Play Like A Champion FOREVER

By Ken Bradford | Spring 2016

When you achieve your life goal to play football for Notre Dame at age 23, what comes next? 

 Freshman Joe Schmidt knew he had botched an assignment during spring practice.

A non-scholarship linebacker on the Notre Dame football team, he sat quietly as Bob Diaco, the defensive coordinator at the time, ran the practice film forward and backward, focusing on Schmidt’s mistake. Rewind, stop, show it again. Rewind, stop, show it again.

Finally, a very intense Diaco broke the silence: “Joe, why am I going to put you into a game?”

Schmidt, since age 5, had dreamed of playing football at Notre Dame. While others in the room were having their tuition, room and board paid for, he was a walk-on candidate paying more than $50,000 a year to be part of this team. No one, he thought, wanted to play more than he did.

Flustered, the best answer Schmidt could give was, “Well, I’m quicker. I’m faster.” It wasn’t true, and everyone in the room knew it. Ahead of him on the depth chart were future pros, such as Manti Te’o, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox. They were the stars. Skillwise, he simply wasn’t in their league.

In that moment, he finally saw the truth: “I have to be perfect.”

“Exactly,” Diaco said. “The only way you go into a game is if you’re perfect.”

Now, four years later, Schmidt considers it a life-changing lesson, for football, academics and his career. “I realized the margin for error is unbelievably small,” he says. “If you want to be great in whatever you’re doing in life, you can’t see everyday mistakes as being OK.”

If you follow college football, you’re probably familiar with part of the Joe Schmidt legend.

Armed with a crayon at age 5, he wrote down his goals: 1. Go to the park to play with Dad. 2. Go to Baskin-Robbins. 3. Play football at Notre Dame.

That third goal was the unlikely dream. By the time he was 18, he was a talented linebacker at Mater Dei High School in southern California, but recruiters figured he lacked the raw talent to play at the powerhouse colleges. He received scholarship offers from the Air Force, Arizona and Cincinnati – but not from Notre Dame.

Coaches at Notre Dame were aware of Schmidt, but they weren’t in awe of him and they didn’t have an extra spot in the 2011 recruiting class. If he really wanted to play, he was welcome to pay his own way and try out for the team.

Schmidt recalls getting three home visits from coaches at the University of Pennsylvania. They said, come to Penn, get an Ivy League education and be a star on a football team that wins the conference championship every year. Go to Notre Dame and spend a quarter-million dollars of your dad’s money if you like, but you’ll never get off the sideline.

Stubbornness — or dedication, if you prefer — is a Schmidt family trait. He and his father reached for the checkbook and wrote “Notre Dame” on the pay line. “That coach had set out a challenge for me,” he says. “I was going to prove him wrong and everyone else wrong.”

The one thing he knew that no visiting coach knew was he really did plan to play at Notre Dame. Nothing was going to stand in his way — except for his own weaknesses, as it turned out.

At Notre Dame, walk-on candidates are needed for the scout team. Other schools might call it the “hamburger squad” or “tackling dummies.” They help prepare the varsity players for games by getting roughed up in practice. Very few of those players ever get a grass stain on Saturdays.

That’s where Schmidt spent his freshman year. He pumped iron, studied film and vowed to work harder than anyone else on that squad. His dedication may have caught Coach Diaco’s eye, but there was something missing.

During the spring practice film session, which could have been the worst moment of Schmidt’s life, Coach Diaco had given him a path to achieve everything he wanted.

Hard work wouldn’t suffice. He needed to be focused, relentless in his pursuit of excellence.

For Schmidt, it flipped a switch. He no longer accepted moments of hesitation or indecision. Each play was an opportunity, a mission where his team depended on him doing his job perfectly.           

This new mindset helped him climb up from the scout squad. Midway through his sophomore season, Schmidt was added to the kick coverage unit after earning a spot through hard work. Coaches saw him making the most of his opportunity and found a scholarship for him. With three years of eligibility left, he now would attend Notre Dame for free.

Schmidt became part of the linebacker rotation as a junior, appearing in all 13 games, and he became a starting inside linebacker, the defensive play-caller, as a senior. Though Schmidt missed the final five games of the season with an injury, his teammates voted him the 2014 most valuable player. Then as a graduate student, he reclaimed his linebacker job and served as a team captain as the Irish battled their way into the Fiesta Bowl for his final season in 2016.

Success stories like this are a staple for sports writers. His story has been told, in parts, on virtually every Notre Dame football Saturday for the past two seasons. The appetite of mass media being what it is, there’s a new football hero every year.

The storyline for Schmidt, though, is a bit different. If his love for Notre Dame football emerged at age 5, it was followed soon after by his passion for the University’s academics.

