Meet Milk: Lovable long snapper Michael Vinson embodies Notre Dame's walk-on spirit
SOUTH BEND — The name card sitting in front of him read “Michael Vinson,” but it didn’t include his ubiquitous nickname.
Everyone in the Notre Dame football program knows the starting long snapper by the nickname he received as a freshman: Milk.
Even Brian Polian, Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator, needed clarification from a reporter who asked him about "Michael" when Vinson was only a few yards away during Tuesday's players interviews in the Irish Athletics Center. Polian's mind didn’t immediately connect the name to Vinson a.k.a Milk.
The nickname came from former Notre Dame punter Tyler Newsome.
When Vinson joined the program as a walk-on before the 2018 season, Newsome dubbed the specialists as the “Cheese Unit.” Because Vinson was a freshman, he needed to earn his cheese status. Therefore, Vinson was still milk waiting to age into cheese.
Then head coach Brian Kelly cemented the nickname before the fourth game of the 2018 season at Wake Forest. On the same day that Notre Dame made the switch from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book as the starting quarterback, Vinson’s nickname was also sealed.
“It was in the locker room, and I was actually standing in (Kelly’s) way,” Vinson shared with reporters Tuesday in his first media scrum as a Notre Dame football player. “He said like, ‘Get out of my way, Milk!’ It was just great. Tyler Newsome lost his mind. It was awesome.”
That easily could have been the peak of Vinson’s Notre Dame career. He could have coasted as a lovable walk-on content with being the backup long snapper for four seasons.
When Notre Dame added Alex Peitsch as a scholarship long snapper in the 2020 recruiting class, that appeared to be the most likely outcome for Vinson. Peitsch would be asked to replace John Shannon, the previous scholarship long snapper on the roster, following the 2019 season.
“At first, I was devastated,” Vinson said of learning that Notre Dame was offering Peitsch a scholarship. “I thought that I was doing my best and that wasn’t good enough.”
Vinson needed reassurance from his father that staying at Notre Dame was the right decision.
“You came here to get a degree,” Vinson’s father told him. “Not to play football. You didn’t come here on scholarship. Do not throw away this education for this. This degree is worth more than just snapping footballs for four years.”
That didn’t mean Vinson was ready to give up the long snapping dream.
Drawing inspiration from John Shannon
When Michael Vinson was in eighth grade, he read a story in a local newspaper about John Shannon. Learning that someone from the same area north of Chicago was heading to Notre Dame to be a scholarship long snapper was a bit of a game changer for Vinson.
“I was like, ‘I want to be like this guy.’ It said he was an All-American,” Vinson said, “on full scholarship to Notre Dame and he was going to play. I’m like, ‘I want to be like him.’”
Vinson had a long way to go. When he first joined the football team at New Trier High in Winnetka, Ill., Vinson was placed on the freshman “B” squad. His obsession with long snapping started to blossom as a sophomore and junior. He signed up for a Rubio Long Snapping camp and hit the college camps circuit.
One camp invitation came from Polian and Notre Dame. In June of 2017, a couple months before his senior season, Vinson attended the camp, won the snapping competition and was offered a preferred walk-on spot with the Irish.
The next day, Vinson received his first scholarship offer from Army West Point. He also received interest from Northwestern and Mississippi State. Vinson was sold on coming to Notre Dame after attending the 2017 season opener against Temple. He committed to the Irish in November.
Then he became teammates with his inspiration.
“He really took me under his wing my freshman year and sophomore year,” Vinson said of Shannon, “and then he kind of showed me the ropes.”
When Vinson was a sophomore in 2019, Shannon was dealing with back issues that limited his practice reps. That allowed Vinson to see more action in practice throughout the year and prove himself to the Irish coaching staff.
Shannon fought through the pain, played in every game in 2019 and was named the top senior long snapper in college football with the inaugural Patrick Mannelly Award.
But the extra practice reps for Vinson were invaluable.
