Inside the journey of Notre Dame's David Adams and finding life after the cheering stops

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
David Adams during Notre Dame football practice Tuesday, March 20, 2018, inside the Loftus Center at Notre Dame.

The magic is in his story now, in the climb that couldn’t reignite the smothered dream but perhaps launched something even better.

Even if it looks and feels like limbo at the moment.

Four months in the NCAA transfer portal for former Notre Dame linebacker David Adams produced curiosity from three Power 5 schools and slightly more than that from roughly half the schools in the Mid-American Conference and a handful of programs from the FCS.

During that same stretch, he also muscled up impressively, completed his final 10 hours of coursework for his ND degree in business as an Econ major and contracted COVID-19 twice in a 90-day span — the reinfection in April serious enough to send Adams to the hospital twice.

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A litany of injuries that coaxed Adams to accept a medical disqualification at the end of his freshman year, before he could ever take a snap in a college game, was also the lingering reality that ended the comeback and prompted Adams to remove himself from the portal without a landing spot on June 14.

The original inventory of ailments Adams brought with him from Pittsburgh Central Catholic High included multiple concussions, a torn labrum of each shoulder, a torn elbow ligament, a torn medial collateral ligament in his knee, cracked knee cartilage, a knee hyperextension that required surgery, patellar tendinitis and four broken fingers.

That doesn’t count breaking both ankles during his AAU basketball days.

“I both wanted to try the comeback and needed to do it,” Adams said. “Wanted to, because I love football. I love the game. I love making tackles. I love playing defense.

“I needed to, because whether it was actually going to happen or it wasn’t, I’d get closure on this chapter in my life. If it didn’t work out, I’d get closure at the very least.”

What comes next is what the 4-for-40 mantra that Notre Dame bakes into its recruiting pitch really looks like in the real world in real time.

The gift in Adams having it thrust upon him at age 20 and reinforced at age 23 is his reaction to it.

The uncertainty of tomorrow doesn’t bother him, because the resolve and ambition that have been building inside of him are being channeled this summer into something truly inspiring.

“I’ve been stuttering my entire life,” Adams said. “Before I go looking for a job, I’m giving it my full attention. I’ve never had the time to do that before. I have it now and the belief I can overcome it.

“That’s my No. 1 focus right now. Well, that and my golf game.”

He’s working with Arthur Joseph, a renowned author, teacher, communication strategist and voice coach.

“I know it’s not going to go away overnight,” Adams said. “I’m just hoping I’m going to gain some more control for now. 

“There’s a lot of people who have had it. Joe Biden. Tiger Woods had a stutter. Shaquille O’Neal had a stutter. He told stories about when he was in school, where he’d be called on to read and he couldn’t get any of his words out, and everyone would just laugh at him.

“I know how that feels. I also know it can be overcome. It’s time to give it everything I have.”

Former Notre Dame linebacker David Adams' physical transformation during his aborted comeback at playing football.
Former Notre Dame linebacker David Adams' physical transformation during his aborted comeback at playing football.

What might have been

On a November Friday night in 2015, with a road game at Pitt set for the next day, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and four assistant coaches clustered on the sideline to be seen at — every bit as much as to see — Pittsburgh Central Catholic’s WPIAL Class AAAA home playoff game with Upper St. Clair.

The targets of their efforts were Adams, at the time a junior and ranked as one of the top five linebackers nationally by Rivals and third by 247Sports, and senior defensive back Damar Hamlin, who’d eventually land at Pitt. 

Emerging as another player of interest following the 49-0 romp by PCC was an unheralded three-star defensive lineman named Kurt Hinish.

To put in perspective of what an ascending prospect Adams was at the time, the Irish allocated just one assistant — then-QBs coach Mike Sanford — to venture 20 miles north to Pine-Richland High School that same night to scout a vaunted sophomore QB named Phil Jurkovec, to whom the Irish offered a scholarship the very next day.

Adams verbally committed to the Irish the following March, and Hinish two days later. 

Former Notre Dame linebacker David Adams (35) rose to be a consensus top 100 recruit during his junior season at Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School.

“I love my hometown, but I wanted to get out of my box,” Adams said. “I wanted to take the hard road. I wanted to challenge myself athletically and academically. I wanted to grow as a person.

“I had never been to Indiana until I took a visit there. I didn’t even know … I just heard it was a bunch of cornfields.

“And it is a bunch of cornfields — and so much more.”

In the fall of 2016, though, Adams’ preferred hard road took on added and unwelcome dimensions. The injuries began to accrue during his high school senior season, and he played right through them and the pain that came with them.

He did so to the point where Pittsburgh Steelers head orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Bradley, upon examining Adams, said that he had been misdiagnosed and that one of his shoulders was actually “hanging by a thread.”

The consensus top 100 prospect nationally, unsurprisingly, began to fade in the recruiting rankings. By the time he signed with the Irish in February of 2017, Adams was a three-star prospect.

By the time he enrolled at Notre Dame in June, he was a constant in the Irish football training room, seeking treatment, rehab and hope. When the 2017 season rolled around, he not only didn’t play, he wasn’t even allowed to suit up for the games.

