NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Senior day is nearly here for more than two dozen Notre Dame football players. It is a day that is always full of emotion, which can be a hard balancing act for players as they choke back their feelings as they realize they are running out of the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel for the last time, while still focusing on winning a football game.
The heart and soul of this year’s senior class is also the heart and soul of the entire team as well Notre Dame nation. Manti Te’o knows is ready for the sentiment he will feel when he bursts out of that tunnel when he leads his team onto the home turf one last time this Saturday, but he also knows there is business to be done against Wake Forest.
“It’s going to be emotional,” Te’o said before a media throng at his Wednesday press conference. “We understand that. For all of us, all the seniors and our families, but we understand that we still have to play the game.”
“Although it’s going to be emotional we’ve got to rise together and make sure we take care of business at the end of the day. I’ve experienced senior days where the team’s los and it doesn’t feel so special after that.”
Te’o, who expects 40 friends and family members in attendance this Saturday, experienced a senior day loss before he ever officially became a Notre Dame football player when he made his late November recruiting visit to South Bend and saw Charlie Weis’ Irish fall 24-23 to Syracuse in 2008.He wasn’t swayed by the defeat and he and his lifelong friend, Robby Toma, came together from Hawai’i to live under the golden dome.
“It’s definitely going to be special,” Te’o said of experiencing this year’s senior day with Toma. “It adds a different dimension to the whole day where your best friend that you’ve been best friends with since you were five and we experienced senior day in high school together and now you’re going to experience a senior day in college.”
“I don’t think any story can duplicate that. I’m going to be excited for him and be just as proud to see him run out for his last time. (It is) definitely going to be a day that we’ll all cherish and remember.”
Toma and Te’o are so inseparable they are listed next to each other in alphabetical order on the Notre Dame roster.
“He’s basically my brother and we’ve always looked out for each other,” Toma said of Te’o. “Just watching him every game is something that I’m used to. Watching his big hits is something that I’ve always been used to watching. That guy means everything to me. I know it’s our last game and I’m going to miss it, but I know we both have big things ahead of us.”
Toma had 36 career receptions for 415 yards in his first three seasons. He has 20 catches for 181 yards this year. The receiver knows he will have to fight back more emotions with his mom this Saturday, but like Te’o he knows the task on the field takes priority over senior day.
“We know we’ve still got a lot of work to do, especially with USC the next week,” Toma said. “We’re just gonna try to focus like we’ve done all year. That’s compete for four quarters and no matter what the circumstances we’ve always been that way and I don’t think we’re gonna get too emotional just because it’s our last senior game.”
Fellow receiver John Goodman, a fifth-year senior, will go through his second senior day this Saturday. Like all seniors at Notre Dame with remaining eligibility, Goodman didn’t know at this time last year if he would be back for this year’s senior day, but he says his focus will be in the right place once he and his teammates are on the field.
“We don’t really think about the whole senior day thing until we get out there,” Goodman commented after Wednesday’s practice. “I’ve been through it already, so I kind of know what it’s like. The only day you really feel any emotions is once you run out there and see your parents and all those people yelling for you. Really in that five minute span that’s really the only emotions you feel, and then after the game obviously.”
“Our focus is mainly on the game,” Goodman continued. “Because we know what we have right here in our grasp is a chance to go 11-0 and go into SC with an undefeated season. That’s something we’re aiming for an as seniors that’s something we’re all focusing on. Those emotions will come out before the game, but we can’t play with those certain emotions, but the physical and mental game we’ve been playing all year.”
Notre Dame has been a family affair for Mike Golic, Jr. his entire life. His parents met at Notre Dame when his dad was still a player back in the ‘80s. His brother, Jake, is his teammate, his sister, Sydney, is on the Irish swim team, and his mom’s Twitter handle is @NDmom. Even with all that blue and gold in his blood, Golic gets far from misty-eyed when he talks about senior day sentimentality.
“This isn’t my last college football game,” the bushy-bearded Golic said matter of factly. “We have three games left. There will be plenty of time after the fact to sit back and reflect on all of that stuff with my parents.”
“That will be a cool thing, but they know as well as I do right now we have three football games left and we have a chance to keep pushing and go in the direction we want to go and that goes through Wake Forest. We have to go out here and play our best versus them, because senior day or not it’s only going to be memorable if we win the game.”
Another fifth-year senior, Kapron Lewis-Moore, is going through another senior day. Like Te’o, Lewis-Moore and the other fifth-year guys were there for that senior day loss to Syracuse back in 2008. They were also there a year later when another Big East team, UConn, spoiled senior day in 2009. Things have flown by since then for a player and a program that has come a long way since then.
“Everybody keeps reminding me of it, so it’s hard to forget,” the defensive end says of how quickly time has flown since he arrived at Notre Dame. “It’s crazy. It’s been a long ride and I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs. Seeing this program grow from where it was to where it is now is something that’s really encouraging for me.”
“I think we’re gonna handle it pretty well,” Lewis-Moore said of battling senior day emotion. “It could be sad, but for me it’s my second go around, so I’m kind of lucky that I won’t be too emotional. At the end of the day we’ve got Wake Forest coming to town. It’s gonna be a big game and we’ve gotta take care of business.”
The one player that will arguably feel the most finality of this week’s senior day is Braxton Cave. The fifth-year center grew up in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus while growing-up in neighboring Granger and playing for the tradition rich Penn football program.
Cave has played in hundreds of football games in what locals know as the Michiana area, but no matter what his future brings this Saturday’s will be his absolute last gridiron clash on his home soil.
“I tell a lot of the guys and they give me a hard time for being from around here and being close to family – that’s all I’ve ever known,” Cave said. “It’s kind of crazy to think about the next time I’m playing football it’s not gonna be close to home or anywhere really near home. It really puts it in perspective of how special it’s been.”