Surging WR Will Fuller represents Philadelphia at Notre Dame
Will Fuller’s city is written on his skin.
The tattoo starts on his upper-right forearm, near his bicep, where the Liberty Bell is etched in black ink, its long vertical crack running jaggedly up the side.
The lower center of the bell is partially obstructed, as tall, skinny skyscrapers jut into the frame, a miniature representation of a city’s immense skyline. And below the buildings, inked into the small area just above Fuller’s hand, the iconic “LOVE” statue — created, somewhat appropriately, by Robert Indiana — fills the little available space. There are four bold letters, LO perched atop VE, a depiction of the installation that first appeared in John F. Kennedy Plaza in 1976.
Today, Fuller sits in an empty auditorium inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex in Notre Dame, Ind., the tattoo hidden under the sleeve of a silver pullover. The wiry 6-foot, 180-pound receiver’s hair is dyed gold, a literal Golden Dome.
To his left, the words of Notre Dame’s fight song run down a blue poster. A few rows closer to the stage, the Irish’s 2015 football schedule is prominently displayed — starting with the opener against Texas on Sept. 5, ending with the national championship game on Jan. 11, 2016.
He is 671 miles from home.
Fuller reminds himself, though, that he came here for a reason — to win a national championship, to represent an entire city, to continue to surprise even himself. And when he came back last summer, one of Philadelphia’s most revered receivers took a more drastic measure to shrink the distance from home.
“Just growing up in Philly, I never really left,” Fuller says, explaining the reason behind the tattoo. “That’s what I know most. I’m just missing it a lot. Wherever I go, it’s with me.”
Some kids are born to be soccer players.
And then, there’s Fuller.
“My first sport was soccer when I was 4 or 5. My mom and dad always tell me that I was too aggressive when I was younger,” Fuller says, smiling as he tells the story. “I had an accident where I kicked a girl in the face or something when I was really young. I guess it’s just a legend now, because they always tell me that. I don’t remember.
“They tried foot hockey, and it was the same thing. I was just too aggressive.”
Fuller’s aggressiveness, charged by a motor that revved most lustily around competition, was a far cry from his demeanor. Growing up in a home with four sisters, the diminutive Fuller barely said a word. He was polite, bordering on invisible, a nice kid who wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Put that same kid in shoulder pads, though, and an alternate identity floated to the surface.
“When you talk to him without the helmet on, he’s one of the nicest, most genuine, humble kids I’ve ever been around, regardless of how good he is. He’s just a really quiet, nice kid,” said Joe McCourt, Fuller’s coach at Roman Catholic High School. “But you could see that he’s got a tenacity to him once that helmet comes on, and he’s not afraid to get into a battle with somebody.”
Today, in the comforts of “The Gug,” Fuller has receded back into his shell. His voice is never louder than it needs to be, occasionally struggling to register on a digital recorder. His ego, if he has one, seems roughly the size of a snail.
Essentially, Fuller is a volcano. On a sunny Thursday afternoon in June, he’s peaceful.
But come game day, he’ll erupt.
“I’m really comfortable when I put my helmet on,” he says quietly. “I feel like a different person.”
Some people are soccer players. Others become doctors, lawyers or mechanics.
Fuller is a football player.
Or, more specifically, a competitor.
“I always wanted to be different from the people I was around,” he says. “I always wanted to be the best. I wanted to be the best at tag. I wanted to be the best at video games. I wanted to stick out, and sports are my way to stick out.”
At Roman Catholic High School, Fuller stuck out.
Physically, of course, he couldn’t coax a second look. When Fuller arrived at Roman Catholic prior to his sophomore season, he topped out under 6 feet tall and weighed a feathery 135 pounds. He was too short, too skinny, too raw, too everything.
He didn’t start the first game of the 2010 season.
As for the second?
“He scored three touchdowns and touched the ball four times,” McCourt says with a laugh, as if he’s still struggling to believe it nearly five years later. “And he scored in three different ways. One time, he caught a five-yard stop route and ran it 70 yards. Another time he caught a fade in the end zone, and another time he caught a long bomb.
“Right then and there we knew this kid was something special.”
Fuller, it seems, was the last to get the memo. The shifty wideout was talented, but unproven. His wavering confidence didn’t mesh with his limitless potential. Early in his sophomore season, McCourt pulled him aside.
“Will, you have the potential to be the best player to ever walk through these halls,” McCourt told him.
“You just saw the confidence build,” the coach says, “not game by game, but practice by practice.”
