Notre Dame safety commit Nicco Fertitta proving doubters wrong

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Nicco Fertitta heard the skeptics.

He’s too small to play big-time college football. His family’s ties to money — his father is Ultimate Fighting Championship CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and grandfather founded the Station Casinos chain in Las Vegas — were the only reasons colleges were recruiting him. He will never be more than a special teams contributor at Notre Dame.

It will take time, but the senior safety at Las Vegas Bishop Gorman wants to silence those critics.

“It definitely adds in some fuel with a lot of people doubting me,” said Fertitta, who verbally committed to Notre Dame in April. “I’ve been getting that my whole life. I’m kind of used to it. I know that I work hard, and I know that everything I’ve received has been earned and not given. It doesn’t bother me too much, but it definitely drives me to prove people wrong.”

Through five games of his senior season, Fertitta’s size (5-foot-9, 181 pounds) has been overshadowed by his production. The three-star prospect has recorded 20 tackles — two for a loss — a sack, an interception and a forced fumble for undefeated Bishop Gorman, the nation’s No. 2 team according to USA Today.

“The kid was aware of what was being said about him,” said Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer. “He really plays with this nasty chip on his shoulder. First play of the first game he recovered a fumble. Second defensive play of that game he drilled somebody. He gets super excited. He’s a real hard hitter, and he’s constantly studying. He always knows where to be on the field. For somebody who is undersized, you have to know where you’re going to be.”

Questions about his size are nothing new for Fertitta. Long ago he adopted a motto his father told him: If size mattered, the elephant would be king of the jungle, not the lion.

He plays at Fertitta Field, one of the nicest high school athletic facilities in the country, but doesn’t act like someone whose family helped build the place.

“He goes about life not like he’s set for life, but like he has something to prove,” said Brewer, who has covered Fertitta since his eighth grade year. “That’s the thing that stands out. Obviously the family is well off. If football didn’t work out for him, he’d still have a good life. But he’s a kid who’s so desperate to do well.”

The stage won’t get much bigger than the one he will play on Friday night, at least not in high school. Bishop Gorman hosts No. 1 St. John Bosco from Bellflower, Calif., in a game that will be televised live Friday night on ESPN at 9 p.m. EDT. One Los Angeles Times story suggested it could be one of the best high school football games in the last 15 years on the West Coast.

The significance isn’t lost on Fertitta. His team could solidify itself as No. 1 in the country with a victory.

“This is definitely the biggest game in Nevada high school history for sure,” Fertitta said. “It’s just cool to be a part of something like this and get a chance to make history. Being able to have the opportunity to play in such a game, a lot of kids don’t get to do this and play on ESPN.”

The Bishop Gorman program started its rise almost a decade ago and has hit its peak in the last five-plus seasons under head coach Tony Sanchez. The team has won a state championship every season since Sanchez arrived in 2009.

The program regularly churns out multiple Div. I football players as well. Irish junior offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley played for Sanchez at Bishop Gorman. Fertitta is part of a 2015 class at Gorman that includes four-star tight end Alize Jones, a UCLA commit, and four-star wide receiver Cordell Broadus, the son of rapper Snoop Dogg.

“He’s probably the brightest guy, the most organized, most disciplined and he puts the most time into it than anybody I’ve ever been around,” Brewer said of Sanchez. “It’s more real than UNLV football out here. The way he develops people and the offseason training they have, they’ll go practice and lift and watch film. It looks like a real college football team. They coach up each kid like they’re Ronnie Stanley.”

The growing profile of the program attracts new talent from the surrounding areas. Broadus transferred to Gorman prior to the season from California. Quarterback Tate Martell and wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey, both sophomores, came in from Poway, Calif. Both received offers from USC earlier this week despite Martell’s verbal commitment to Washington. Sophomore running back Biaggio Walsh is the grandson of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali.

There are plenty of opportunities for distractions. Even rapper Flavor Flav regularly attends Bishop Gorman home games.

“They’re doing the Lord’s Prayer and Flavor Flav’s right there in the middle of the prayer,” Brewer said. “It’s wild.”

Yet it’s all part of the scene at Gorman that Fertitta’s grown accustomed too. Famous relatives and celebrity acquaintances aren’t distractions in his eyes.

“Whether it’s Biaggio, Cordell, or any of those guys, you don’t think of them that way,” Fertitta said. “I think of Cordell as just Cordell Broadus. I think of Biaggio as Biaggio Walsh. They’re just regular kids. They’re humble guys. If you didn’t know that those famous figures were a part of their families, you would never even know that they were famous at all.”

The team has remained unscathed through five games, but it hasn’t been easy. The Gaels escaped with a 23-20 overtime win over Bingham from South Jordan, Utah in week three. Fertitta clinched that win with a game-ending sack and forced fumble in overtime. A late two-point conversion to Jones finished a 14-point comeback in the fourth quarter to defeat Centennial 43-42 in Corona, Calif., a week later.

The biggest challenge will come Friday against St. John Bosco and five-star UCLA quarterback commit Josh Rosen. It’s a made-for-TV matchup, but Fertitta will try to stay out of the hype. He just wants to shut down the opposing offense and get another victory.

“We just try to take one team at a time and take everything the same,” Fertitta said. “We’re not really worried about the rankings and who we play. Whoever wants to face us, we’ll play anytime. That’s kind of how we’ve been all season.”

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame safety commit Nicco Fertitta is stepping up in his senior season at Las Vegas Bishop Gorman. (Photo provided)
2015 safety commit Nicco Fertitta during Irish Invasion football camp on Friday, June 20, 2014, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
2015 safety commit Nicco Fertitta, right, and tightend target Jake Hausmann during Irish Invasion football camp on Friday, June 20, 2014, at Notre Dame. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)