Notre Dame football: Hegarty fueled by faith, persistence

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

PALO ALTO, Calif. - Regardless of how he plays Saturday night, Matt Hegarty's story already is a special one.

Just standing on the Stanford Stadium turf in a Notre Dame football uniform is a victory for the 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior offensive lineman.

But landing the job as the next man in at center could be beyond his wildest dreams, considering where he was this time last year.

That is, if he didn't have faith.

It was Nov. 8, 2012, when Hegarty's life was turned upside down.

Coming from the small town of Aztec, N.M., Hegarty said he felt he had more to prove than most of the Irish players who came from "bigger talent pools." He battled for playing time — mostly on special teams and mop-up duty — on a team that was destined for great things.

Notre Dame was 9-0 when life came crashing down on him. For some reason, he had spells of shortness of breath and the inability to talk or write. After several sessions with doctors, it was determined that those were symptoms of a stroke. Two holes in Hegarty's heart — which were there since birth but went undetected — caused the problem.

Surgery in December patched the holes and cured the medical issues. Getting back on the field and ultimately into a vital role has been the challenge ever since.

"It was clearly one of those operations that we were not certain," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. "It was a matter of, we had to see, there was a period of time ...; there was a window there to see how he was going to respond. There was a window there where we were not certain whether he was going to be able to play again."

Living a normal life is one thing. Playing college football, quite another.

"You kind of shuffle around your priorities from time to time," Hegarty said. "(This time last year), I definitely wasn't worried about how the nose guard was playing on the blitz.

"It goes to show how you can handle different things at different times."

"You never want to see that happen to someone so young," said Irish left guard Chris Watt. "It's a weird situation that was pretty scary. To see him fight through that was pretty amazing."

The "living a normal life" concern settled, the next question became where does he fit on the field?

"There are times when you wonder if (that first start) is ever going to happen," Hegarty said. "You just have to have faith.

"I think about the (high school coaches) I've played for. I think about my family; people I don't want to let down. It gives you that motivation to stay in there and keep your head in it, no matter what's happening at that time."

Hegarty returned to football last spring better than ever. Consider Hegarty's time in the mile run to quantify the improvement he made. Before the problem was detected, he ran a mile in 8 minutes and 15 seconds in South Bend (725 feet above sea level). After the surgery last summer, he ran a 7:14 back home in Aztec (5,623 feet above sea level).

Now, all he had to do was transition that improved conditioning into opportunities on the field.

It wasn't easy. Nick Martin — like his brother, left tackle Zack Martin — seemed to be an ironman. Hegarty had just played in one game, a mop-up cameo against Air Force.

Then, late in the first quarter against BYU last week, Nick Martin went down with a knee injury that has ended his season.

Hegarty got the call. Forget the frigid temperature; the 30 mph wind; the occasional bursts of snow; and the treacherous field conditions.

It was time to be perfect.

"My first thought was, 'I've gotta get my hand warm,'" Hegarty said. "It was pretty frosty at that time.

"As soon as I realized (it was Nick Martin who was hurt), the biggest thing I could bring to the team at that time is to execute. Make sure we were 100 percent on snaps and make it as seamless a transition as possible.

"(The BYU game) was so spur-of-the-moment I didn't even have time to think about it: Just get in and kinda go with it. Just get your bearings and get going. (The Stanford game) might be more of a rush with the anticipation.

"There are a lot of different things (to consider): How the turf is; things you get used to playing center. You have to make sure you're consistent flying the ball back there (in a shotgun snap) for the quarterback. That's one less thing he has to worry about. You get a feel for it."

"Going against Louis Nix for two years (in practice played a role in Hegarty's development)," Kelly said. "Louis is on the ones, Matt is on the twos. (Matt's) getting his brains beat in in his freshman year. That takes a toll on your confidence a little bit — the ball is going sideways, snapping it backwards; and (Nix) is in the backfield making tackles.

"That's not an easy existence early on, and there's some crazy guy (Kelly) back there screaming at him. All that's going on. He has to develop through all that.

"He's been able to take all that and he's been able to develop through that. When the wind was 30 miles an hour and there was snow blowing around and we were on our 4-yard line and he was shotgun snapping, all that worked for him."

By all accounts, Hegarty was flawless. A left-handed snapper, there were no muffs, nothing off target, no penalties.

BYU, however, is no Stanford. Hegarty is likely to get a steady diet of David Parry (6-2, 303 pounds) on a Cardinal defensive front that is relentless.

"If you want to test yourself, it might as well be against Stanford," Hegarty said. "They like to tee off on everyone.

"The thing about those guys, they're so high-motor. It's not like they'll beat a guy and get a sack. They'll keep working and working, and three or four seconds into a play they'll get by and get the sack. We're emphasizing being tough through the whole play."

No one will question Hegarty's newly-overhauled motor. The happenings of the last year have had a profound impact on him as a person and a player.

"This time last year, I had a lot of different things on my mind," Hegarty said. "It's been a long year. It's amazing how it's come around.

"The biggest thing (to take away from all this) is persistence; learning the value of persistence. Even at this time last year, trying to figure out if I'll ever play again. This season, battling around trying to find a place to get some playing time. Right now, having the opportunity to start against a Top 10 team like Stanford that has a really great defense.

"You can do a lot of things if you persist."

"(Hegarty) became much more of a mature player, the way he approached everything on and off the field," said Watt. "Coming from a different perspective, seeing what happened last year, it might have been the last time he ever played football. He's taken every opportunity trying to do his best. He showed that (against BYU)."

"There (have been) a couple things (that allowed Hegarty to get to this point)," Kelly said. "One, his own confidence in himself. He's a very confident young man and he believed that he's a BCS football player. With the kind of physical setback that he had, if he didn't believe in himself, I don't think he would have been able to come back.

"No. 2, (offensive line) coach (Harry) Hiestand believed in him.

"With those two things in play, it allowed him to get back to work and continue to do the things that he was asked to do.

"Matt believed in himself. Coach Hiestand showed a lot of belief in him. (The work the unit put in). All those things together have put him in a position to succeed now."

Don't forget faith. No substitute for that.

A little faith might help a lot against Stanford.

Couldn't hurt.

Notre Dame center Matt Hegarty (77) blocks BYU defensive lineman Bronson Kaufusi (90) as quarterback Tommy Rees, right, looks to throw during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER