For Irish football players, inspiration came long before reaching Notre Dame

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
(l-r) Notre Dame linebacker Jack Kiser poses with Tyler Wimmer, 9, of Elkhart, during a promotional appearance on Aug. 20, 2022 at Gates Toyota in South Bend, Ind. After finding out Kiser wears No. 24, Tyler told his mother Samantha he would like to change his jersey number to '24' as well.

SOUTH BEND — For at least nine current Notre Dame football players, youthful inspiration came from having fathers that played in the NFL.

Howard Cross III, Houston Griffith, Joe Alt, Lorenzo Styles, Benjamin Morrison, Gabe Rubio, Rocco Spindler, Jayden Bellamy and Ron Powlus III all know that dynamic, while several others had uncles or cousins or other relatives with impressive football achievements.

For the rest of the 2022 roster, however, football inspiration had to come from other sources. Even a chance meeting with an established college or pro football player could light the fuse that would ultimately propel a promising young athlete to reach the national stage.  

More:It's been a minute since Notre Dame football was in the ACC, longer since it lost a conference game

Just 16 months into the NIL era, modern-day college athletes, including those at Notre Dame, find themselves interacting with their surrounding community more than they traditionally had been allowed to under prior NCAA rules.

The recent “Cleats for a Cause” initiative, which includes an online charity auction that runs through 11:59 p.m. on Monday Oct. 31, is just the latest example.

Whether it be through one of those four local charitable beneficiaries or some other public vehicle, Irish players are regularly getting chances to pay it forward after being inspired by their boyhood heroes.

Here are some of their favorite memories:

LB Jack Kiser (Ryan Kerrigan/Ryan Baker)

Former Purdue and NFL defensive lineman Ryan Baker (center) poses with future Notre Dame linebacker Jack Kiser (left) and older brother Sam Kiser (right) after Purdue's spring football game in 2008.

“The first active football player I met was Ryan Kerrigan at Purdue. I went to a spring game and got to meet him (and fellow defensive lineman Ryan Baker) after the (2008) spring game. Ryan Kerrigan was the first guy that I actually met in person. It was just cool. Growing up, watching college football every Saturday, Ryan Kerrigan was a huge dude. He still is big. To be little a kid and walk up next to him, get a picture next to him, it’s like, 'Wow, that’s so cool.' It just made you strive to be that guy one day, you know? I don’t think he said anything, but just being around him, just to feel that presence meant a lot.”

WR Jayden Thomas (Julio Jones)

l-r, Jayden Thomas, now a redshirt freshman wide receiver at Notre Dame, was 13 when he met Julio Jones, the former Alabama and then Atlanta Falcons star receiver, during a training session in the Atlanta area.

“Training in Atlanta, there’s a lot of good receiver coaches there. My coach/trainer (former Georgia and Canadian Football League star) Terrence Edwards — a big shoutout to him — we used to train at this place where (former Alabama and current NFL star) Julio Jones one day came to visit him. I want to say I was (13), in that age range. (Jones) was already one of my role models. Just being able to take a picture with him. I still have the picture. I always used to look at that in my room just constantly, like, ‘Dang, what if that could be me one day?’ Just striving to be a great person, a great player like he is, was motivation.”

DT Jayson Ademilola (Savon Huggins)

“For me it was (current Boston College running backs coach) Savon Huggins, who was the No. 1 running back in the country. He was from my town (Jackson, N.J.) He had every offer. He went to St. Peter’s Prep, the same high school I went to. He was an All-American. Then he went to college (where he played at Rutgers from 2011-13 and Northern Iowa in 2015). At a young age I looked up to him and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. Because of him, he opened so many more doors and gave me many more opportunities where I got to meet at a young age Brandon Wimbush, Minkah Fitzpatrick. I was in the sixth grade when I started watching Savon. Really, everything he did inspired me. Growing up, I was like, ‘I want to do everything he’s doing.’ He came from a small town, put the town on the map, then went to St. Peter’s Prep. That’s where I saw the toughest football at the highest level displayed.” 

