Tyler Eifert felt overwhelmed his first year at Notre Dame.
Michael Ledo knew that as well as anybody, but Ledo could sense there was something different when the Irish tight end phoned his trainer back in Fort Wayne, Ind., during his second season in South Bend.
Ledo - who runs Athletes With Purpose, a “Christian-based sports performance company focused on developing athletes physically, mentally, spiritually” - has served as a mentor for Eifert dating back to Eifert’s days at Bishop Dwenger High School.
“Ty knows when he needs something or he has a concern, I’m one of the people he can come to,” said Ledo. “I’m going to give him an honest opinion. I don’t treat him any differently than how I treated him four years ago.”
Eifert first went to Ledo as a high-schooler and has never stopped coming back.
“I started seeing him my freshman or sophomore year in high school before going to a combine and he gave me a quick two-week session that helped me a lot,” Eifert said of Ledo. “I've been going there ever since. I give him a lot of credit for where I am today and what they've done for me.
“He's a great motivator and he's someone I've talked to about any problems I've ever experienced on and off the field. He gets it - he's been there and played the game. He also has a big emphasis on faith and he's been a tremendous influence on me.”
Ledo helped Eifert through that first year at Notre Dame. He had higher expectations for Eifert than even Eifert had for himself at times.
Eifert expected to redshirt as a freshman in 2008, but ended up seeing duty in the Irish’s opener on special teams. Meanwhile, Ledo was telling the tight end he thought he could be better than Kyle Rudolph, Eifert’s predecessor, who would eventually become a second-round NFL pick.
Eifert, who Ledo calls an “extremely humble kid,” laughed it off.
“The thing I saw was he had tremendous size and he was extremely fluid,” said Ledo. “His running ability was special, he could run with anybody. He just needed to put on the size.”
Ledo helped Eifert through that first year at Notre Dame, which was tough mentally, but the call that came in during year two was different.
A back injury kept Eifert sidelined for the rest of freshman season after that brief appearance against Nevada and although he took over starting duties early in his sophomore season after Rudolph suffered a season-ending injury, the back was still bothering him.
“He called and said, ‘Mike, I’m getting ready to quit,’” Ledo remembers. “He said, ‘I know I’m playing well and I’m doing great, but I don’t get any fulfillment out of it, I’m not enjoying it and I’m not happy.’ He said, ‘I’m just going to quit.’
Ledo wasn’t completely shocked with Eifert’s point of view at the time.
“Even when he was doing great, he was miserable like he was doing horrible,” said Ledo. “Ty was never a crazy, gung-ho football guy. I think he’s so good because he has a balanced perspective on life.
“Football isn’t live or die for Ty. He loves to golf. He’s a personable person. He enjoys his family. Football wasn’t what made him and he was just tired of balancing the injuries. He was in agonizing pain and he got to a frustrating level when he thought it was never going to go away.”
Ledo wasn’t completely shocked that Eifert came to him either.
“We have a very good personal relationship,” he said. “Tyler got tired of people always asking him about his back and about football. I care about him more as a person. He was still in pain and managing that pain. He knew some people didn’t want to hear that. Even certain people who wanted the best for him, didn’t want to hear him talk like that. I was a person who would just listen to him.”
Ledo did listen, but he also offered some advice.
“I told him, ‘Before you make this decision, let’s not have any regrets in life,’” Ledo recalled. “’Before you make this decision, all I want you to do is promise me you’re going to give 110 percent this fall and after this fall, if you’re still not happy then make the best decision for you.
“Do what’s going to be the best decision for you. Do what’s going to make you happy. If you’re worried about your life and enjoying your kids and being able to play golf, do what’s best for you, but let’s give it a shot, so you can say you gave it all you had.’”
Eifert finished the 2010 season with 27 receptions for 352 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“Long story short, he ended up having a hell of a year,” said Ledo. “At the end of the season, I would jokingly ask him if he was still thinking about quitting.”
Eifert would go on to grab 63 passes for 803 yards and five touchdowns the following year, and like Rudolph had before him, vaulted himself into an early-round NFL Draft prospect with the opportunity to leave college early. Instead, Eifert chose to return to Notre Dame.
“His stock may go up a little bit this year, but he’ll probably be the same pick this year that he would have been last year,” said Ledo. “The only reason he came back were his friendships; his friendships with Dan Fox, Zach Martin, Braxston Cave and Chris Watt and those guys. It was those friendships that really helped him start enjoying the game.”
Through nine games this year, Eifert's numbers are a little down (28 receptions, 403 yards, 3 TDs), but that shows how much defenses have been keying on him more than anything and he's certain be an early-round NFL pick this April, fulfilling the potential Ledo saw in him early on.
The goal for Ledo and AWP from the start was to get Eifert as fast and as explosive as possible.
“He was just raw, we just had to develop it,” he said. “We started developing his receiving skills, his size.”
Eifert more than did his part.
“He was getting up at 5 a.m. in the snow and driving all of the way to the south side of town to train with us and then going back to school and showering and then playing basketball at night,” Ledo said. “He was just committed.”
But there’s still more to do, especially in getting Eifert more explosive. In fact, Ledo has already clipped out a newspaper article knocking Eifert’s explosiveness and plans to use it as motivation in training for the NFL Draft Combine.
Football still doesn’t define Eifert, but it’s certainly going to pay the bills very soon.