Notre Dame LB Joe Schmidt proud of walk-on culture

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Joe Schmidt hasn’t had to pay for his education since his sophomore year, but the Notre Dame linebacker still considers himself a part of the walk-on brotherhood.

At Notre Dame, that brotherhood is unofficially united under the name of Walk-on Players’ Union or WOPU. It comes with stripes that are never shed even if a player reaches scholarship status.

“Once you’re WOPU, you’re never not WOPU,” said Schmidt, who enrolled at Notre Dame in 2011 and received a scholarship in the summer of 2013. “I’ll be that ‘til the day I die.”

Senior running back Josh Anderson became the latest former walk-on player to receive a scholarship promotion. Head coach Brian Kelly surprised Anderson with the scholarship earlier this month after he asked him to model the new Shamrock Series uniform in front of the team. In a moment that went viral online, Anderson’s teammates mobbed him in celebration of the unexpected news.

No one may have been more excited than Schmidt. The fifth-year senior immediately jumped out of his seat and was one the first to congratulate Anderson with a bump and a hug.

“I was overcome. I was so excited for him,” Schmidt said. “I didn’t even know what to do. I just kind of checked him at first. It’s really cool for him. I’m so happy for him and his family.”

Schmidt remembers the emotions of his own version of that moment. Nothing was sweeter than calling his parents and telling them a tuition bill would no longer be coming their way.

“Just knowing how that feels to call your parents and tell them, I wanted to cry for him,” Schmidt said. “I get kind of emotional thinking about it. It’s really special. You really don’t realize how much money it is until you have paid it.”

The price tag saved by Anderson for the 2015-16 school year: $61,775, according to a Notre Dame release earlier this year on the cost of tuition and room and board.

Few Notre Dame football fans knew about Josh Anderson — a 5-foot-9, 200-pound running back from Chatsworth, Calif., — before he received the scholarship. In his fourth year in the program, Anderson now has a signature moment.

“It’s incredible for him. He’s so deserving,” Schmidt said. “He comes to work every single day. He’s the first guy in the weight room, last guy out of the weight room. He’s always doing something extra, always working harder and doing everything he possibly can. He’s a great guy, a great teammate. He represents everything Notre Dame is about.”

Maybe no school is more closely tied to walk-ons than Notre Dame, thanks to the movie “Rudy.”  And the more recent success stories like Anderson and Schmidt have the Irish constantly adding depth to their roster beyond the 85-scholarship limit.

Schmidt was leading Notre Dame with 65 tackles last season when he went down with a season-ending ankle injury against Navy on Nov. 1. At season’s end, he was named the team’s MVP. He will be counted on again to lead Notre Dame’s defense and seems to be a shoe-in for captain.

The 2015 crop of freshman walk-ons runs nine players deep including three linebackers, two quarterbacks, and one wide receiver, defensive tackle, long snapper and punter. Quarterback Nolan Henry won the 2014 Wendy’s High School Heisman award for his accomplishments in athletics, academics and community service. Wide receiver Chris Finke already has drawn praise from head coach Brian Kelly as an option to return punts.

Schmidt speaks with a number of walk-on prospects before they have make a college decision. Then when the players get on campus, Schmidt helps guide them through the process once endured. He’s doing his best to make sure more guys like him get chances to play football at Notre Dame.

“We all just really want to do what’s best for the university and we want to help the guys that are coming along next,” Schmidt said. “I’m doing everything I can for those young guys.  We’re all sticking together.”

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Notre Dame's Joe Schmidt runs a drill during practice at Culver Academies, Friday, August 7, 2015 in Culver. SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