Fuller started as a snowball, and grew into an avalanche. He wasted little time in morphing into the team’s premier wide receiver, effortlessly creating separation regardless of the route or opponent. Eventually, McCourt gave his receiver permission to change his route at the line of scrimmage as well, a testament not only to his ability but also his understanding of the game.
“I felt like I was really smooth in high school, really quick. Getting off the line, I feel like I did the same move every time,” Fuller says with a guilty grin, demonstrating a quick jab followed by a burst either inside or outside. “But it was always quick, so it always worked.”
Fuller also developed almost accidentally into a shutdown corner, admitting that he never truly dedicated himself to the defensive side of the ball.
“If we were playing someone who had a good wide receiver with good athletic ability or good speed, we’d put him in there and he would just shut him down,” McCourt says. “He was definitely our hardest hitter. He came and laid the wood.”
Fuller also returned kicks — for a while. After scoring a handful of touchdowns, the cat was officially out of the bag, and opponents began to kick away from the burgeoning talent.
By the time he headed west, en route to the Golden Dome, Fuller had seized the school’s most notable receiving records from another 6-foot, 180-pound great.
A probable NFL Hall of Famer by the name of Marvin Harrison.
“Overall, when you talk about offense, defense, special teams,” McCourt says, “he’s the best player I’ve ever coached.”
Fuller sinks into a cushioned chair in the back corner of the auditorium, a blip in a sea of empty blue seats. Across from him, on the front wall of the auditorium, the monogram looms in massive blue letters above the stage. Glance further up, and a list of the team’s most memorable bowl appearances scrolls proudly across the ceiling.
This isn’t high school anymore.
And yet, Fuller — at least, on paper — has failed to notice.
Following a mostly forgettable freshman season at Notre Dame that included six catches for 160 receiving yards and a touchdown, Fuller erupted in 2014. The elusive sophomore developed into Notre Dame’s most explosive and reliable target, leading the Irish with 76 catches, 1,094 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns, the latter stat placing him in a tie for first in the school’s all-time record books.
The numbers, given the context, are staggering. In a season with more bumps than a bike ride in a blizzard, Fuller was a constant, delivering at least one touchdown in 11 of 13 games. He averaged 14.4 yards per reception, thrashing defenses via screen passes and vertical routes alike. In a 43-40 overtime loss to Northwestern on Nov. 15, 2014, Fuller caught nine passes for 159 yards and scored three touchdowns, a signature performance in a season full of them.
Following his final touchdown, a 12-yard score to cap the opening drive of Notre Dame’s 31-28 Music City Bowl victory over LSU on Dec. 30, Fuller flipped the football to the referee and flashed three numbers to the camera.
Philadelphia’s area code.
It was a triumphant end to a breakthrough season, one few around the country — especially outside of his hometown — predicted.
Add Fuller to that list.
“It definitely took me by surprise,” he says. “I was talking to (cornerback) KeiVarae (Russell) last year about my goals. My expectations were way lower than what I achieved. I just wanted 30 catches. I wasn’t even worried about touchdowns.”
But the touchdowns came anyway. So did the notoriety and recognition. Just like in high school, Fuller’s modest expectations were obliterated by his athleticism and feel for the game.
He creates ceilings, then proceeds to shatter them.
“I expected that,” Greg Garrett, Fuller’s trainer in Philadelphia, says of the standout sophomore season. “There’s another guy around here that said that Will isn’t going to see the field. I said, ‘Listen. Will is going down there to play. Will is going down there to start, and he’s going to take over.’ I told everybody that from the gate. He’s just a special kid. He has that ‘It’ factor.”
Don’t tell that to Fuller, though. Let him enjoy the moment. Allow each stride to the end zone to serve as another pleasant surprise.
“It’s definitely surreal. I never dreamed of achieving this,” Fuller says. “But it came so fast that it’s still a dream to me.”
Maybe, on second thought, it isn’t Fuller who creates those ceilings, who shapes the expectations for what an undersized kid from an under-recruited area can achieve. Maybe his modesty is partially shaped by a scouting landscape that takes one look at him, rolls its eyes and moves on to bigger, stronger, more conventional prospects.
Fuller has tried to gain weight on countless occasions since grade school, never with much success. Besides Notre Dame, he earned mostly regional offers, never appearing on the radar of the SEC, Big 12 or Pac-12, not to mention the school he grew up dreaming of playing for, Ohio State.
He was just another name in Notre Dame’s stacked 2013 signing class, arriving in South Bend with none of the national acclaim, not to mention the star rating, of fellow signees Max Redfield and Jaylon Smith.