Over the next few months, head athletic trainer Rob Hunt, team physician Dr. Matt Leiszler, special teams coach Brian Polian and defensive coordinator Clark Lea each pulled Adams aside and tried to gauge if he really wanted to continue to try to play football.

Each time it took him aback a little bit. But when Kelly brought Adams into his office for a one-on-one at the end of his freshman spring semester, in 2018, it had a different vibe to it.

“He pretty much said the player he recruited out of high school would have played a lot of football for us,” Adams related. “But, he said, ‘Your body has changed a lot since then, and I’m worried about your health.’ 

“That was very hard for me to hear, knowing everything I had put in since I was a young kid. I finally get to this high level, and I wanted to go even higher.

“I obviously had NFL aspirations, All-American aspirations, everything. But to hear that after my freshman spring ball was very difficult, because it wasn’t something where he says to me, ‘You’re just not playing good. You need to step it up.’ 

“In that case, I adapt, I get better. In this case, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do, because of my body. So it was tough.”

Adams stayed home that summer, not sure he’d ever be back.

“They left it open — ‘We would love to have you back’ and ‘you’re always welcome’ — that type of stuff,” Adams said. “But that summer was very hard. 

“Then I came back in the fall. Initially I didn’t plan on going around the football team. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but I thought it would be too hard emotionally. After I got back, I realized it was even harder to be away from it. 

“I’ll always remember this. When I got back my sophomore year, I heard the band playing one day. And it was just like, ‘Wow, I’m back here. All my dreams are now shot. I don’t really know what to do. It's hard being here and hard being away. But it’s harder being away from football.’

“So I decided I definitely wanted to go back and help out any way I can and hang with all my good friends.”

During Notre Dame’s 2018 playoff run Adams, then a sophomore, attended every practice and every home game. He watched film and made breakout tapes of ND’s opponents for Lea and senior defensive analyst Nick Lezynski.

He’d help oversee the scout team defense in practice. He’d help organize meetings.

“David was a throwback, in a sense,” Kelly reflected last week. “He was a downhill, knock-you-in-the-mouth linebacker. That’s how he played the game. So to have the game pulled from him so early in his career, a lot of people can’t handle the void. 

“On top of that, David had to deal with his speech impediment. He already had a challenge in front of him as it was. And I don’t know that there’s anybody I’ve ever met that has handled it quite as well as David did, given all the things that could and probably did go against him.”

Making a difference

The function of medical disqualifications/hardships is to allow players to remain on scholarship and finish their education without it counting against the team’s 85-max scholarship limit imposed by the NCAA.

It’s college football’s Mulligan.

But Adams never personified that. He counted and mattered off the field, and at a particularly critical juncture.

In 2016, the Irish cratered and went 4-8. Kelly responded with a coaching staff makeover, lots of self-reflection and a reboot of his entire philosophies when it came to the way he related to his players and how he ran his program.

None of which plays well in the cut-throat recruiting arena.

After wide receiver Michael Young’s July 20, 2016, verbal commitment, the Irish whiffed on every opportunity to add to the class through the end of the second-losingest season in Notre Dame history.

There were also a Kelly Era-high six decommitments in the cycle, including linebacker Pete Werner and cornerback Paulson Adebo, eventual stars at Ohio State and Stanford, respectively. Over the other 11 completed recruiting cycles the Irish have had 15 decommitments combined.

“Decommitting never crossed my mind,” Adams said. “I knew what Notre Dame had to offer and it’s sports, you know. Everybody has bad years. And so it was, ‘Ok, they’re having a bad year. I’m sure they might make some changes in the offseason.’ I didn’t waver at all. 

“I know some guys, who are on the team now and who have already graduated, and a few of them did waver a little bit. And me, along with others, tried our best to hold it together.

“I believe I was the first defensive commit in the class, so I took pride in trying to hold things together, making sure we got the best class possible.”

They also helped reverse the momentum late in the cycle.

David Adams takes in a Notre Dame football game with his right arm in a sling.

Notre Dame broke the drought with the December commitment of offensive lineman Aaron Banks and closed with six commitments in the final week before signing day. Three of them, including future All-American Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, made their decisions on the actual National Signing Day, in February.

Four years later, the group reached graduation day with the same number of losses in four years combined as the 2016 team amassed in one (8). With it, that class helped fashion 43 wins and the first two playoff appearances in Notre Dame history.

And on Nov. 7, they played their part in upending No. 1 Clemson, 47-40 in double-overtime, at Notre Dame Stadium for the first victory by the Irish over a top-ranked team in 27 years.

“The memories are special — I’m glad I have those,” Adams said. “The people are even more special. Coach (Mike) Elston, coach Kelly. There are so many of them. They make a difference in who you become. Now I want to do that for other people.

“I don’t know what that’s going to look like yet, but I know my decision to come to Notre Dame was the right one. Football was my Plan A. My Plan B — if it doesn’t work out — I have an economics degree from one of the best universities in the world. I couldn’t go wrong either way. 

“I wanted Plan A more than anything, but I ended up getting Plan B. So yeah, I’m happy. Going to Notre Dame is going to help me in a lot of ways in my life — with opportunities. Our alumni are very strong in helping each other out. 

“The beautiful thing is when you know you have people in your corner. It makes you feel like you can still dream and accomplish anything.”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI