The Long Road Home: Inside tight end Troy Niklas' journey to finish strong at Notre Dame
In the final stretch of a six-day, 2,800-mile, cross-country trek home earlier this week, almost every detour and misadventure Troy Niklas and his driving companion had encountered had been at least partly self-inflicted.
Just south of Flagstaff, Ariz., with less than two hours left before arriving home in Phoenix, all that changed.
“Sorry, this guy in the car next to us is being a little weird,” Niklas said during the phone interview as he rode shotgun in his own truck, with brother-in-law Seve Saganowich at the wheel.
“He won’t leave us alone. He keeps running his mouth. I think we have a little road rage here. It’s a little strange.”
Then he lets out a hearty chuckle.
Perhaps when you’re a former-yet-still-aspiring NFL tight end — who once capsized a blocking sled twice in front of the media during a football practice while attending Notre Dame — and your sidekick is the son of a former WWF world tag team wrestling champion (Jerry Sags of the Nasty Boys), it’s easier to find humor in a seemingly threatening situation.
Then again, Niklas’ journey to get his Notre Dame business degree in consulting was far more logistically daunting than fetching the truck, school textbooks and majority of his wardrobe left in South Bend over spring break in mid-March when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down campus indefinitely.
In both instances he took the long way home.
And that is where he’ll be — home in Phoenix — when Notre Dame holds its virtual graduation ceremony Sunday, 8½ years after Niklas enrolled as a vaunted outside linebacker prospect.
When he left as a second-round draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals, he hadn’t yet completed his junior year academically at Notre Dame.
“It feels really good to be done,” he said this week. “I’ve really wanted to finish this for a while now. And it’s been the thing that looms over your head. You’re always thinking, ‘I’ve got to go back and finish this up.’ So having it done feels really nice.
“I really had a great experience coming back, working with the teachers and everything. It’s really a quality top-tier education, and the teachers are so knowledgeable about everything. And it really makes learning in the classroom environment a lot of fun.”
Niklas actually finished his coursework, a paper that served as a final exam, in the passenger seat during the early part of the ride home last week.
After flying to South Bend, Niklas decided to route the return trip in his truck through Montana, which added miles, hours and days to the trip but with the trade-off being theoretically fewer speeding tickets.
“I got pulled over two times the last time I made this trip and took the more direct way home,” he said. “This time we only got a slowdown wave from a cop, so we’re good.”
And yet when Niklas and Saganowich decided to stop for a hike in Northern Arizona on Tuesday, he almost didn’t have a vehicle anymore in which to amass or dodge traffic infractions.
Early, on the final day of the trip, Niklas drove out onto a narrow strip of high ground with 50-foot drops on each side. When he put the truck in park, it was perilously close to one of the edges and leaning a little bit in that direction.
“It could have ended very badly,” he said with a relieved laugh.
His academic road ended with two spring semesters back in South Bend, including with wife Chloe and daughter Romy (now 2 years old) in tow last spring, and a summer of online learning in Phoenix.
The fact that Niklas wasn’t alone in his endeavor to finish unfinished business thrills Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly.
In 1989, the NFL first opened its doors to players three years removed from high school to legally wade into the draft pool as early entries. Consensus All-America cornerback Julian Love in January of 2019 became No. 17 from Notre Dame to go three-and-out since the rule came into being, and this past January tight end Cole Kmet became No. 18.
Thirteen of the 18 have happened since Kelly succeeded Charlie Weis as ND’s head coach in December of 2009. Niklas’ 2014 draft class had the most three-and-outs in school history, with three.
All-America receiver/return man Rocket Ismail in 1991 was the first Irish football player to test the rule, and the first to come back and get his degree. When Notre Dame finished the 2018 season in the College Football Playoff in late December of that year, only three others — cornerback Tom Carter, running back Darius Walker and quarterback Jimmy Clausen — had followed, in finishing what they started.
But last spring Niklas, running back Josh Adams and linebacker Jaylon Smith came back. And Smith, with a seven-course, 21-hour load, finished.
“Education matters, and the right education matters even more,” the Dallas Cowboys star told The Tribune last spring. “The University of Notre Dame, it instills so many quality things in me.
“It’s about relationships. Being able to work with and be in sync with the right people. That’s what coming back will do for me.”
This spring it was Adams, Niklas and Love who returned, with New York Giants rookie Love amassing 21 credit hours, and all three former ND players finishing.
So in the past two years, the number of three-and-outs at Notre Dame who completed their degree work matched how many did so in the roughly two decades preceding that combined. And it’s hardly an accident.
Kelly and Adam Sargent put a proactive plan in place a couple of years ago to recruit players to return to finish and ease their transition back to campus. Sargent, a 1999 ND grad, is the school’s associate director of academic services for student-athletes as well as the academic counselor for football.
“I just couldn’t wrap my head around guys leaving early without their degrees, and the number of them who were doing it, beginning with Troy and that class,” Kelly said. “So we went and did something about it.”
Part of the allure is that the players incur no out-of-pocket expenses for tuition.
Eight surgeries during an NFL career that currently idles in an extended hiatus helped ease Niklas’ two returns to campus.
Not that it was ever easy this past semester.
At the end of the first week of classes this semester, Chloe gave birth to son Rhett on Jan. 17. Nilkas then regularly flew home on the weekends to be with the family’s new addition, including spring break week.
But classes moved online for good after spring break.
“Since I had taken some online classes last summer, I was kind of used to it,” Niklas said. “But it was definitely different, especially taking a full load of five classes and having all these group projects going on, and everyone was in different time zones and whatnot.
“And then I’ve got my daughter kind of knocking at the door all the time wanting to jump in on the Zoom calls with me. So it was interesting, but it wasn’t too bad of a transition.
“I was thinking our teachers were going to take it easy on us once we went online. I swear, I was way more busy the second half of the semester than I was the first.
“It’s almost like, ‘Hey let’s give them more work, so they’ve got something to do in this whole COVID pandemic. It’ll help keep their mind off it.’ ”
Where Nilkas’ mind is now is on what’s next. He hopes it involves professional football. He last played in an NFL game in the 2017 season and was on an NFL roster in August of 2019. Pandemic or not, he’s ready to return.
“My perspective is there’s a lot of things out there that could kill you,” he said. “And probably for us football players, who are in good shape, we probably have a better chance of dying out on the field or something than dying of the virus, depending on what study you look at.
“So I don’t think I have an issue. I hope that it all goes away soon, so we can get back to normal quickly. It’s tough to see how many lives have been lost and everything, but there’s also been a lot of lives ruined through loss of wages, businesses failing and all that.”
And if his next step instead is into the business world, Niklas now feels like he’s up to that.
“I haven’t made the connections yet in the business world, taking advantage of that part of Notre Dame,” he said. “But that’s something I’d like to do now.
“What’s next is a great question, and it has been for a while. But having gone back and finished what I started, I think it’s a question that will have a much better answer.”