Notre Dame football: Massa carries memory of fallen teammate Matt James into Senior Day
SOUTH BEND - They stared at each other for all 730 miles of the seemingly unending trip home to Cincinnati in varying degrees of shock, broken only momentarily by a Toby Keith song that seemed to reassure Luke Massa and the other passengers in the car that Matt James was actually somehow with them.
I'm gonna miss that smile, I'm gonna miss you my friend
Even though it hurts the way it ended up, I'd do it all again
So play it sweet in heaven 'cause that's right where you wanna be
I'm not cryin' 'cause I feel so sorry for you, I'm cryin' for me
A little more than 3½ years after James, a Notre Dame football recruit teeming with breathtaking promise and the drive to match it, tumbled to his death from a fifth-floor hotel balcony during a spring break trip in Panama City Beach, Fla., Massa is still convinced James walks with him.
Especially when the Notre Dame senior football player’s dreams have seemed to go sideways.
Like when the former star quarterback at Ohio prep power Cincinnati St. Xavier was asked to move to wide receiver after his freshman year at ND, then saw his speed and agility take a hit, just as he was making a push up the depth chart a little more than a year later with a freak ACL tear while simply running a pass route in spring practice.
“I just try to remember that when I’m tired or when I think things are bad, I’m here on Earth,” said Massa, who played against James in sports during grade school and junior high before the two joined forces and became close friends at St. X. “I mean, I’m blessed to be here, and that makes me work harder at whatever I’m doing.
“I always think about him. I think out of my friends, because I’m here at Notre Dame and he would have been here with me, I think about him a little more, just because there’s always the thought of how would things be if he was here.
“Obviously, you can’t predict that, but I always know and always say that he is my 280-pound angel who’s just watching over me and protecting me.”
And Saturday, that angel will likely be celebrating with Massa as well, as the 6-foot-4, 237-pound career reserve and current holder on place kicks runs out of the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel, likely for the final time as a player.
The Irish (7-3) host BYU (7-3) in the home finale that kicks off at 3:30 p.m. EST (NBC-TV).
Senior Day at Notre Dame can be as confusing as it is heartwarming for those on the outside looking in. The 33 seniors who will be recognized on the field with their families before the game represent a mish-mash of the final six players on the roster who began their careers during the Charlie Weis coaching regime, walk-ons added to the roster at varying times and coach Brian Kelly’s first recruiting class once the coach bolted from the University of Cincinnati for ND. That group includes medical hardship cases Tate Nichols and Cam Roberson.
Also in that final group, some of those players will exhaust their eligibility next month when ND plays in a bowl game. Ten others, including Massa, have a possible fifth-year option to take at either ND, or another school without the normal one-year transfer penalty.
There have been rumblings that an opportunity could open up for Massa, a former star forward at St. X, to play basketball collegiately next year. His father, Gary, was a captain at Xavier University during his playing days, and the two still play H-O-R-S-E in the backyard when Luke goes home.
Or he could put his soon-to-be-in-hand business degree in marketing to work. Or play football somewhere?
“I can’t really see myself playing football for anybody else,” Massa said. “Now basketball, could happen, but I still have a little bit of a knee problem. All of that I’m just going to play it by ear and figure it all out later.”
That he’s still at Notre Dame figuring it all out, when playing time has been sparse and largely limited to special teams, is part of the fabric of who Massa always was but also the person he became during the ride home from Panama City back in April 2010.
Massa was with James the night of the accident, April 2, one week shy of James’ 18th birthday. The two were part of a group of about 40 St. Xavier students who spent their spring break at Panama City Beach that year.
The two St. X football stars, who helped launch the school to an Ohio state title in 2007 when they were sophomores, both strongly considered staying home after high school and playing for Kelly at Cincinnati. Massa, in fact, verbally committed to the Bearcats when Weis showed a tepid response to Massa’s interest in ND.
When Kelly left, though, James narrowed his choices to ND and Ohio State, eventually picking the Irish. Massa flipped his commitment to ND, just days before national signing day, but only after Kelly and the QB received assurances from new UC coach Butch Jones that he was OK with that.
