It was, by design, if not a full-blown night of celebration, a time to take a moment for a satisfied sigh of relief.
“Pre-season camp,” a two-week/17-practice test of will and stamina from Aug. 6 through Aug. 19 was over. The families of the Notre Dame football players were in town to share a Friday evening meal in Heritage Hall, more commonly known as the Monogram Room concourse.
It wasn’t quite the Junction Boys coming back from Camp Bear Bryant, but the Irish had gone through the annual grueling preparation for the long and challenging season ahead. For the most part, they had survived.
Per usual, the players were given the weekend off to move into their dorms with classes officially beginning Tuesday.
The Irish had survived without any major injuries, contrary to a year ago when nose tackle Jarron Jones and rookie sensation Shaun Crawford, the projected nickel back, were lost for the season with knee injuries.
While there were numerous projected first-time, full-time starters – six on offense and five on defense – most of those newcomers provided optimism with promising depth behind them.
If the “quarterback controversy,” the academic suspension of tight end Alize Jones, a physical setback for cornerback Nick Watkins, and a high ankle sprain suffered by first-time starting defensive end Jay Hayes was the worst news of the pre-season, the Irish were blessed.
Notre Dame could win with the talents of DeShone Kizer and/or Malik Zaire at quarterback. If it required massaging some egos, Brian Kelly could live with it, at least through the season-opener against Texas.
But between the festive team dinner and the light of dawn, the long arm and vigilant eye of the law caught up to the Fighting Irish.
Shortly after 10 p.m. ET, five players – senior Max Redfield, sophomores Te’von Coney, Dexter Williams and Ashton White, and freshman Kevin Stepherson – were pulled over by an Indiana State Police trooper in Fulton (Ind.) County, approximately 45 miles from the Notre Dame campus.
A faulty taillight and a 73-mile-per-hour rate of speed in a 60 mph zone prompted the officer to pull over the Ford Focus driven by White. Marijuana was found in the vehicle. So, too, was a loaded handgun. All five were taken into custody and charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana while three would stand accused of possession of an unlicensed handgun.
Some two-and-half hours later, a down-and-out route from the Notre Dame campus, a fight erupted at the Linebacker Lounge, where hundreds of Fighting Irish football players had imbibed since its opening 54 years ago.
Senior Devin Butler, who had yet to practice this August after breaking the same foot that gave way as the projected replacement starter for KeiVarae Russell in the Fiesta Bowl, became embroiled in an altercation sometime around the midnight hour. He ultimately was arrested for resisting law enforcement and battery to a police officer.
Suddenly, much of what had been accomplished through pre-season camp had been, at the very least, compromised. The clouds that had spilled record-setting rainfalls in South Bend just a few days earlier had returned to town, settling over the University, dumping another deluge.
In the ensuing days, speculation of the six players’ fate – two years after the protracted process involving five players and their involvement in an academic scandal – will run rampant. The consensus public opinion, until an official one is rendered, likely will follow these general assumptions.
Redfield, who was sent home from the Fiesta Bowl for violation of team rules, quite possibly will never wear a Notre Dame uniform again. Although accused of a misdemeanor, an accumulation of behavior detrimental to the well being of the team could be in play.
Butler, because of the initial felony charge, also may never don the blue-and-gold again.
As for the other four players, three sophomores and a freshman, all facing misdemeanor charges, a suspension for at least a segment of the 2016 regular-season schedule likely awaits.
Despite all the warnings, all the off-season speakers who try to inspire a higher degree of accountability, all the team-building exercises and t-shirts with catchy, selfless phrases, the message is lost on some when youthful indifference takes over.
Notre Dame can surreptitiously hire all the football analysts the NCAA rules allow, including former players who can provide their players with first-hand knowledge of how to deal with the pressures that come with being a Notre Dame student-athlete. They can relay personal experiences of surviving du Lac.
But they can’t control the voices from within, the temptations that derail dozens of college football players from all points east to west every year.
What were they thinking, people ask. How can they not know what’s at stake? How can they take the golden opportunity they’ve been presented and throw it all away on one night of merriment?
These questions have been asked incident after incident, year after year. The names change, the choice of stimulants expands, and the perceived need to arm oneself becomes more prevalent.
Times haven’t changed; they’ve simply continued on and expanded a bit.
Notre Dame claims to be more vigilant than the rest, and to a large degree, it is. Under Kelly and athletics director Jack Swarbrick, the University has left no stone unturned in its efforts to help student-athletes avoid trouble, prepare for success, and pave a smooth path into adulthood.
But even a school as vigilant as Notre Dame cannot compensate for the human condition. While teaching talented football players to be fearless on the field, it simultaneously feeds the invincibility that has been engrained since first flashing a proclivity for playing a game better than their peers.
While first-class, prima donna treatment lures players to one campus over another, it also fuels entitlement and instant gratification, although such human frailties are hardly confined to the athletic elite.
And now that cloud hangs over Notre Dame with no timetable for resolution. To speculate how long it will take for the University to administer justice can be like a cross-country trip on foot. The process will be done when the process is done, although this likely is more clear-cut than it was in the summer of 2014.
The football staff will pick up the pieces of a temporarily fractured football team. It will pull those committed to the cause – an overwhelming percentage of the team -- closer together. Those inclined to be led astray will be led astray when the conditions favor another disregard of wise choices.
Wisdom is, in most instances, simply matter of making sound decisions.
Notre Dame will keep instructing and trying to avoid another incident. But it will happen again. It always does. There is no dissuading those inclined to misbehave.
The next generation of Notre Dame football players will be, by and large, outstanding representatives of the University. That, too, is a constant.
But no matter how vigilant, how earnest in their intentions, how insistent in their message, those representing Notre Dame athletics will never and can never eradicate bad behavior and poor decisions.
It is part of the game, on the field and off. As long as it chooses to be chase national championships with its every move in the public eye, this is Notre Dame football, yesterday, today and tomorrow. It comes with the territory.null