Just a Little Guy

Chances are that Mike Anello has heard it all. He knows that he's too small. He knows that he's not strong enough and he certainly knows that he's no football player. There's also one scrap of information he knows — not to listen to what anyone says.

Mike Anello also knows that at one point, he was all but set to attend the University of Illinois. That quickly changed, however, once he sat down with a former coach to talk about life.

"I was in between Illinois, because I got into a special business program there and Notre Dame," Anello said. "I sat down with a really close family friend and an actual coach from when I was younger and he just said, ‘if you want to have every opportunity in the world, go to Notre Dame, because the networking there is unbelievable,' I'm going through that right now, talking to a bunch of alums trying to find a full-time position. It's just been going great."

The Orland Park, Ill. native also wrestled and dabbled with the football team early in his high school years. At one point, however, it seemed as though his dream would never happen.

"I came in as a wrestler my freshman year," he said. "And I really wanted to concentrate on that and school. The only year I actually played football in grade school was eighth grade and like I said, I wanted to concentrate on everything. And then sophomore year I was talking with my buddies, and they were like, ‘you should come out for the team,' and I did. And the coaches told me, ‘if you were a couple of inches taller or 10 pounds heavier, you would have played,' but I literally did not play a down my sophomore year."

As his involvement with the squad was minimal, Anello was reconsidering his spot on the team. That was until he, once again, was urged to continue in his endeavors.

"So junior year I came back to wrestling," he said. "I really wanted to do well and I ended up qualifying for state and everything, but it wasn't enough for me. I was pretty close with the senior football coaching staff and they talked to me and they were like, ‘hey, we'll give you a chance. We know what happened sophomore year, but just come out,' and so I decided, senior year, we really struggled and just walking through the hallways, having everybody ragging on the team, it really hurt me. A bunch of my friends were on the team so, I went out with them and actually ended up being a captain. We had two captains and one elected on each week, and I ended up being elected eight of the 12 weeks, I think. So that was just a really good feeling and I felt like a really big part of the team, and we ended up making it all the way to the quarterfinals that year, so we kind of brought the team back a little bit."

After his youth coach helped sway him to Notre Dame, he decided that he would walk on to the football team, although he never had lofty expectations. At the very least, Anello thought he would stay in top physical shape working out for the Irish.

"My senior year, after I decided I was coming to Notre Dame, I was like, you know, I'll walk on to the team," he said. "I had no idea what the process was, but at worst, I would stay in shape for another nine months, and if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out, but like I said if you guys would have told me at any point in my life that I'd be, just on the Notre Dame team, I would have laughed."

The Irish coaching staff and special teams coach Brian Polian are certainly glad that he decided to commit himself to the squad too. Ever since gaining serious playing time last season at the gunner spot during punts and kick-off defense, Anello has been a force to be reckoned with, racking up the knockdowns. Last Saturday against San Diego State, the Sandburg High School product had four tackles, and was all over the field during special teams play thwarting returns. His recognition on campus, however, hasn't really changed.

"Honestly, I walk around campus and no one even notices me," Anello said. "I'm like every other guy on campus. It's no different. I walked out of the stadium and people thought I was a manager, so it's a normal life for me."

For Anello, all the attention, or lack there of, is perfectly fine with him — on one condition. All he wants to do is run out on the field and play football.

"I'm fine with it," he said of his relative anonymity. "As long as I get to run down that field, I'll do whatever."

Earlier this season, Anello was trying to enter a room designated for football workouts when student managers stopped him. They refused to let anyone not with the team through the doors.

"It actually happened when I was walking into the stadium once," he said. "And I got, ‘hey, this is just for players,' and I was like, ‘I'm a player. If you could just get me in I'd appreciate it,'" he said with a laugh, recounting the event.

During a practice open to all Notre Dame students, head coach Charlie Weis let all in attendance know of the walk-ons who would receive scholarships for the year. Thanks to his arduous work, Anello was mentioned among the group.

"It was actually pretty cool," Anello said of the event. "My parents had just come out to the practice to watch it and we were taking a knee and coach Weis said that he was going to announce the scholarships and when he finally did it was nice to have my parents there, so it was a good feeling. I mean, you can't really expect anything. He gave me the opportunity to run down the field last year and get out there and play so if I had just gotten that opportunity I would have been very happy. It's clearly an honor to be a scholarship guy."

Weis spoke of his desire and determination to make a play, part of the reason as to why Anello earned his scholarship.

"He has a knack for making plays," Weis said. "And he did last year, too. It's not like he's a novice at doing this. I didn't give the kid a scholarship because of his appearance. I gave it to him because he earned it. And he earned it because of making plays like that in practice every day. How rarely do you get an opportunity to make four unassisted tackles on special teams, two of them inside the 20. But this is nothing new. This is nothing that our team would find a big surprise."

Of course, once Weis decided to make it public, he had his chance to get a few shots in at the walk-on senior. That was, after he called his name last.

"And then when I heard him say, ‘we've got this 5-foot-2, 12 pound guy,' I knew it," Anello said.

But then again, Anello is used to all that sort of talk.

One detail opposing special teams units will have to get used to, on the other hand, is the relentlessness and work ethic Anello displays as he charges towards the ball carrier.

"I just love, like I said to be out there," he said. "Just go out and hit, running down the field, I've just got one thing on my mind, and that's going and getting to the guy."

So as the Irish find themselves 1-0 after a close victory against San Diego State, Anello has just come off of one of his career games. It was so momentous for a special teams player that after the post game talk in the locker-room, in which the captains lead Notre Dame's fight song, Anello heard his name called to join the group.

"Yeah, a lot of the guys were calling me out," he said of the episode. "I didn't actually get up with them, but a lot of guys after the game were all calling me up, and I had quite a few people come up to me and just say, ‘that was a hell of a game,' and that was awesome. It's just an amazing feeling; it's second to none. I'm here looking at the ND emblem and it's all surreal."

Doesn't sound so bad for a walk-on — one who is too small, at least.

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