The slipper fits: Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble starting to emerge

Carter Karels | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Abigail Tremble compared her 6-foot-3, 235-pound Notre Dame football playing son to Cinderella.

Tommy Tremble’s first collegiate game was that enchanting, Abigail felt. It wasn’t just because his first reception went for a 26-yard touchdown down the seam. How the sophomore tight end reached that moment was extraordinary — and his family knew that.

“We fully imploded on one another,” Abigail said.

Tommy had 13 friends and family members attend Notre Dame’s 35-17 victory at Louisville on Sept. 2. After Tremble’s touchdown, the ESPN broadcast captured their celebration amid a sea of green.

The camera panned to the section comprised of friends and family members of the Irish players. The replay shows the Trembles, on row five, losing their minds. Tommy’s 20-year-old sister, Isabella, showed the most emotion and cried hysterically.

Missing from the bunch was Tommy’s dad, Greg. As the Trembles entered Cardinal Stadium before the game, Greg stayed outside to anxiously crank out some pregame pacing. His tardiness bumped him to the top of the section, one row above the parents of the quarterback that threw the pass.

“Oh my God, you are going to make me cry,” Ian Book’s mom, Kim, told Greg after seeing his reaction.

All the time off made Tremble’s touchdown significant. The last time Tremble recorded at least three receptions for 49 yards and a touchdown in a game was in 2016. A gruesome ankle injury that required surgery held Tremble out for most of his senior season at Norcross (Ga.) Wesleyan School. He did not appear in a game as a freshman last season and redshirted.

Circumstances are such that Tremble’s production going forward will need to become less rare. Top tight end Cole Kmet suffered a broken collarbone in an Aug. 8 preseason practice. Junior Brock Wright and Tremble have since been ND’s primary tight ends.

Even when Kmet returns, Tremble will have a role in this offense. His unique skill set as a more nimble, receiving tight end helps the Irish offense become more versatile and multiple. Offensive coordinator Chip Long uses formations with Tremble as a second tight end, lining him up as an H-back and in the slot.

“Tommy has shown that ability to catch the football and stretch the field vertically allows us now with our tight ends — and certainly Brock is still part of that,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We’re high on Brock’s ability to block in line. He graded out well to that.

“You add Cole to that, we feel we have great depth at that position. And then, you know, some different traits they bring. Tommy still brings that vertical threat, Cole brings both of those things and then Brock is certainly extremely gifted in those areas. So three tight ends makes up a really deep team at that position.”

ND’s Sept. 21 showdown at No. 3 Georgia may be the first time Kmet and Tremble line up on the same play. Kmet could play this Saturday in ND’s home opener against New Mexico (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC) if he’s cleared.

Avoiding looking ahead may be a challenge for Tommy. His father played safety for the Bulldogs with head coach Kirby Smart in the late 90’s. UGA ranked high for Tommy in the recruiting process.

Before the season, Tremble receiving high-leverage snaps against Georgia seemed unlikely. Not anymore.

“I will tell you, we are all nervous about one week from now,” Abigail said.

A unique connection

In the days leading up to the season opener, the Tremble family donned Louisville t-shirts. Well, sort of.

The Trembles rendezvoused with the Habelows, their longtime friends. Both families attended two UL women’s field hockey games before Tommy’s game. The Habelow’s daughter, AnnMarie, is a junior UL field hockey player.

The group prepared for that Labor Day weekend for months. They rented a house together and had UL/ND shirts made to support both AnnMarie and Tommy. The front of the shirts were red with white letters reading “Louisville field hockey” below a No. 13 for AnnMarie. The back was blue with gold letters reading “ND Football” above a No. 24 for Tommy.

The family and friends of Notre Dame tight end Tommy Tremble wore unique jerseys before the Sept. 2 season opener. 

One of the Habelows took more pride in the back of the jersey than the front. Eric Habelow, 23, thinks of Tommy as the brother he never had. Eileen, Eric’s mother, said people are prone to treat him differently because he has Down syndrome.

Not Tommy.

“Here’s what’s really cool about somebody who gets to grow up with Eric like Tommy,” Eileen said. “You just treat him like a normal kid. You wrestle with him, you play football and he’s your brother. You don’t treat him special. And that also means when Eric is being a pain, you punch him.

“As a parent of a kid with Down syndrome, that’s all you want is for people to treat him normal. Not to treat him special. Just treat him like you would treat a brother.

“Tommy really does that and takes him under his wing.”

Eric didn’t care about his sister’s Louisville ties. When Tommy took the field, Eric booed the Cardinals. When Tommy scored, Eric launched himself a few rows behind the group out of excitement. When Tommy received the game ball, Eric made sure to take a picture with him.

