Promise fulfilled: How Rocco Spindler's late grandfather left a lasting impact on the ND commit

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

His name is Rocco Seth Kodiak Spindler.

Mother Rochelle and father Marc were initially split between two names for their son, who verbally committed to Notre Dame’s football team last Saturday. Rochelle wanted Seth. Marc preferred Rocco. Then, one week before giving birth, Rochelle dreamt her son would be named Kodiak.

So they settled on using all three.

They chose Rocco as his first name to preserve a family tradition. Rochelle and Marc were married in Rome, and their Italian roots inspired the first names of Rocco’s older sisters — Dominique, Isabella and Gabriella.

Family roots and tradition continued to influence Rocco throughout his upbringing. Many of Rocco’s wide-ranging hobbies outside of football come from his family. The same can be said about his values, priorities and outlook on life.

And if not for his late grandfather, maybe Spindler never picks the Irish. Their last encounter together launched the idea into motion.

“If I had to think about it,” Marc said, “I would really break down.”

That final time Rocco saw Marc’s father, George Spindler, occurred last summer. Rocco joined Marc for that trip to Scranton, Pa. George’s failing health prompted Rocco to feel the need to make the most of that hospital visit.

George died from multiple myeloma in July 2019, but not before he heard the university Rocco eventually planned to attend. Rocco delivered the news while saying goodbye.    

“I just knew that he was getting weaker and weaker,” Rocco said. “I was going to leave that day and probably knew I wasn’t going to see him again. I just told him I loved him, gave him a hug and whispered in his ear that I was going to go to Notre Dame.”

That conversation became public knowledge once Rocco announced his decision on Saturday. His pre-commitment speech concluded with a tearful tribute to George. Spindler told the crowd about keeping his promise.

Clarkston (Mich.) High’s Rocco Spindler (middle), a four-star offensive lineman in the 2021 recruiting class, celebrates with his family after announcing his verbal commitment to Notre Dame on Aug. 8.

Rocco knew how much that decision would have meant to his grandfather. With his German and Irish descent, George represented Rocco’s lone grandparent with non-Italian ancestry. George’s Irish roots were partly what fueled his longtime Notre Dame fandom.

By choosing Notre Dame over Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and LSU, among others, Spindler sent shockwaves around the recruiting world. Spindler said he received so many notifications from text messages and social media that his phone malfunctioned.

As a four-star offensive lineman from Clarkston (Mich.) High, Rocco brings impressive recruiting pedigree. Rivals ranks the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Spindler as its No. 3 offensive guard and No. 56 overall player in the 2021 class, while 247Sports slates him No. 5 at the position and No. 78 overall.

The attention Spindler received in the recruiting process ultimately didn’t deter him from his purpose. The reaction George had to the news a year ago will be the one Rocco remembers most.

“From that moment on, I saw his heart warm and smile,” Spindler said. “For him just to get a little bit of hope and happiness one last time was really heartwarming.”

George Spindler's legacy

Clarkston (Mich.) offensive lineman and Notre Dame commit Rocco Spindler (top left) poses for a picture with his family, including father Marc (top middle) and grandfather George (bottom middle).

The lasting impact George had on his grandson goes well beyond their final conversation.

Most of Rocco’s fondest memories with George were from his bar in Scranton, Spindler's Lounge. Now known as the Lounge, George owned the business after buying it in 1988.

Rocco would swing by the place and eat the American pub food there when in town. He enjoyed hearing George's old stories, even if they were being told to him for the umpteenth time. George helped Rocco learn how to play blackjack and poker during those visits. His cooking, another of George's many skills, will be missed.

“He made me the best chicken in the world,” Rocco said.

Perhaps they bonded the most over their love for the outdoors, particularly hunting and fishing. Rocco learned quite a bit from his experiences with George and Marc. He considers himself to be an advanced outdoorsman. Field dressing a deer is second nature to him.