TE Mitchell Evans (Maurice Clarett)

“I met Maurice Clarett (2002 Ohio State All-America running back).  I think I was in sixth grade. Back in Wadsworth (Ohio) High, he ran a youth clinic. I think he worked with Cleveland Browns youth football. He was running youth football camps. He happened to run one in Wadsworth, so I obviously signed up for that. He was long gone (from playing). He was just doing camps then. I just remember there were probably 30 kids. I played running back in youth football, so that’s why I wanted to go to it. We were in an old, abandoned factory that had turf in it that baseball practiced in, so we went there and we were doing footwork drills. He was making sure he was engaging with the kids, making sure they were having fun and always active and doing stuff. That was the good thing. It was just really fun. I did my fair share of sports. I played lacrosse, I did track, I played basketball. But I just kind of knew I wanted to play football my whole life. I always had fun playing it. I never had a moment where I’m like, ‘Oh, this is not fun for me. I don’t want to do this anymore.’ “

Safety DJ Brown (Stefon Diggs)

“I think the first active college football player I met was Stefon Diggs, and it was at a receiver camp or something like that. I was a freshman in high school (in Annapolis, Md.). It was pretty cool because he was doing the drills with us. You could really see how hard he was working. It just gave me motivation as a 14-, 15-year-old kid that this was where I want to be someday. It wasn’t at Maryland. It was at my high school. They had some college guys come out and help out, so it was cool. Football is a game at the end of the day, so just go out, have fun, enjoy yourself.”

QB Tyler Buchner (San Diego State players)

“I remember there was a local camp that we had at San Diego State that I (attended) as a kid. I remember growing up you’d see these college football players and you’d think, ‘Wow, maybe I can be that one day.’ “

LG Jarrett Patterson (Fresno State players)

“Ooh, first college football player I met? Oh, man. It’s been a while. The earliest thing I remember doing is this camp when I was younger, maybe in (elementary school). I met a couple guys who played for the Dolphins and Raiders. I wish I could remember their names, but it’s been so long. They played decades ago. They were in their 40s and 50s but they had played a little bit in the league and they just wanted to give back to the community, which is something cool. The first football player I really remember seeing was when my older brother (David) played at Fresno State (2013-17) and I met his roommates when he moved in. I was going into the eighth grade. That one really sticks with me.”

LB Bo Bauer (Bob Sanders)

“He wasn’t a college player at the time, but (former Colts safety) Bob Sanders is from my hometown, Erie, Pa. I was a water boy at his camp in like 2005. I clearly remember meeting Bob. Never underestimate the power of someone’s name, man. That’s the direct way to them. It’s a way for them to really hear you. I felt like Bob Sanders knew me 17 years ago. It just inspired me. It was something meaningful. I was obsessed with becoming something like that ever since I was about 5 years old. My dad (Matthew), he always pictured me being a middle linebacker, so I guess his vision kind of came true.”

CB Jaden Mickey (Ifo Ekpre-Olomu)

“Ifo is probably the best corner I’ve been close to. He was like 5-9, 190. My dad (Lamar) would train him, and then he went to Oregon (2011-14). I always looked up to him because I watched him in high school and into the college level. That’s just been the main guy, but I grew up watching all those guys my dad has trained. They all went to the Pac-12, so just watching them —how they lifted, how they speed-trained and their mentality — really molded me when I was young.”

DB Ryan Barnes (Tim Tebow)

“My father (Dennis) works for the University of Florida (as a regional representative for admissions), so we used to live in Gainesville and we would spend a lot of time on campus. The football team was there doing signings, and because my dad was working with athletics, he had some sort of relationship with Tim Tebow. I have a picture of Tim Tebow holding me when I was like 6 or 7 years old. It was outside of the stadium. I remember the day. It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had with a collegiate athlete. I didn’t talk at all. I was in awe at the fact I was getting a chance to sit with him. It was awesome to be around somebody like that. Now I know the feeling of being that kid, and having the opportunity to be that guy that people look up to is something that I’m looking forward to. One of my favorite things to do after games is to come out and talk to the fans, especially the little kids, that have the same dreams that I had when I was a kid. To be able to give them a pair of gloves or sign a hat and just make their day, there’s been a couple times where I know that I’ve made a kid’s day and it’s probably one of the best feelings I’ve had since I’ve gotten here.”

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.