Massa landed in a 23-man class, signed in February, that included two other quarterbacks — former Cincinnati high school rival Andrew Hendrix from Moeller and Lake Forest (Ill.) High’s Tommy Rees. Rees was the lowest-rated of the three by Rivals.com and the most lightly recruited of the trio. He enrolled early at ND — five months before Hendrix and Massa — and will be making his 30th career start Saturday, against the Cougars.
James was one of three offensive tackles in the class, along with Christian Lombard and Nichols. He and nose guard Louis Nix were the only prospects in the class ranked in the top 100 by Rivals — Nos. 86 and 85, respectively.
For anyone who spent much time around James, they would have scoffed at that number for not being higher.
“I know, obviously, he had the size, heightwise and weightwise,” Massa said of James. “I think the thing that really distinguished him from other linemen was his heart. He would go 110 percent every play. I’m not joking about that. I mean, he had a motor.
“We had a video of him in high school, where he was on one of those exercise bikes and he actually went so hard on the exercise bike that he actually broke it.”
Another story that spoke to James’ high ceiling and high character was a day at St. X when each of the Bombers had to run wind sprints, with each position group having to meet a specific maximum time.
“If we didn’t make the time, we’d have to run more,” Massa said. “And we had a couple of sophomore linemen that were really struggling that day. And Matt pulled them along so they would make the time. I mean, he literally carried them.”
And it felt like James, at points between Panama City Beach and Cincinnati that April day, was carrying Massa.
That is until then-Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph called. Rudolph, who starred at Cincinnati Elder High, had known James since the tight end was in fourth grade and James was in second grade. Their parents were longtime friends and neighbors.
“The rumors had been out there and he called me and said, ‘Is it true?’” Massa recalled of his conversation with the now-Minnesota Vikings standout. “I just said, ‘yeah’ and I started breaking down. And I’ll always remember it. He just said, ‘I’m here for you, all right. And you can call me whenever you want me.’
“That’s the main thing about coming to Notre Dame, the amount of people who reached out to me. It didn’t matter who. It just wasn’t five people. It was 500 people. It was really, really amazing.”
So when asked why he stayed at Notre Dame when there could have been better opportunities elsewhere, as far as football was concerned, the first words out of Massa’s mouth were, “It was easy.”
Also helping Massa move on with more strength than grief were James’ parents, Jerry and Peggy, who have attended at least one game a season by Massa’s count, but weren’t expected to make the trip this Saturday.
“The only reason that I have been the way I am is because of them,” Massa said. “They’re the strongest people I have ever met. It wakes you up. You think about life completely different.”
And so Massa embraced being part of the red-hat brigade that helps signal in plays on game day Saturdays to the offense, and being the third-string emergency quarterback earlier this season when freshman Malik Zaire was out of the mix with mononucleosis.
“It was fun to go back there and throw the ball around, and it was obviously a little easier on my legs than receiver,” Massa said. “I hadn’t taken a snap at quarterback since my freshman year except one week last season when Gunner (Kiel) had gone home and I played scout team quarterback for a week.
“I knew I was a last resort kind of deal, but I’ve always been a player that, whenever Coach asks me to move somewhere or do something, I do it for him.”
And that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Kelly.
“He's been the consummate teammate,” Kelly said, “whether or not we've asked him to help us at quarterback or wide receiver or tight end. He's a holder this year. He's just been an incredible teammate, and he's so well liked by everybody.
“I think he's been on a dual journey here, and that journey has been seeking a degree at Notre Dame and fulfilling a dream that he's had of playing here at Notre Dame. And he certainly has and has contributed to our program.”
Saturday, he’ll probably listen to Cryin’ For Me, maybe even watch the slideshow on YouTube he put together with the song playing in the background (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kh8DBPRdQsU), but likely not too close to game time. Because for the first time in his career, he won’t run out of the tunnel as No. 14. He’ll run out wearing a No. 78 jersey.
Matt James’ No. 78.
Starting sophomore right tackle Ronnie Stanley, who normally wears 78, will switch to No. 69 since both players are on the field at the same time for field goals and extra points.
“I know if I had left Notre Dame, I wouldn’t be able to do this,” Massa said. “And I never would have been able to get it out of the back of my head what might have happened if I stayed. Now I know.”
And now he can smile and cry all at the same time, knowing he’s playing for anyone who’s ever lost a good friend before their time, for anyone who refused to give up on a dream.
For his 280-pound angel.