Sep 14, 2011, 11:19 AM EDT
“You’re five-foot nothin’, 100 and nothin’, and you have barely a speck of athletic ability …”
Though it is certainly not the case that the Notre Dame football walk-ons have “barely a speck of athletic ability” as Fortune suggested to Rudy, some of them, as is true with fifth-year cornerback Nick Lezynski, do compare to the now-legendary Ruettiger in their size and stature.
The 2011 marketing graduate from Newtown, Pa., is listed at 5-foot-9, 180 lbs. on the official Notre Dame roster, but it’s unclear if those measurements were taken before or after donning the shoulder pads and gold helmet.
No matter the sport, it takes a certain level of commitment to play Division I athletics, especially at an institution with the academic rigors of Notre Dame. Walking-on is a particularly telling sign of one’s love for the sport, as few walk-on athletes ever see significant playing time.
“Notre Dame football has always been it for me – kind of the gold so to speak, the treasure pot at the end of the rainbow,” Lezynski says. “I just decided to try out and go for it all.”
After passing the general conditioning and agility workout during the winter of his freshman year, Lezynski and 10-12 remaining athletes (from the original group of 60-70) worked out until spring practice.
“We were in the Gug at like 4:30 a.m., three or four days per week, doing conditioning, body weight exercises, push-ups, sit-ups, a ton of them. If you survived, you were put on the spring roster.”
Though he is now a cornerback, Lezynski tried out at quarterback – the position he played in high school – because Jimmy Clausen was the only quarterback on the spring roster while backup Evan Sharpley was playing baseball for the Irish.
After making it through spring practice, and even completing a pass in the Blue-Gold game, Lezynski received the news – he had reached that “pot of gold” – he was officially a Notre Dame football player.
Last season, he saw some action on special teams, including a kickoff return play in the fourth quarter of Notre Dame’s 23-16 victory over Pittsburgh.
“That was really fulfilling for me because it was meaningful playing time and I always wanted to contribute to a close Notre Dame win.”
Among Notre Dame’s unique characteristics are the particularly strong lifelong friendships that students develop during their time here. Sports build relationships and football players are known to have an especially strong bond.
For Fighting Irish walk-ons, this connection is commonly referred to as ‘WOPU Nation’ (Walk-on Players Union).
“We added ‘Nation’ because it sounds better,” he says. “My group of walk-ons and the guys that were a year or two older, we just had a really good bond both in and out of football. Those are guys that we’re going to be friends with for the rest of our lives.
“It’s a brotherhood, not like a fraternity, though I guess it could be equated to that. But really it’s just something we’re proud of. We’re like any other social group, I suppose. We have formals, t-shirts, e-mail chains, members and honorary members. A lot of the scholarship guys have wanted to be a part of it.”
They refer to Mike Anello (’09), who gained widespread recognition for his role as a key Irish special teams player, as the “godfather of WOPU Nation.” Last year’s president of WOPU, Lezynski has since handed the reins over to senior Sean Oxley. “I’m the president emeritus,” he jokes. “The man behind the scenes.”
While it may sound like a goofy exclusive club to the average outsider, it is much more than that and it’s something that current and former walk-ons hold close to heart.
“The older guys are still very much a part of it and we want to be able to carry on that tradition. We like to talk trash to one another and we make fun of ourselves, but we do it for Notre Dame first. WOPU is for having that pride in Notre Dame. We want to be Notre Dame men and we want to spread that to other people, let other people share in it.”
Though every walk-on story seems to beg the comparison to the famous movie, it’s not just Lezynski’s unassuming figure, but also his love for Notre Dame that parallels Ruettiger’s story.
No. 42 for the Fighting Irish is “gold and blue, through and through.” His parents and sister graduated from the University, and his brother, Blaise is a freshman baseball player for the Irish. And the name of his high school? Notre Dame, of course.
Lezynski hopes to eventually pursue a career in sports, perhaps in a professional front office, college athletics administration or coaching.
“I’ve always wanted to be a coach, ever since I was little,” he says. “I guess I knew I wouldn’t be able to play for a long time.”
But four years as part of the Notre Dame football program is certainly longer than even he might have expected when he arrived on campus as a freshman in August 2007.
Though walk-ons do not leave Notre Dame with the statistics, records or celebrity recognition of some scholarship athletes, their passion and appreciation for the university is just as strong.
“Although we’ve struggled at times, there’s never a second guess in striving for excellence in every category. I’m proud of Notre Dame for being a program that’s not just striving for success on the field, but also off the field. I like being part of a class organization, excellence and what it stands for, knowing that we have the power, as players, to create a new tradition for Notre Dame based on the commitment and passion of fans and players from the past.”
Getting to Know Nick Lezynski
Favorite place on campus … The Grotto
Favorite dining hall food … NDH pasta stir-fry and make-your-own pizza
Favorite TV show … 24 – I aspire to be as cool as Jack Bauer some day. He is an honorary member of WOPU Nation.
Favorite sports team … I have a “Favorite Four” – Bears, Patriots, Saints and Steelers. I sort of root for players and organizations, not necessarily teams. I feel like they run their organizations with the most class.
Favorite athlete while growing up … Dan Marino and Jackie Robinson
Most played song on iPod … “Club Can’t Handle Me,” by Flo Rida. Fellow walk-on Mike Garcia (’11) can attest to that.
Sport I’d be playing if not football … Lacrosse
About Strong and True
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