Irish tight end Tommy Tremble poses for a photo with friend Eric Habelow after receiving the game ball. 

It had been too long since Eric watched Tommy score a touchdown.

“They have been good friends forever,” Abigail said. “Tommy and I were just joking about Eric doing wrestling moves on Tommy. Tommy was like six years old, and Eric was just pummeling him.”

The Trembles spent many of their family vacations and Christmases with the Habelows. Tommy and Eric shared the same hobbies and enjoyed acting childish together. During childhood, Tommy eventually outgrew his friend who’s older by four years. But only physically.

“Tommy is big time,” Eileen said. “Going to Notre Dame and playing football. Yet he and Eric will play one-on-one basketball in the swimming pool. It’s those cool times where Tommy doesn’t say, ‘OK fine, I’ll hang out with him because he’s the little guy.’ It’s because he wants to.

“Tommy’s intentions are pure. He’s doing it because it’s the right thing to do. He’s not doing it because it’s a community service hour. Not that that’s wrong. I don’t want that to sound like it’s wrong.

“But Tommy is doing it because, ‘What the heck else would I do?’ He’s just a guy to him.”

A unique solution

Tremble scoring the touchdown, Eric holding the game ball, being compared to a Disney princess — maybe none of that happens without the Gatorade solution.

It was the first week of preseason camp, and Tremble had been pushed beyond his limit. The Irish held their first five preseason practices at The Culver Academies. It was hot. It was humid. And Tremble was sick to his stomach.

First day? Vomited. Second day? Vomited. This came as a surprise. Though he had issues with that before, Tremble felt he left the summer break in the best condition of his life.

“Tommy was taken a little bit aback that his body, his physiology, was failing him,” Abigail said. “He really had a hard time dealing with the heat. He didn’t know where that was coming from. He was getting dehydrated and having some issues.”

The Irish coaching staff began monitoring Tremble’s every move. But the problem wasn’t as simple as Tremble drinking more water. That just led to more vomiting.

Tremble felt embarrassed. He once darted behind a group of players so he could get sick where the coaches couldn’t see him.

“It was very important to them and to the staff to make sure that Tommy was healthy,” Abigail said. “That was their number one thing. He was worried about, ‘Oh man, I don’t want to come off the field. I want to make sure I’m in practice the whole time.’”

The Irish coaches changed how he practiced. Tremble was to hydrate the night before with Pedialyte, a drink loaded with electrolytes. During practice, he ingests Gatorade energy chews. That way, he would never feel water-logged but remained hydrated.

Katie Meyers, the senior social media director for Notre Dame football, feeds Tremble the energy gummies throughout practices. Abigail shipped Meyers a myriad of different flavored gummies to see which one Tommy preferred. A trial and error of sorts.

“He’s 19 going on 12,” Abigail said. “He was like, ‘Ew, that one is gross.’ It’s like, ‘Tommy, just eat it.’”

Fortunately for the Irish, Tommy finally found a flavor he liked. Ever since Tommy decided on strawberry, he’s elevated his play on the field.

Ready for action

Notre Dame changed how Tommy Tremble (right) practiced after the sophomore tight end struggled in the first week of preseason camp. 

Chip Long seemed to be picking on Tremble that first week, and maybe deservedly so. He dropped easy passes and lined up incorrectly often. Improved play in the weeks that followed earned Tremble more playing time.

Franklin Pridgen, Tremble’s former head coach at Wesleyan, heard Chip Long’s recruiting pitch for Tremble a couple years ago. Long envisioned a player that would develop into a different type of tight end. Tremble changed that vision into reality in game one.

“He’s flexing him into the slot to run routes,” Pridgen said. “He’s even splitting him out wide a few times. A lot of motion. Tommy just moves so fluidly. It’s great to see him being put into space and running across the formation.”

With potentially three offensive starters out in Kmet, running back Jafar Armstrong and wide receiver Michael Young, the Irish need someone like Tremble to emerge. That will especially be the case for his homecoming game against Georgia.

“I’d just say his football IQ,” said Book on Tremble’s biggest improvement. “Reading defenses himself, where he has to go, having a better feel on the field for finding the right spot where to be. That’s been huge.

“Tommy’s going to help us. Like I said earlier, next man up. He was ready for it. We’re excited for him to get in there.”

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Ian Book finds Tommy Tremble for a Notre Dame touchdown! 28-14 #NotreDame lead

— Overtime Heroics (@OTHeroics1) September 3, 2019

Sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble eyes the end zone during his 26-yard touchdown in Notre Dame's 35-17 victory over Louisville.