can’t shy away from what has gotten us here.”
It wasn’t a decision universally accepted when the notion was first floated. Of course, Notre Dame can always accommodate those who want their name stitched on the jerseys after the game. In the meantime, it took a little explaining by the upperclassmen.
“Some of the young guys were like, ‘What? I thought that’s what this game was all about!?!’” Grace laughed. “And we were like, ‘No, it’s not about the names on the jersey. It’s about winning the game! If your perspective is that off, we need to drill the message home a little bit harder for you.’
“We explained ourselves and said, ‘This is why we’re doing it. This is about bigger goals than ourselves.’”
It could prove to be just a symbolic gesture of little consequence if the Buckeyes play one of their better games and the Irish are unable to stem the tide of the Ohio State rushing attack. Additionally, Notre Dame must play much better than it has in the red zone – on both sides of the ball – if it is to accomplish the goal of Team 127 in the Fiesta Bowl.
Yet if Kelly is reading his team’s attitude correctly, no disclaimers about jersey etiquette will be necessary.
“I just want to stay out of their way at this point and not mess it up because they clearly have a direction that they want to go and how they want to play,” Kelly said.
“We have picked up where we left off. They know they’ve got to play well and execute well. But as it relates to who they are, that hasn’t changed at any time this year.”
Right on down to the jerseys they’ll wear.