Football, family collide for Boston College's Dillon and Notre Dame great Gatewood

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Thom Gatewood is Switzerland.

Of course, the 67-year-old former Notre Dame wide receiver is a couple of other things as well:

• A College Football Hall of Famer who led the Irish in receiving in three consecutive seasons, from 1969 to 1971.

• A 1970 All-American.

• The program’s former record-holder in career receptions (157), a mark that stood for 35 years.

• A fifth-round NFL Draft pick of the New York Giants in 1972.

• Oh, and grandpa.

“He always had his film from college around and newspaper clippings and things like that,” said A.J. Dillon, a freshman running back for Boston College. “Growing up, he was always Grandpa to me, but when I started getting into football I started to watch that tape. At a young age I didn’t really understand it.

“But now, going through my high school years and going through my college career, I’ve asked him to send me some of his film, and I kind of break it down. Football is still football. I take a lot of things from his game and try to take little nuggets from his career and put it into mine.”

Hopefully not too much, for Notre Dame’s sake. On Saturday, Dillon — who has carried 20 times for 63 yards in his first two games — will meet his grandfather’s alma mater for the first time in his college career.

Gatewood will not be there.

Not because he doesn’t support him.

Because he does.

“We will not be attending the game in Boston, because I don’t want to put any undue pressure on him,” Gatewood said this week. “We are so close and his expectations are so high. It’s enough that his mom and stepdad are in the stands there. I don’t want to put on any more pressure, having been a Notre Dame guy.”

Instead, Gatewood and his wife, Susan, will watch the game on television from his new (and old) home:

South Bend.

“We spent so many years coming back to Notre Dame and through Notre Dame and watching games and being a part of mentorship and university involvement, that when it came time to reach those retirement years, it made sense to look at the country like everybody else does and try to figure out where you want to go,” said Gatewood, who officially became a South Bend resident on July 1st.

“We’re both still very, very active and very, very involved, so the usual meccas for retirement — Arizona, Florida and various places — didn’t feel right. We weren’t ready to call it quits yet, so we wanted to go somewhere that was still active. We figured a college town would make a lot of sense. And if I were going to do a college town, this is where I would want to be. So that’s why we’re here.”

Dillon could have been there, too. The former four-star recruit and Groton (Mass.) Lawrence Academy standout — who rushed for 1,887 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10.9 yards per carry in his junior season alone — was offered a scholarship to Notre Dame, after all. He visited the campus multiple times, including a three-day unofficial visit with Gatewood by his side.

Notre Dame checked most of Dillon’s boxes.

Really, all but one.

“Something my grandpa always preaches is the three A’s: athletics, academics and atmosphere,” Dillon said. “Notre Dame was one of those schools I was really looking at, and obviously I felt like it had all three. But as much as I enjoyed my time at the university and had a good relationship with the coaches and some of the players and recruits, I felt like my grandfather had established such a great presence there. I got to see that firsthand when I went on my unofficial visit with him.

“I wanted to have that influence somewhere else. I wanted to be my own person and have that same influence. That led me elsewhere.”

First, it led Dillon to Michigan, before he de-committed and ultimately became the most highly ranked signee in Boston College's 2017 class.

Of course, Gatewood would have supported his grandson with any program, in any uniform.

He will always root for Dillon.

But he would never root for Michigan.

“That would be very unnatural, and that would never happen,” Gatewood said with a hearty laugh. “Bells went off (when he committed to Michigan). The other complication is that my wife, Susan, is a Michigan State graduate. So now we’ve got that inter-state rivalry, Michigan-Michigan State. That put us both in a strange situation.

“It was, ‘Wow, this is going to be really tough. How do we do this?’”

Tom Gatewood, Notre Dame's all-time leading receiver - at least for now - piled up 157 receptions from 1969 to 1971 (SBT File Photo).

Fortunately, they didn’t have to.

Unfortunately, though, Boston College still has to lock horns with Notre Dame.

And Gatewood won’t be there … this time.

“Me sitting in the stands with a critical eye and having this sort of interesting conundrum of who to cheer for … I really didn’t want him thinking about that,” Gatewood said. “I told him, ‘By the time you meet them in 2019 at Notre Dame, that is when I’ll see you play against the Irish. By then you’ll be over all of the jitters and be an established football player and be able to block all of that out.’

“That’s the deal between he and I. ‘I’ll see you in 2019, playing in Notre Dame Stadium.’ ”

For now, Huskie Stadium in Dekalb, Ill., will have to do. On Sept. 1, Gatewood and his wife drove a little more than 150 miles west to watch the 6-foot, 240-pound freshman make his collegiate debut. Dillon carried five times for 20 yards, helping Boston College (1-1) earn a hard-fought 23-20 win.

For Dillon, that was a unique experience.

This will be, too.

“With my family history, my mom and a bunch of my family members are going to be there, so it carries a little different weight,” Dillon said of Saturday’s game against Notre Dame (1-1). “But I’m not going into it any different than I would any other game. I’m really excited to play in it.

“I know my grandfather is going to be watching, and I think I have a pretty cool experience ahead of me, with his legacy and being able to play against the school that he went to. I’m really looking forward to it, and it’s going to be really special for my family to watch.”

Nine-hundred miles west, Gatewood will be watching. Worrying. Probably pacing.

Instead of fighting an internal civil war, he’ll stay out of it.

Think: Switzerland.

“In terms of who wins, am I cheering for Notre Dame? I’m cheering for his development,” Gatewood said. “Whether they win or lose, nobody knows what that outcome is going to be. I’m Switzerland. I’m in the middle, looking at both sides. There’s benefits in this game for both. My blood is in him and my heart is with him, but I also have an allegiance to Notre Dame. I’m hoping that they can bounce back and get back on the winning trail.

“So it’s a weird feeling. It’s a weird feeling.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Boston College freshman running back A.J. Dillon, the grandson of former Notre Dame wide receiver Thom Gatewood, will meet the Irish on Saturday (photo courtesy Boston College Athletics).