Kurt Hinish will end his record-setting Notre Dame career with same relentless effort
SOUTH BEND — After Kurt Hinish takes pictures with his family following his last game in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, the Irish nose guard should pose with one of the garbage cans in Notre Dame’s locker room.
It would be only fitting to commemorate one of Hinish’s game day routines. When the AP No. 6/CFP No. 8 Irish (9-1) host Georgia Tech (3-7) on Saturday (2:30 p.m. EST on NBC), Hinish will make one last pregame walk to Notre Dame Stadium. He’ll make one last pregame run out of the home tunnel to a cheering crowd.
The graduate senior won’t shed tears, Hinish vowed. But there will be vomit.
“The extent of me getting emotional before games is I’ve been throwing up before games,” Hinish told reporters Tuesday. “I throw up before every game, and I’ve been doing it for a long time. That’s something that people don’t know about me.
“I throw up in the garbage can before every single game no matter who we’re playing. Every single game.”
No one in program history has played in more Notre Dame football games either. When Hinish lined up against Purdue in September, he broke the record of 52 career games played shared by Daelin Hayes (2016-20), Drue Tranquill (2014-18), Romeo Okwara (2012-15) and Matthias Farley (2011-15).
Playing Saturday on Senior Day will be career game No. 59 for Hinish.
“I’ve been here for too long. That’s what it means to me,” Hinish said. “No, it’s cool. Not many people can say they broke a record at Notre Dame, and I did.”
Because the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to student-athletes who played during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Hinish was able to put himself in position to break the record. His uncanny ability to stay healthy while playing on the defensive line played an equally important role.
The 6-foot-2, 300-pound Hinish has taken the field in all but three Notre Dame games since he joined the program in 2017. The coaching staff opted not to use him in one game against NC State as a freshman. Then Hinish missed two games this season — Wisconsin and Cincinnati — with recurring migraine issues.
“The day of the Wisconsin game, that was the first game that I have sat out since I’ve been in youth football,” Hinish said. “I haven’t sat out for an injury my entire life until that game.”
Notre Dame’s training staff initially thought Hinish was dealing with concussions due to his symptoms. Team physician Dr. Matt Leiszler recommended Hinish see a specialist in Ann Arbor, Mich., who identified migraines as the cause of his nausea and blurred vision. The medication Hinish was then prescribed has taken care of the problem.
When Hinish told his father that migraines were the reason he was forced to sit out, the hard-nosed construction worker and cancer survivor told his son he could have just taken some ibuprofen and played through it. Sitting out a single game was tough for the younger Hinish to swallow.
“I was losing my mind,” Hinish said. “I really was.”
Hinish played through pain before, but he credits some good luck and a dedication to in-season workouts with his father as a child and director of football performance Matt Balis at Notre Dame for keeping him healthy. Hinish knocked on wood before giving them the credit.
Prior to sitting out with migraines, the worst pain Hinish played with came from a chipped tooth incident as a child. The tooth was initially chipped from a street hockey puck at a summer camp. The dental cap placed on the tooth came off while Hinish was eating breakfast before a youth football game. Simply breathing caused pain in the exposed nerve endings.
“They ran me down to the hospital, fixed my tooth and my mom drove me back to the game,” Hinish said. “I came in in like the second quarter and my dad made me finish out the game.”
Returning to Notre Dame
After Notre Dame’s 31-14 loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals last season, Hinish was confused. Not about whether or not he wanted to return to Notre Dame for one more season. But why defensive line coach Mike Elston’s postgame conversation with him seemed like a goodbye.
“In my head,” Hinish said, “I was like, ‘Does he not want me to come back?’ So we flew back and then the day after the game, I called him that morning. I was like, ‘Hey, Coach, do you not want me to come back?’
“He was like, ‘No, no. I’d love for you to come back. I just thought you were going to leave and go to the NFL.’ I was like, ‘No, I kind of want to come back.’”
Hinish felt like there was more for him to accomplish at Notre Dame. He wanted to return for the 2021 season, serve the team as a captain and keep getting better.
Hinish held up his end of the deal.
“He brings that toughness, that grit, that demeanor of a defensive lineman in terms of how they go to work every single day,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “It's been a standard that now has been part of that legacy at the defensive line that has grown here at Notre Dame, and Kurt's been part of that.
“He also brings an incredible mentality. Carrying the torch as a captain and as a leader. He's vigilant in the standards that we have set here, the high standards, and so he's going to be sorely missed, both as a captain, a leader of presence, and personality. He's a no-nonsense guy. He's a throwback in a lot of ways.”
When Hinish couldn’t play against Wisconsin and Cincinnati, junior Howard Cross III was thrust into a starting role. Cross knew the mentality he needed to match without Hinish in the lineup.
“Kurt’s a gritty guy,” Cross said in October. “He’s a really scrappy guy. Him going in and doing everything that he can to get to the ball is something I look at and I try to do all the time.”
Without Hinish, the Irish still limited Wisconsin to 78 rushing yards. The Badgers have gone on to average 227.1 rushing yards through 10 games this season.
Notre Dame’s defensive line stepped up last Saturday at Virginia with starting defensive end and fellow captain Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa sidelined with the flu. The Irish recorded eight sacks with five of them coming from four defensive lineman: Rylie Mills (2), Justin Ademilola (1.5), Cross (1) and Jayson Ademilola (.5).
Mills, a sophomore, rotated in at defensive end in Tagovailoa-Amosa's absence in addition to his previous role as a backup defensive tackle. Because Mills was a part of three separate sacks (one solo and two shared), he reached the number of sacks required to sit in Elston’s first-class seat on the charter flight back to South Bend after the game.
NOTRE DAME VS. GEORGIA TECH
Who: AP No. 6 Notre Dame (9-1) vs. Georgia Tech (3-7)
Kickoff: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EST
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 17
Elston offered the goal as an incentive earlier in the week to put pressure on Virginia’s quarterback. The mission was made easier when starter Brennan Armstrong didn’t play and freshman Jay Woolfolk looked overwhelmed. Hinish thoroughly enjoyed seeing Elston seated with the players.
“He was hilarious,” Hinish said. “He was probably about 15 rows behind me. At the beginning of the flight, I was sitting up in front of him and I was just looking at him laughing. I was sticking my tongue out at him. ‘If you need anything, I’ll be up here.’”
The entire situation exemplified the bond Elston built with his players and among the defensive line.
“The guys in the defensive line room, I consider them my family. They’re my brothers,” said Hinish, whose actual younger brother, Donovan, is committed to join Notre Dame as a defensive tackle recruit next season. “I would do anything for my brothers. We play for one another when we step out on the field. That’s just the way it is.
“That’s the mentality that (Elston) built and he instilled within us. Those guys will be my best friends forever. Even the guys that graduated and went on. The day that coach Elston stepped in, the defensive line room became a family.”
Measuring a legacy
Linebacker Drew White sent Hinish a picture early Saturday morning before the Virginia game. It showed a thermometer with a reading of 103 degrees Fahrenheit. White, like Tagovailoa-Amosa, was getting the worst a flu bug that started circulating through the team last week. Both were forced to sit out the road game and watch from the sideline.
Yet somehow Hinish, who shares a home with them near campus, didn’t catch the flu.
“I don’t get sick,” Hinish said. “I drank out of the hose when I was a kid.”
White was so sweat-drenched before the game he asked Hinish if he could borrow his sweatshirt. But swimming in Hinish’s 3XL sweatshirt looked too ridiculous to wear under White’s jersey on the sideline. Five weeks prior when Hinish returned to Notre Dame’s starting lineup at Virginia Tech, White was signing his praises.
“Just to know that he’s in front of me taking on double teams and he ain’t moving,” White said. “You were able to see him making TFLs and disrupting the running game, so it was great.”
Hinish contributed 1.5 tackles for a loss and set a career high in tackles with five.
“It feels better when one of your best friends is lining up right in front of you,” White said. “All of our defensive tackles and nose guards are capable, but having a veteran guy in there, a captain on our team, to have that look in his eye and communicate with the rest of the D-line is very useful.”
Four weeks later, Hinish shattered his tackles total with 10 in a disruptive performance against Navy’s triple-option offense. Elston and defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman gave Hinish the freedom to make plays from one guard to the other.
“It was pretty sweet,” Hinish said. “They just ran the ball the whole game. I knew that was what they were going to do. Whenever I was out there, I made every tackle that I could.”
Statistics rarely measure the impact a nose guard makes in games, but there was no hiding Hinish’s effort that Saturday. He’s had plenty others games where his work could have easily gone unnoticed. His teammates were the first to speak up for him.
Like when linebacker Jack Kiser recalled a play against North Carolina when Hinish helped chase down a ball carrier well downfield.
“Kurt Hinish came from 15 yards and ran that ball down and made the tackle,” Kiser said. “At his size, playing his amount of snaps, taking on double teams every time. His ability to push through all that, be tough and compete, the ultimate competitor.”
That play accounted for just one of Hinish’s 79 career tackles at Notre Dame to date. He’s added 19 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. Those numbers will eventually be forgotten. He’ll forever be associated with the record-setting number of games he played for Notre Dame whether it finishes at 59, 60, 61 or 62.
But what his teammates and coaches will remember about Hinish can’t be measured. That legacy will be defined by his tenacity, toughness and relentless motor.
“That’s what you want in a captain,” Kiser said. “We have him fortunately. I don’t want to play against him, let me tell you that.”
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.