Notre Dame S Drue Tranquill strengthened by repeated setbacks

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Drue Tranquill knew immediately what it was, and what it meant.

Late in the second quarter of Notre Dame’s 30-22 victory over Georgia Tech on Sept. 19, Tranquill — a 6-foot-2, 225-pound safety — outstretched his right hand in the corner of the Irish end zone, batting a potential touchdown pass harmlessly to the turf. He hopped up in one fluid motion, pumping both fists as the crowd boomed and the leprechaun came to greet him. The breakup was the latest high point in a busy half for Tranquill, which also included four tackles and two tackles for loss.

It was shaping up to be the best game of his Notre Dame career.

And then, it was over.

Tranquill leaped for a routine chest bump with middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, who had trotted over to congratulate him. It was a celebration that had been effortlessly completed a thousand times with a thousand people in a thousand different locations.

But this time, when he landed, something went horribly wrong.

“I felt my knee just kind of give way,” said Tranquill, playing back the moment almost exactly six months later. “I was screaming, ‘No, not again.’ The physical pain was really bad right away, and then it was just the emotional pain of (knowing) I’ll never play with guys like Matthias (Farley) and Joe (Schmidt) again. It was a realization that I was about to go through eight months of what I just went through again.

“(It was) very difficult.”

Tranquill’s anguish was evident in his screams. The previous November, he tore his left ACL in a home loss to Louisville. This was a sickening sequel, and he knew it right away. Fellow linebacker James Onwualu hovered over him, helpless. There was nothing anyone could do.

“It was terrible,” Farley said. “I think it really puts into perspective that your career in the game of football isn’t really up to you. They talk about big hits. They talk about collisions. They talk about all those lumps and bruises, but they don’t talk about those injuries where nobody touched you and you’re just celebrating with one of your teammates after an incredible play.

“Nobody loves football more than Drue Tranquill does. To see it taken from him made other guys appreciate it more, in a way, and work that much harder. We knew Drue would do anything to be out there.”

Instead, he returned to the field on crutches, his season cut short by injury for a second consecutive year. A few hours later, Tranquill was rewarded the game ball by head coach Brian Kelly. He dragged his injured leg to the front of the Irish locker room — eyes watering, black face paint smudged on his cheeks, feeling gratitude and sorrow and happiness all at once.

“For everything to end so abruptly in the way it did, it was definitely devastating,” he said. “There were a lot of emotions, as you can imagine, in that moment. Obviously the footage shows that. It was a pretty incredible moment.”

Tranquill had surgery, again. He immersed himself in a grueling rehab, again. He summited an enormous mountain, just to find another on the other side.

“It was unbelievable,” Farley said. “Obviously we see a lot of injuries, and everybody handles them different. Some guys get down. Some guys get quiet. But he was the same Drue he was right when he got here. He was a very consistent guy, a very motivated guy and a guy that wants to make not only himself better but everybody around him better.”

Half a year later, Tranquill tells what should be a sad story with unexpected flourishes and phrases. His second consecutive ACL tear is not a curse, an affliction, an unfair grievance to his game.

It’s incredible. A Blessing.

He says it, and he means it.

“My time here at Notre Dame has just been an incredible growing experience and a testing of my faith, a testing of my character, a testing of my leadership and my resiliency,” Tranquill said, donning a Notre Dame engineering T-shirt and grin. “Whether it’s been in the classroom in managing mechanical engineering or handling two ACL surgeries and injuries and rehabs, it’s just been an incredible journey, man.

“I’d hate to say I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I think I’ve grown and learned so much. Obviously if I didn’t have to go through all that, I would have liked it that way. But I trust in God’s plan and I trust that my story will impact people’s lives down the road.”

Tranquill’s story, it seems, is just getting started. The junior looks primed to become Notre Dame’s starting strong safety this fall, after senior Elijah Shumate departed for a hopeful future in the NFL. Tranquill has been fully cleared to participate in spring practices, to continue demonstrating the leadership his injury helped foster.

“You’re physically out, so your mental game is the only thing that can grow. Your leadership can grow as well,” he said. “It’s just encouraging guys and helping that next man in. That’s kind of how I saw my role develop over the past couple years – being more vocal in my leadership and taking younger guys and helping them, because ultimately we’re only as strong as our weakest link.”

If the last two seasons have proven anything, it’s that there’s nothing weak about Drue Tranquill. The junior safety, who has played in 14 games and made 42 career tackles, will attempt to pass that strength along to Notre Dame’s seven freshman defensive backs this fall.

He’ll keep playing, leading, celebrating. He’ll keep summiting mountains, both on the field and off.

“Throughout my whole life it was never something I struggled with at a young age,” Tranquill said of his recent injuries. “But for two and a half years, it’s been, bang, bang, bang. So it’s definitely been an adjustment, but it’s been such an incredible learning experience.

“I think it’s going to help my game so much in the end. I’m excited moving forward to see what this year has (in store).”

mvorel@sbtinfo.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame safety Drue Tranquill during Notre Dame spring football practice on Wednesday, March 16, 2016, inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN