Notre Dame captain Sam Mustipher's resilience earns teammates' respect

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — He watched his mother get up at 4:30 every morning on his behalf, and his father repeatedly turn down promotions for the same reason.

Even when, three years later, a two-week stretch during Notre Dame football’s lost season of 2016 capsized Irish center Sam Mustipher’s burgeoning dream, he never lost sight of those sacrifices or what they could become.

“I think it speaks to the resilience that you build here at Notre Dame,” Mustipher, one of three newly minted Irish captains, said last week.

“This place is hard. It’s hard academically. It’s hard athletically. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s not left to the weak, timid or non-committed.

“At the time, I was down bad, I was hurt. I just kept saying, ‘I’m just going to put my nose to the grindstone and see where this takes me. I’m going to keep working every day and keep working at all the goals I set for myself.’ ”

Indeed, the two errant red-zone snaps in monsoon-like conditions in a 10-3 loss at N.C. State on Oct. 8, 2016, and another snapping hiccup a week later — leading to a safety in a 17-10 home setback to Stanford — became stepping stones instead of a fall down the depth chart.

What ensued over the next year and a half for the Owings Mills, Md., product showed his teammates what a heart of a captain looks like. So did his co-conspirators.

Fellow captain, repeat selection Drue Tranquill, has overcome two season-ending knee surgeries, helped along by a reinvention.

The other, punter Tyler Newsome, transcended a car accident in high school that left him with a broken pelvis, broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and a prognosis that he may never play football again.

A fourth captain will be added at the end of spring, per head coach Brian Kelly, with the selections again coming from a vote by the players, a year after he felt compelled to appoint the leadership.

“We’re reminded by the past, but we’re living in the present,” Kelly said, “and I really like where we are right now.”

The Irish staged two spring practices this past week and have the coming week off for spring break. Practice No. 3 of 15 this spring is set for March 20 at 7:45 a.m. The spring finale, the annual Blue-Gold Game, will be played April 21 (12:30 p.m. EDT; NBCSN) at Notre Dame Stadium.

Mustipher’s road back started with unyielding support from then offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“It was just getting back to focusing on my craft,” Mustipher said. “And when you have coaches who believe in you and teammates who believe in you, the sky’s the limit, really.

“They never questioned me. Their faith in me never wavered. And that meant the world to me, because as a center, you’re touching the ball every play. It’s going to start with you. And I understood that, and I took that role and that responsibility to not let this team down.”

Mustipher never snapped once during his high school career at Good Counsel High School in Olney, Md., an hour’s drive from home each way, which put his parents’ sacrifices in motion.

Hiestand’s philosophy was to play his best five linemen and retro-fit them to positions. Mustipher, who came to Notre Dame in part initially to study rocket science and is taking an “Intro to Droid Building” class this semester, was hand-picked to become second-round draft pick Nick Martin’s successor.

Now Hiestand is gone — to the Chicago Bears, as their line coach — and offensive line All-Americans Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey will likely be the property of NFL teams once the NFL Draft’s first round comes to an end on April 26.

It’s all the more reason Mustipher’s voice matters as a 10-3 Irish team forms its identity this offseason in hopes for a more ambitious postseason platform in 2018.

A good sign for Hiestand’s successor, Jeff Quinn, is that the three-year starter at center has already begun quoting him. Another positive sign is that McGlinchey, Nelson and former offensive guard Hunter Bivin all came back for ND’s first spring practice, the way Martin and brother Zack and other standouts came back to help during Hiestand’s impressive six-year run.

“The standard of excellence and the standard of offensive line play here at Notre Dame is going to stay the same,” Mustipher said of the unit that was honored as the nation’s best in 2017, with the Joe Moore Award.

As far as his early impressions of Quinn, Mustipher knew him from Quinn’s analyst roles with the Irish in 2015 and 2017 and as part of the strength and conditioning team in 2016. And he got an early look at Quinn’s vision for ND’s offensive line during the interview process as both Mustipher and guard Alex Bars were included in evaluating candidates.

“He brings a motivational, inspirational energy to the offensive line room,” Mustipher said of Quinn. “And he understands the way the standard needs to be set.

“So we wanted a guy who wanted to be here and that it meant a lot to him to be here. And he’s going to coach us to the best of his ability and give us 110 percent every day.”

Just like his new captain.

“Five years ago, I didn’t really know much of what was going to happen here at Notre Dame,” Mustipher said. “I knew I wanted to make a positive contribution to this program and this university in any way that I could.

“Obviously, being a captain at a school like this is unbelievable, unreal. I’m just lucky to be here, and I can’t wait to lead this team.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Sam Mustipher (53) runs drills during Notre Dame Football Practice Tuesday, March 6, 2018, inside the Loftus Center at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN