Face down on the FieldTurf of Notre Dame Stadium, battered and bruised and, for the first time in his collegiate career, broken.
That’s how Notre Dame senior right tackle Robert Hainsey feared everything would end. No second chance at a second chance after that one play that early November afternoon. There were days, too many to count or recount, when Hainsey wondered about the past and about the present that he didn’t know what to think about the future. His future.
That may be how college football might end, he allowed himself to accept. With a collision, a crack, then a cart to take him up to the locker room. Then, finally, through the last few months, confusion.
Hainsey suffered a broken left ankle when he was rolled up on — a lineman’s greatest injury fear — early in the Nov. 2 home game against Virginia Tech. Having started for three seasons (34 consecutive games), and with a current streak of 423 snaps played without allowing a sack, Hainsey’s season was over. He’d be on crutches for the final four games of 2019.
That hurt, but Hainsey figured he’d be back. He’d be cleared to practice come spring, then back at his right tackle spot to serve as a second-year captain along a veteran offensive line that returns all five starters. That was a pretty good plan.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, which ended spring practice before it got off the ground. Hainsey had all of one workout before college football went on hiatus. The days turned into weeks, which turned into months. Like that, the 2020 season, expected to be Hainsey’s last, was in serious doubt.
Then it wasn’t.
Hainsey has a chance to again play football Saturday when No. 10 Notre Dame opens a season like no other following an offseason like no other against Duke. Notre Dame Stadium will look and sound and feel a lot different than the last time Hainsey lined up at that right tackle spot for a game. Not as many fans. Not as much noise. Not as much ambient energy in the place. None of that is a concern to Hainsey.
“There was a time this year when we didn’t know if we would be playing,” Hainsey said. “The fact that we get to play football is such a blessing this year. I’m so excited to play at Notre Dame Stadium this year.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
That’s what matters most. Not the reduced capacity (around 15,500) or the weirdness of these pandemic days, but that Notre Dame football is back after everything that college football’s weathered since March. Shut it down or keep going? Play or not play? A full 12-game schedule or a patchwork one? Fans or no fans? None of that stuff, along with the ever-present protocols of masks and social distancing, matters come 2:42 or so Saturday afternoon. That’s when 11 guys on one side will line up against 11 guys on the other and the referee will signal with his weird electronic whistle that it’s go time.
College football in South Bend will be back.
“The fact that we get to play football is such a blessing,” Hainsey said. “We’re going to make the most of it.”
Make the most of a regular season that starts all out of sorts for Notre Dame. It should’ve started two weeks earlier and 3,600 miles away in Dublin, Ireland against Navy. It instead starts at home. It should end 2,100 miles away in Los Angeles against rival USC. It has the chance to wrap up 700 miles away in Charlotte. In December. Playing for a conference championship.
How’s that for a bizarro world?
Limited fans spaced at least six feet from one another isn’t the only change in Notre Dame Stadium this season. There on the same turf where Hainsey lay last season will reside two Atlantic Coast Conference logos — one on each side of the field. Saturday’s game is the first “conference” game in school history for Notre Dame, a member of the ACC for 2020. With it come possible all-conference honors and a conference championship to chase.
For the first time in Notre Dame history, it’s not national championship or bust.
How weird is that?
“I’ll let you know in 12 weeks,” Hainsey said.
The previous 12 have felt like 12 years for the Irish. No question that they were going to play. Then, maybe not. There have been ups and downs and setbacks and shutdowns. Positive tests. Negatives. Fall camp was bumped back 12 days from its expected start time. Notre Dame enters Saturday three preseason practices short of the NCAA-mandated 25 because of coronavirus issues. The Irish could use a few more days to fine-tune everything, but there’s no time left for that now.
“No excuses” said head coach Brian Kelly. “We’ll be ready to play.”
If Tuesday’s practice is any indication, the Irish are beyond ready. This is an experienced team of veteran guys that know the drills, that know how to prepare, that know what’s needed at this level. Ian Book, the third-year starter at quarterback, mentioned that Tuesday’s practice was one of the tightest that his head coach has ever seen. After the sustained success of the last three years (33-6), that’s saying something.
Kelly didn’t back away from that notion Thursday. He seconded it. There was passion and poise and purpose to the day. There was attitude and energy and intent. Now it’s time to carry that over Saturday and the next week and the next.
Regardless of the previous and possibly future stops and starts, 60 minutes of football beckons. It’s right there. It’s so close that the Irish can touch it. They can feel it.
“We’ve been preparing that we were going to play a game this entire time,” said defensive end Daelin Hayes. “We’re more than prepared. Now it’s time to execute.”
Time to put everything the last six months have been about and everything the next three could be aside and just go block and tackle and run and throw. Notre Dame football’s back, though nobody knows for how long. Kelly admitted this week that this season’s going to be a test, mentally and physically. That’s fine. This team’s built for this. All of this. The discipline, the resolve, the focus.
“It’s hard to imagine that we’ve gotten here,” Kelly said.
They made it this far, so might as well make the most of it.