And yet, here he is — despite that doubt, or possibly because of it.
“That’s how my life has always been,” Fuller says. “When I went to high school, I wasn’t recruited. I didn’t get picked for any of the big (All-American) games coming out of high school. I didn’t get picked for the Pennsylvania (local all-star) game.
“I had a pretty good season last year, and I didn’t get picked for any All-American lists. That always puts a chip on my shoulder, and keeps me humble. I always have room to improve.”
Cue the endless cycle. Will gets doubted, then Will improves.
Doubt. Improve. Repeat.
“Will always felt that he was overlooked,” Garrett says. “So his work ethic pretty much was on the next level, trying to prove to everybody that he was really good. Will walked around, Will worked out, Will ran his routes, Will did everything with a chip on his shoulder.
“That’s the way he trained. That’s the way he worked out. That’s the way he did ladder drills. His footwork had to be crisp. If we were benching, then he had to do as much weight as he could possibly do. I started noticing a little different edge that he had versus some of the other guys that I was training.”
Even national success hasn’t jammed a stick into the spokes of Fuller’s cycle. Despite a 2014 season that will be remembered as one of the best in Notre Dame’s history, the sophomore wasn’t included on the final watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to the best wide receiver in college football.
Eighty-one other receivers appeared on the list, which was updated gradually throughout the season.
Likewise, when Phil Steele released his annual 2015 preseason All-American list last spring, 12 wide receivers got the nod.
Fuller wasn’t one of them.
In practice, Notre Dame’s coaches make sure to remind Fuller of these slights, to stoke the flames that have been burning since high school. Their spurned receiver absorbs these arrows, and the cycle marches on.
Doubt. Improve. Repeat.
“He was always on a mission,” Garrett says. “I could have said, ‘I need you to jump to the moon to get you better,’ and he would have done it.”
Will Fuller is from Philadelphia.
“I don’t represent myself by just saying, ‘PA,’” Fuller says. “I always say my city.”
And though he spends most of the year in northern Indiana, Fuller hasn’t left that city behind. When he went home last summer, Fuller and his fellow local Division I players organized a football camp for Philadelphia’s kids. He works out in the same gyms he toiled at in high school, in the same gyms where other kids in his position build grandiose dreams.
“Whoever is in here that’s playing his position or just trying to get to the next level and you’re in high school or middle school, you get to work out with Will,” Garrett says. “It’s not separate. Everything is hands-on. If Will is in here and you want to ask him a question, you can go ask him. He’ll show you how to do it. He’ll show you what it takes to get to the next level.
“Right now I have a guy, and the word is, ‘This is the next Will Fuller.’ He plays a big role in Philadelphia right now.”
Of course, it takes more than one man to alter the perception of a city, to flip the reputation of a region more known for its accomplishments on the hardwood than the gridiron.
And yet, every inferno requires a spark.
“Philly was always under-recruited,” McCourt says. “You talk about football in the state of Pennsylvania, and people are usually only talking about the western side. There used to be two, three Division I coaches coming here a week. Now there’s six, seven, eight.
“It’s a credit to players like Will that kind of set the standard and said, ‘There’s talent here in Philadelphia.’”
As for Fuller, that talent continues to expand. Seven games into his junior season, Notre Dame's standout wide receiver ranks eighth nationally in touchdown catches (8) and yards per catch (21.9), 10th in receiving yards (702) and 14th in receiving yards per game (100.3). On Saturday, he'll celebrate a personal homecoming, as the Irish travel to take on Temple inside Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Each week, opposing defenses draw up new ways to stop him.
And each week, Fuller represents Philadelphia on his arm, and in the end zone.
“We’ve got a great Irish Catholic community here, and particularly at Roman Catholic,” McCourt says. “When Brian Kelly came to the school to visit Will, the school basically just shut down. Everybody was so excited.
“Just to see Will doing it at that national level and doing it at Notre Dame where they’re on TV every week and ranked in the nation and playing a big-time bowl game, it’s great for Roman, it’s great for the Philadelphia Catholic League and it’s great for the city of Philadelphia.
"There’s not a better person, a better human being, to do it than Will Fuller.”
The above story is a feature on Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller's relationship with his hometown of Philadelphia. The original version appeared in the 2015 ND Insider Football Preview. For more info on the magazine or to order, visit ndinsider.com/buythemag.
The following story is a feature on Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller's relationship with his hometown of Philadelphia. The original version appeared in the 2015 ND Insider Football Preview. For more info on the magazine or to order, visit ndinsider.com/buythemag.