SOUTH BEND — It was the one question he knew needed to be answered, but maybe someday down the line, after he’d finished playing college football, after he’d graduated Notre Dame, maybe even after he’d given the NFL a shot.
Former Notre Dame defensive tackle Tony Springmann figured he still had more years in that game. He’d chase down running backs, rush quarterbacks, see where the game could take him. The future? His always was about football. That was it.
Injuries limited Springmann to one full season — 2012. He made a career-high three tackles against Wake Forest. He made 11 total tackles and played in all 13 games during that run to the national championship game. He grew his hair and his beard — both fiery red — to ridiculously long lengths. He looked intimidating, but his game never followed.
A knee injury required a surgery. Then a second and a third and a fourth and, ultimately, a fifth. A balky back also necessitated a medical procedure. Suddenly, it wasn’t all about climbing the defensive line depth chart. It was about climbing out of bed in 10 years. He wanted to give more to the game, but he didn’t want the game to push his body to the point where he’d hobble around like an old man when he wasn’t one.
So in 2014, with his health still a concern and football no longer fun, Springmann asked himself that one question he knew was lurking.
Honestly, for more than a few days, Springmann didn’t know. He’d go to class, go back to his dorm and then, nothing. There were no more workouts, no more practices, no more games in Notre Dame Stadium. He dabbled a bit as a student assistant coach, but that didn’t do it for him. It was all, just, over.
For as long as he could remember, his life revolved around football. It was all he ever wanted to do while earning first team all-state honors at Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne. It helped him earn a scholarship to Notre Dame.
Football no longer was an option, so what would be?
How about golf?
Outside of some summer preseason bonding sessions with teammates, Springmann had never given the game a thought. That changed one day when Springmann, craving some way to stay active, to stay busy, bought a putter and wandered out to the old Burke Golf Course on the western edge of campus. He began putting. Then chipping. Then driving. Before long, that old putter became a used set of Ping clubs. Then nicer clubs.
The more time he had on his hands, the more he spent playing those nine holes at Burke. Once a week. Then twice. He played a lot, but never advanced beyond borderline hack. That was OK. There was something about being on the fairways, being on the green, heck, even being buried deep in a bunker that hooked him. Hooked him hard.
“It became kind of therapy for me,” Springmann said Friday afternoon taking a break in what’s been one hectic week. “I just needed something to move around a little bit and be active. It was pretty easy on my body. I slowly fell in love with it.”
Not averse to work
Springmann fell so hard so fast for the game that the 2015 Notre Dame graduate decided to chase a career in it, and at Notre Dame, where he started working as a groundskeeper during his undergraduate days. While much of the golf world is focused on this week’s 40th U.S. Senior Open at Warren Golf Course, Springmann is doing his work behind the scenes as an assistant to course superintendent Matt Cielen. It’s his job to make sure the grounds remain as pretty as possible. That means doing touch-up work on the fairways and the greens, the bunkers, the grass. Especially the grass.
When play ends for the day, Springmann’s work begins. On Friday, he and his volunteer crew went to work shortly before the final pairing finished. They wrapped everything up by 10 p.m., then were back at it Saturday at 5:30 a.m. They planned to do it again in preparation for Sunday’s final round. Springmann and his crew went to work on the first hole Saturday around 6.
“You get a degree from Notre Dame, you can go work anywhere in the world,” Cielen said. “Tony chose this. I’m happy to have him. He’s such an intelligent guy.
“He is 100 percent all in.”
No job at Warren is too small for the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder, who’s shed 40 pounds, the beard and most of his hair from his football days. He jumped into the business with both feet, ready to learn anything and everything. If that meant working last season in Texas, he worked in Texas. If that meant learning the trade in Florida, he learned in Florida. He returned to Warren to help Cielen and his crew prepare for the U.S. Open.
It’s still surreal that a course he barely acknowledged — he’d drive by Warren on Douglas Road as an undergrad but never anything beyond that — will host Sunday’s championship round.
“I still don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” Springmann said. “The craziest part of it is all this is happening on a truly public course. We’re extremely proud of it.
“A lot of hard work, time and patience has paid off.”
Springmann’s stay at Warren will be short. Next month, he and his wife Cassidy, a former Notre Dame softball player, will move with their two dogs to Michigan. A new job as assistant superintendent at Oakland Hills Country Club in Rochester awaits. Up there, he’ll have two courses — North and South — to tend. It a big step for someone who knew nothing about the game such a short time ago. It’s one that Springmann can’t wait to take.
“Our industry is in dire need of guys willing to get their hands dirty,” Cielen said.
The deeper Springmann advances in the golf industry, the further away football feels. He hasn’t so much as attended a practice since his playing days ended. It’s still too soon. Fall game days? That’s often one of Warren’s busiest times with fans in town for the weekend wanting to play the course, so he’s often there instead of taking in the traditional sights and sounds of a football weekend.
Well, he has had time to partake in one football weekend tradition.
“Tailgating’s pretty fun,” he said. “I’d never done that before.”
Springmann doesn’t miss football much. He does miss everything that led up to the game.
“I miss the people more than the game,” he said. “Football was great. It was a great opportunity, but I feel good.”
About life. About his career. Answering that one question every football player will face was scary. It’s a question they don’t want to ask.
Springmann’s glad he did.
“Getting injured is a double-edged sword,” he said. “When you don’t have the option to continue, you have to realize there’s a bigger world out there.”
A world that led Springmann from football to fairways.
“I had pretty much tunnel vision that I never thought I’d be anywhere near golf,” he said. “It’s amazing. I love it.”