A passion for farming also was passed down to Rocco. Marc purchased land in 1994 with some of the money he accumulated during his nine years playing for the Detroit Lions and the New Yorks Jets in the NFL.

That property, in Davison, Mich., has served as a farm for the Spindlers. When free from football and academic responsibilities, Rocco gravitates toward the family farm. His responsibilities when tending to the farm include clearing brush, splitting and hauling wood, harvesting, planting and baling hay.

Those activities may seem like work. For Spindler, it’s an escape. George inspired the idea of Marc owning a farm. Now Rocco hopes to buy property in the countryside or in the mountains someday.

Rocco Spindler (right) and his father, Marc (left), enjoy the outdoors and tending to their family farm.

Sharing these experiences with his grandfather helped shape Rocco’s down-home mindset. He’s not looking for attention from unfamiliar faces. Spindler loathed that aspect of the recruiting process so much that he sometimes used the farm as a sanctuary of sorts.

“I go to my farm, and I’ve got no (cell) service there,” Spindler said. “So I’m like, ‘Yes, I don’t have to talk with any coaches.’ If I spend the night or something, then they start wondering, ‘Hey man? You OK? You alive? What’s good?’”

Clarkston head football coach Kurt Richardson knows what matters to Spindler. His unwavering allegiance to those close to him became clear to Richardson in June. Uncertainty lingered about whether the state of Michigan would permit high school football this fall. Yet Spindler chose to stay at Clarkston for his senior year.

IMG Academy, a national football powerhouse in Bradenton, Fla., had long been recruiting Spindler. The school's efforts started to gain traction once the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardized Rocco's senior season. Before making a decision, Rocco convened with his father and Richardson.

“I think this is one of the problems that high school football is having,” Richardson said. “These kids are just transferring here, there and everywhere. There isn’t the pride in the school, in the town, in the community. That’s what Rocco provided. So many people had pride in him. So many people wanted to see him stay.

“A lot of kids, you say their first name, and people don’t know who they are. You say Rocco’s name, and people knew who Rocco was.”

Richardson echoed those sentiments in that meeting. Emotions were high. Tears were shed. Rocco said he left that conversation certain about remaining in Clarkston.

Another promise fulfilled.

“I’m loyal to Clarkston,” Spindler said. “They have been great to me throughout the years. I want to win one more state championship before I leave. I want to go down as one of the best players to ever play at Clarkston. Best athlete and best person ever. That’s my hometown and forever will be. I just felt like I owed it to them, and that’s why I wanted to stay.”

There’s a reason Rocco touts himself as a “Clarkston kid.” Spindler learned from his grandfather that he’s meant to deliver for those who served and cared for him.

And he's firm in believing that dynamic is a two-way street. Spindler made loyalty a priority during the recruiting process. He asked coaches about their contract situations. He dismissed coaches who had the vibe of a used car salesman.

The Irish coaching staff related with Spindler and made him feel like a top priority. Head coach Brian Kelly particularly left a lasting impression on Spindler. He met with Spindler and his parents for an extended period of time before Notre Dame’s home game against Stanford (September 2018). Kelly and Spindler also talked one-on-one prior to ND's home game against USC (October 2019).

Kelly appearing to be close to a long-term contract extension with the Irish also caught Spindler’s attention.

“That really resonated with me,” Marc said. “I know as a former player, you don’t want to be involved in a lot of this (expletive) prior to a game. But he sincerely made time to sit down and talk to myself, my wife and Rocco on that (Stanford) visit.”

Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn headed most of Rocco’s recruitment. Spindler described Quinn as a father figure who shares his appreciation for hunting and fishing.

Todd Lyght, though, was Notre Dame's first coach to recruit Spindler approximately two years ago. How Lyght exited his role as cornerbacks coach in January stood out.