“It helped build my confidence,” Vinson said. “Before practice, (Shannon) would tell me, ‘You got this. You’re going to be the guy, so this is going to be your chance to shine and prove it to them.’ He really helped me out in becoming the starter.”
Beating out Peitsch for the starting role
The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out any advantage that Vinson had over Peitsch.
Vinson was unable to establish himself as the starter due to the lack of a full spring practice schedule. That didn’t stop Vinson from preparing to take over the starting role. He found an open football field where he could spend hours with a friend pushing each other to get better.
“I was at home training every day,” Vinson said. “In my mind, I was like, ‘This is my job. I don’t care if I’m paid or not, I just want to compete, because I love to compete.'”
When the team was allowed to return to campus last summer, Vinson had to wait to join the team at the Morris Inn as part of the second wave of arrivals. Peitsch was part of the first wave.
Instead of waiting around, Vinson returned to South Bend, moved into his parents’ place nearby and worked out on his own. He used the fences around Notre Dame’s rugby field as a backstop for his snaps.
From six yards away, Vinson would snap the ball and challenge himself to get his head up and ready to block before the ball hit the fence. Then from 10 yards away, Vinson worked on his accuracy. At 12 yards away, Vinson focused on his power. From 15 yards away, he tried to put everything together.
Vinson has snapped a football so many times, he didn’t need a partner or a stopwatch to time him. He can feel if he’s hitting his target time of 0.67 seconds for a punt snap. When Vinson first arrived at Notre Dame in 2018, he was in the 0.81 range.
“I could probably snap a ball eyes closed, because I’ve done it over a million times in my life,” Vinson said. “It’s all muscle memory.”
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Vinson also made himself into a better athlete with help of director of football performance Matt Balis. That allowed Polian to have confidence in Vinson running down the field and trying to cover a punt.
Simply put, he was the best man for the job.
“We put Alex Peitsch on scholarship, and Alex has done a nice job,” Polian said. “But he got beat out, and he got beat out fair and square. There's no way coach Kelly nor I could get in front of the team and say, ‘Michael's not the snapper,’ because he was. He earned the job.”
Another round of Milk
Notre Dame football fans might not have noticed Vinson last season, and that’s a good thing. He did the job he was asked to do in snapping for punts, extra points and field goals.
A scholarship still hasn't come Vinson's way heading into his senior season in 2021, but it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if Kelly made that happen. Vinson admits that he’s thought about the possibility already.
“It would be obviously great. My mom and dad would be thrilled,” Vinson said. “Right now I’m not really focused on that. I’m just focused on doing my job.”
He’s a proud member of the WOPU (Walk-On Players Union), the long-standing name claimed by the walk-on Irish football players.
“Not a lot of guys here get to be a part of it,” Vinson said. “We’re kind of our own fraternity in a sense because we all bond on paying the bills.”
Vinson’s value to the team extends beyond long snapping. He epitomizes Notre Dame’s walk-on program and proves that everyone has a shot at making an impact on the team.
He’s a first-class teammate, too.
“His teammates love that dude,” Polian said. “They love him because he's so energetic and so positive. He always has a smile on his face. He’s kind to everybody.
“He will go up to Michael Mayer when Michael Mayer is a freshman and treat him like a million bucks. And (Tuesday) we added some new walk-ons, because it's the first day of school, and Milk is the first guy. ‘Hey, follow me. I'll show you what to do.’
“He's just an unbelievable person from an unbelievable family.”
And when it’s time to snap the football, Milk delivers.
“What separates him is that he has a really incredible personality,” Kelly said. “He's funny. He's light. The guys really enjoy being around him.
“But when it's play time, he is incredibly locked in. That's hard to do. It's hard to be the class comedian and then just shut it off and snap that ball like it's nobody's business. He's just unique that way.
“If he carried that into his business, he'd be sloppy and he wouldn't be the starting long snapper here. He's a unique guy. I haven't met a lot of people like him."
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.