Notre Dame OL Sam Mustipher planning to keep emotions in check on Senior Day

Tyler James

The Mustipher family knows one certainty about Notre Dame’s final home game of the season.

Patricia Mustipher will cry.

She did so last year when her son, Irish center Sam Mustipher, was recognized during the Senior Day ceremony before a 24-17 victory over Navy.

It’s all but guaranteed that tears will fall again before No. 3 Notre Dame (9-0) takes the field against Florida State (4-5) on Saturday night. One more time, her son, a graduate student with a computer science degree, will be honored as a senior.

“There’s zero chance that she’s not going to cry,” said Patricia’s husband and Sam’s father, Sam Mustipher Sr.

She’s willing to concede defeat.

“I will take a loss Saturday,” Patricia said, “because I am going to cry.”

Maybe her son will be a little easier on her this time around.

“I wasn’t really wrapped up in it last year, because I knew I was coming back,” Sam Jr. said. “When you hug your mom and she’s crying, it’s like ‘What are you crying for? We’re doing this again next year. Relax.’

“It will definitely be a little bit different this time, but I’m going to be so focused on the game. It’s game day for me. I treat every game the exact same way no matter what the emotion is associated with it.”

Sam Jr. will keep the words of offensive line coach Jeff Quinn in his mind.

“‘It’s OK to have emotions, just don’t get emotional,’” Sam Jr. said. “He tells us that all the time.”

The Mustiphers have been awfully busy this football season. Youngest son PJ Mustipher started his own college football career at Penn State this year. With careful planning and a lot of miles, the Mustipher parents have made sure at least one of them has been in attendance for every Notre Dame and Penn State game this season.

Because its Sam Jr.’s last home game, both Sam Sr. and Patricia will be in South Bend. So will Sam Jr.’s girlfriend, Lilli, and their golden retriever, Bella.

Patricia is sending her father and sisters to Penn State to make sure someone is at PJ’s game. They had to make sure everything was covered because Saturday will be a special day.

“It’s probably like eating the last piece of a chocolate cake,” Patricia said. “You know that is the last taste you’re going to get and one that you’re forever going to miss if you didn’t have it again.”

Finding football

Sam Mustipher Sr. remembers the moment that his son told him he would be a football player.

Sam Jr. was only four years old, but his father, a former West Virginia football player, took him along for an NFL preseason game.

“He saw the excitement on my face, how I was yelling and screaming and cheering,” Sam Sr. said. “He said that day, ‘Dad, one day you’re going to see me out there and you’re going to be cheering for me.’

“He was four years old. Who knows what their kid is going to be at the age of four? I just smiled. He started playing football the next year.”

Sam Jr. didn’t need to wait until high school to start catching the eyes of high school coaches. When he was in the seventh grade, he played with eighth graders. That year, he and a few other players caught the attention of Olney (Md.) Good Counsel head coach Bob Milloy.

The Mustipher family was given a tour of the school and shown what a future at Good Counsel looked like. It wasn’t until after the tour that the Good Counsel coaches learned Sam Jr. was only in seventh grade.

“You could see the coaches’ faces light up,” Sam Sr. said. “They were happy but sad at the same time, because they knew that he wouldn’t be able to join their team yet.”

When Sam Jr. was finally a freshman, he enrolled at Good Counsel. He made the varsity team as a freshman and quickly became a promising player for the Falcons. Scholarship offers started to come his way, recruiting services rated him as a four-star prospect and Notre Dame came calling.

Sam Jr. had to wait a little bit longer for playing time at Notre Dame, but he’s started all 34 games since the beginning of his junior season in 2016. This past March, Mustipher was named one of Notre Dame’s captains — just like he was at Good Counsel.

Overcoming adversity

Sam Mustipher Jr.’s favorite moment at Notre Dame came last season. No one was more satisfied with the 35-14 win over N.C. State than him.

The previous year, he struggled to cleanly snap the ball in a 10-3 loss at N.C. State soaked by Hurricane Matthew. That performance threw Sam Jr. into a rut.

“As a competitor, any time you let your team down, for me that’s the worst feeling in the world,” he said. “I can’t speak for everybody, but my teammates are the most important thing in the world to me. To let those guys down, that’s what I was most concerned about.”

Sam Sr. and Patricia spent a lot of time on the phone with their son the week after the N.C. State loss in 2016. That’s all they could do from home.

“It was tough,” Sam Sr. said. “I knew the kids that he was surrounded with and I knew that they would support him 100 percent. I knew (former offensive line) coach (Harry) Hiestand had his back 100 percent. I knew he would come out of it very well on the other side.

“But it was definitely tough watching him go through it knowing he was so far away from home. Although we could talk to him over the phone, you couldn’t give him a hug every day of that week to say, ‘OK, we have to move on.’”

Hiestand stuck with Sam Jr., never removed him from the starting lineup and allowed him to recover from his mistakes on the field. Sam Jr. circled the N.C. State game last season on his calendar as his moment for redemption.

He was fully redeemed when running back Josh Adams ripped off a 77-yard touchdown run right through the middle of the defense with the help of a block from his center.

“You see (left guard Quenton Nelson) and I banging into each other and the rest of the guys jumping up and down as you see Josh running to the end zone,” Sam Jr. said. “It’s moments like that you’ll never forget.”

One last go

It will take something truly special on Saturday to top Patricia Mustipher’s favorite memory of her son’s Notre Dame career.

That came in January when Sam Jr. graduated.

“He was like Superman up there — puffy chest, grinning from ear to ear like being a computer science engineer was the best thing in the world at that point,” Patricia said. “He was so excited.”

She’s also proud of the community service her son’s been a part of while on campus.

All the highs and lows of Sam Jr.’s time at Notre Dame will culminate Saturday. If the Irish keep winning, he’ll have a chance to play as many as five more games in a Notre Dame uniform. But Saturday will be the last one in Notre Dame Stadium.

It’s something Sam Jr. doesn’t want to take for granted. His fellow captain Alex Bars, a graduate student and left guard, had his Notre Dame career cut short with a knee injury against Stanford. Bars has stayed involved with the Irish offensive line throughout the season and will also be recognized Saturday.

“Maybe he’ll have some inspirational words for the guys,” Sam Jr. said, “but I know there’s a mutual understanding between us. I’m going to put it all on the line for him and myself.”

The support from teammates like Bars and other members of the Notre Dame community have allowed Sam Jr. to reach this moment through the peaks and valleys of his career. He’s tried to impart that wisdom on the younger Irish players as his college career winds down.

“It’s a testament to everything that I’ve taken advantage of and everybody who’s helped me along the way,” Sam Jr. said. “There are resources here that want to help you succeed and help you be the best that you can possibly be.”

Sam Jr. plans to leave most of the sentimental moments for after the game. He’ll have a chance to walk around the emptying stadium one last time with his teammates, family and friends. But first he has to get through those tears from his mother.

“It’s really just enjoying the moment, taking the opportunity to celebrate with your brothers, your teammates, the guys you came in with,” Sam Jr. said. “That’s the most important part.”

Center Sam Mustipher has started the last 34 games for Notre Dame.
Sam Mustipher’s favorite game of his Notre Dame career was last season’s 35-14 victory over N.C. State. Mustipher (53 on the right) helped spring running back Josh Adams loose for a 77-yard touchdown run on this play.
Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill (23) and Sam Mustipher (53) walk onto the field before the Northwestern game last Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.

“When you hug your mom and she's crying, it's like 'What are you crying for? We're doing this again next year. Relax.''

ND center and graduate student Sam Mustipher, Jr.