“After (Lyght) decided to go somewhere else,” Spindler said, “he still told me that Notre Dame was the place to be. For him, he was leaving the school. It meant a lot that he still said, ‘Hey Rocco, you should truly go to Notre Dame.’”

On-the-field impact

Clarkston (Mich.) High’s Rocco Spindler (50), a four-star offensive guard in the 2021 recruiting class, plans to announce his verbal commitment on Saturday.

Frank Cona wondered if Spindler’s bones were double the density of an average human.

Spindler’s longtime trainer knows from experience. He’s careful when working with Spindler, especially when pads and contact are involved. Precautions with the other athletes he trains at Frank Cona’s SportsSpeed are not needed.

Spindler, once a state qualifier in wrestling, is a different breed.

“With him,” Cona said, “you’ll end up in a hospital if he hits you the wrong way.”

George Spindler wouldn’t have it any other way. He often accused Marc of being too soft on Rocco throughout his childhood. So sometimes George took matters into his own hands.

Living in Pennsylvania didn't keep George from checking on his grandson and challenging him. He had Marc FaceTime him during games and send him highlight videos. Rocco didn’t get off easy.

“He would say, ‘I still have one last good punch. I could still knock you out,’” Rocco said. “Stuff like that. It was all fun and games.”

Not that Rocco showed many deficiencies that warranted criticism. Spindler has started every game as a two-way player since winning a state championship his freshman season. He was named first-team all-state on both sides of the ball in 2019. He’s featured mostly at left guard and as a multi-purpose defensive lineman. 

George’s critiques were less about serious X's and O's and more about setting a standard, Rocco said. Spindler felt his grandfather wanted him to never be satisfied. He still carries those heightened expectations with him.

“Hopefully, I get the chance to start as a true freshman,” said Spindler, who will enroll a semester early, in January.

An early impact from Spindler at Notre Dame may not be much of a surprise.

Steve Wiltfong, director of recruiting for 247Sports, said Spindler will be one of the more prepared offensive linemen this class from a physical, strength and athletic standpoint. To Wiltfong, the only way Spindler does not become a three-year starter is if he leaves early for the NFL Draft.

Roster turnover will provide Spindler that opportunity. Starting right guard Tommy Kraemer will be gone following this season. Starting left guard Aaron Banks and fellow interior offensive linemen Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons will see their eligibility expire after 2021. Notre Dame announced Wednesday that junior offensive lineman Cole Mabry will medically retire.

“I’m not sure there’s a high school player who has played more snaps over the last three years than Rocco Spindler,” Wiltfong said. “He’s a tenacious, high-motored, strong, tough, physical football player. I think stamina is the one thing he takes a lot of pride in.

“When he’s able to take that defensive line responsibility off his plate when he gets to Notre Dame, he will really be able to focus on the offensive line. It will be really exciting to see what he can do.”

The Irish can expect Spindler to bring an old-school work ethic and mentality. People around Spindler describe him as being an old soul off the field, too.

Classic rock bands AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and Aerosmith are among his favorite musical artists. Spindler admires Rocky Balboa, the fictional boxer from the Rocky movie franchise. Those movies and the 1985 wrestling film “Vision Quest” are popular watches for him.

Having NFL bloodlines, experience as a two-way player and a wrestling background infused Spindler with an edge. But what truly makes him Rocco Seth Kodiak Spindler can be traced back to his family.

“Just to be myself, be a great man and love the game as much as you love it,” said Spindler on what he learned from his grandfather that he will carry with him to Notre Dame. “If you don’t love it, get away from it. You just have to want it. That’s the thing in life, if you want something, you have to go out and get it. No one else is going to do it for you.

“He really loved Notre Dame and really wanted me to go there. That’s why I made him that promise and why I want to go there. Where I can be myself and where I can excel on the field and off the field. Then potentially make it to the NFL.”

Notre Dame offensive line commit Rocco Spindler (right) poses for a picture with his grandfather, George (left), after playing a football game for Clarkston (Mich.) High.