When he was 10, his sister Catherine Schmidt (ND ’06) enrolled at Notre Dame. She met and fell in love with a baseball player, Greg Lopez (ND ’06). When Schmidt came to visit at age 12, Lopez arranged for him to play in the snow on the football field. Lopez also arranged for him to attend some classes, and Schmidt recalls taking notes for a Middle Eastern Religion class with Anthony Fasano, a 2006 marketing graduate who currently plays tight end for the Tennessee Titans.

Catherine married Lopez, who is now an orthopedic surgeon and Schmidt’s best friend. Having seen what the University did for his sister and brother-in-law, Schmidt no longer was looking at Notre Dame as just a football school.

“I saw what kind of Notre Dame man and Notre Dame woman this place spits out,” he says. “I don’t know if there was a better place for me to come to school and become a man than Notre Dame.”

He enrolled in the Mendoza College of Business, where his academic drive and success mirrored his football accomplishments. He won the 2014 Fanning Award, one of the college’s top three honors in business communication and graduated with a degree in management entrepreneurship in May 2015.

“I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could about business,” he says. “What makes a good business, what makes a bad business? What makes a good manager, a bad manager, and more importantly, what makes a good leader and a bad leader?”

Taking classes at Mendoza helped show him that success in the classroom, and life, depends on competition, but even more so on cooperation. “I would say that my experience was more about growing with my classmates and friends than trying to beat them on a grade,” he says. “I never wanted anyone in my classes to not do well so I would get the better grade.”

It’s not that much different from football, he adds. “When we learn concepts or plays, we learn together. And if one person fails, we all fail. It’s hard to turn that off, and I don’t plan on ever trying to.”

These days, with his football career ended, Schmidt doesn’t need a helmet or pads to make a striking impression. His handshake is firm, his conversation is confident, his words are well-chosen. These are tools that come with that Notre Dame business degree.             

Not surprisingly, he takes his studies beyond the classroom and locker room walls. For insight on leadership, for example, he’s read biographies of successful people as diverse as billionaire investor Warren Buffett, basketball coaching legend John Wooden and martial arts pioneer Bruce Lee.

Schmidt has been taking classes in other disciplines that interest him but couldn’t fit into his undergrad schedule. In the fall semester, he had classes in cultural anthropology, TV and film, and real estate.

This spring, he enrolled in global portfolio management classes. “That should set me up for the rest of my life,” he says.

He also is working an internship with the University’s investment office, learning from mentors Paul Buser and Rick Buhrmann how to handle a $10.5 billion endowment. He’s amazed by the people on the money team. “The culture they’ve built there, the way they do business, everyone in that office is incredible,” he says. “Everybody in there is at the top of the class.”

Buser has been impressed by Schmidt’s sense of mission. “Joe possesses one of the greatest gifts one can be endowed with; namely; he is a lifelong learner,” Buser says. “He is open-minded to change his opinion and to challenge himself. Whether that relates to investing, multidisciplinary reading or football, Joe’s desire to learn has served him well, has led to his humble disposition and will continue to allow him to excel in whatever paths that life leads him down.”

Schmidt gives much of the credit for his successes to his family. His father, Joe Schmidt III, was the man who handed him the crayons and taught him to make lists. “He’s very goal-oriented and driven to be successful,” Schmidt says. “He started his first company at age 15 or 16. He’s been an entrepreneur his whole life. If I can be 1 percent of the man my dad is, I will consider myself a success.”

Plans of a 5-year-old are written in crayon, not stone. A child changes and grows up, but Schmidt still writes down his goals, keeping them on a wall outside his off-campus bedroom. They are much more complicated than having ice cream with Dad.

These days, they are less about where he’ll go and more about the kind of person he wants to be. “I have general goals about where I want to be when I’m 30, 40 or 50 with regard to stability, a family and the like,” he says. “But for specifics regarding where I want to start, I’m trying to stay open and find the right opportunity.”

He knows he won’t be playing football professionally like several of this year’s teammates. “I have decided that I’m going to devote my energies entirely toward developing myself and preparing for a career in business,” he says.

Perfection, for him, is less about making tackles or making millions of dollars. It’s more about keeping his mind, body, soul and character healthy. “In my opinion, when one of those suffers, they all suffer,” he says. “You can’t excel in any category without the success of the other three.”

In that way, his Notre Dame education provides the game plan. “I have so many things I want to do with my life. I think it would be a tragedy if I didn’t use what I learned at Notre Dame to make the world a better place,” he says.

With football now in his past, he occasionally thinks about what if all those early detractors had been right? What if the only football he ever played at Notre Dame had been on the Keenan or Dillon interhall teams?

“It was never about the NFL or football glory,” he says. “This is such a mystical place. The goal was always to use football to attend the school of my dreams. As long as I had gone all out, given it my all and not held anything back, how could I be upset about that?”

Dreams and goals were a good start but, as that perceptive coach pointed out four springs ago, it’s really about the vitality it takes to get there. Pursue perfection relentlessly, whether it’s on a football field, in the investment business or someplace else.

As Notre Dame has taught Schmidt, it’s really the only way to get into the big game.