Walking the 'Walk-on': Notre Dame's Senior WOPU

By Tom O'Toole
Nick Fitzpatrick-WSBT.COM

Sticking with the subject of Senior Day at Notre Dame, let’s turn to the football successors of “Rudy,” the Notre Dame walk-ons. Due to the movie, the twenty-three walk-on players on the 2012 Notre Dame football team do have a slightly higher profile, including their own “union,” the “Walk-On Players Union,” or WOPU (complete with a presidential office and assumed power to appoint scholarship players as “honorary” walk-ons), a Twitter handle (@WOPUnation) as well as a real Irish sense of humor to pretend such a union could hold a candle to the rules of Coach Brian Kelly.

Certainly all twenty-three are worthy of a story, and I have little doubt, given WOPU’s demands, that I will get to them all someday. But for now, I’ll concentrate on three of the seniors, as Wake Forest represents not only their last chance to run out of the tunnel, but their last hope of stepping out on the stadium grass for real.

Our first featured walk-on is offensive lineman Matt Tansey. A 6’6″, 270 lb. senior hailing from Berkeley Heights, NJ, Tansey was a two-way standout lineman, wrestling team captain, and lacrosse player at Governor Livingston High School. Tansey—or perhaps more appropriately, Midshipman Second-Class Tansey—is a member of the Navy ROTC and will serve as a Naval officer after graduating from Notre Dame.

Asked about his feelings on being a Notre Dame walk-on, big ol’ #62 replied, “This has really been something special; to be a part of this team that has so much history. I haven’t had a chance to play yet, but it’s an honor just to be here.”

“I’m very lucky….There really is no difference between the starters and non-starters here. Everybody makes you feel like a part of this team. I’ll be walking the halls and you’re just as likely to get a ‘hello’ from the starting quarterback as you would from anybody else. I don’t feel like a practice-squad guy.”

Here’s hoping Saturday will be the day Tansey will no longer be a mere “practice-squad guy” any longer.

Our second walk-on story looms even larger; 6’7″, 294 lb. offensive tackle Dennis Mahoney. A senior from Baltimore, MD, Mahoney graduated from Boys Latin School where he served as student body president and received all-conference honors for his O-line play while maintaining a 4.2 GPA. He’ll soon graduate from Notre Dame with a degree in history with plans to attend law school.

Not only has Mahoney already played a key on-field role for the Irish, he made a big block (on his first-ever play from scrimmage) to spring Andrew Hendrix‘s amazing 78-yard run on Air Force in 2011, but the Baltimore native was then rewarded with making the travelling team for his first road game against Maryland last season.

Although it is hard enough to survive one season as a walk-on, Mahoney is the rare Irishman who has endured parts of five seasons in the practice trenches. But for Mahoney, it was surely a labor of love, for he dreamed of playing here since he was six and passed up scholarship offers elsewhere to make that dream come true.

Meanwhile, you can be sure that Mahoney’s parents, who have also sacrificed to be present for all of their son’s home games, will shed a tear or two during his last contest beneath the Dome.

Our last and least (in size, not heart) walk-on to be written up is wide receiver Nick Fitzpatrick. A local boy from nearby Mishawaka, IN, the 5’8″, 170 lb. Fitzpatrick is both the shortest (an inch shorter than Robby Toma) and lightest (a pound less than Davonte Neal) player on the Irish, and thus is the closest thing on this year’s Irish to Rudy.

Owning perhaps the least pedigree of all the walk-ons (Fitzpatrick was a mere honorable mention as a kicker and receiver for the AP’s Indiana 3A All-State Team in 2008 when he played for Marian High School), the main reason Fitzpatrick is featured is that his story was ordered by none other than Manti Te’o himself.

But seriously, when asked after the Michigan game if “there [was] something you saw on film that made you think you could get to [Robinson] and rattle him?” Te’o replied, “Talking about that, I want to give a big shout out to Nick Fitzpatrick. Better write an article about Nick. He was our Denard for the week on our scout team, and he’s one of my good friends, and he did a wonderful job in trying to duplicate what Denard does.”

“He was running all over the field,” Te’o continued, “and he gave us a great look along with the rest of the scout team. Definitely we were prepared. The coaches watched that film and drew up a great scheme to help us win, and the scout team headed by Nick Fitzpatrick really prepared us for today.”

And, just to prove this wasn’t hyperbole, Coach Kelly seconded the praise, adding, “I’d say Fitzy, in particular, did a nice job. He can throw the ball and he’s pretty quick. Obviously, we’re not going to duplicate (Robinson). But I think [Fitzpatrick] prepared us best as we can be for a guy of that magnitude.”

For those who’ve been following the Irish this season, they know that Notre Dame has been unable to pull away from any of its home opponents. So let’s pray for a blowout; not to embarrass Wake Forest or impress the pollsters, but so that the senior walk-ons get a chance to play. For while I have no doubt the unselfish WOPU seniors will settle for any kind of victory in their last home game at Notre Dame, another nail biter cannot compare to seeing “Fitzy” and company being carried off the field on the starters’ willing shoulders.

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