These are Michael Stonebreaker’s glory days. Right now — today and tomorrow. What he did as a two-time consensus All-American inside linebacker at Notre Dame and his brief stint at the professional level are only footnotes, albeit proud ones, in his life.
From left to right, Michael Stonebreaker, Barry Alvarez, Frank Stams and Wes Pritchett reunited in Miami for the BCS National Championship Game.
That’s why when he’s introduced to folks as the Michael Stonebreaker, despite their level of enthusiasm for football or the Fighting Irish, Stonebreaker cringes on the inside.
“They’re fond memories,” he said from his home in New Orleans. “I’m comfortable with that part of my life; I’m comfortable with the things we did as a team and the success and camaraderie we had as players and coaches and the student body at that time at Notre Dame. I have pride in that and those experiences.
“But that’s not who I am today as a person.”
Stonebreaker built a hard-hitting reputation as a freshman in 1986, when he made 19 of his 21 tackles over the last five games in an increased reserve role, and is remembered as a contributing member on and off the field of the “Three Amigos,” which included elder linebackers Frank Stams and Wes Pritchett — a trio that served as the heart of lockdown defense that led Notre Dame to the national championship in 1988. Stonebreaker was second on the team that season with 104 tackles and finished third in the Butkus Award vote.
He’s also remembered for sitting out the 1987 season, when he would have first cracked the starting lineup, for academic issues, as well as the 1989 campaign for a highly publicized arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol after wrecking his car and injuring both himself and a female passenger. Instead of spending the 1989 season helping defend Notre Dame’s crown, he spent 80 hours of community service mostly speaking to area high school students about the dangers of drinking and driving, at the same time recovering from fractures to his face and injuries to his knee, hip and a severed artery in his leg. He bounced back in 1990 to be named an All-American just as he was two years earlier, once again missing out on the Butkus Award in third place after registering 95 tackles.
His academic eligibility in 1987 was due in part to a childhood injury that left him deaf in one ear. An infection in one of the bones while at Notre Dame left Stonebreaker in a lot of pain, making it hard for him to concentrate in class. Looking back, however, the turbulent times were all part of his education in South Bend.
“The hurdles and setbacks I went through develop you as a person,” he said. “When you’re going in as a projected starter your sophomore year at Notre Dame as an inside linebacker, and it’s taken away by [your own doing], that’s something you have to deal with at an early age and help to build your character.
“It’s not the end of the world. You learn a lot. I had a really great time that year not being involved in football. I didn’t have to go to practices; I didn’t spend any time with the team at all. I was able to be a non-football-playing student at Notre Dame, go to the tailgates, go to the games and enjoy my evenings and my weekends with my classmates and dormmates.”
A fresh perspective from the bleachers for a handful of games in 1989 helped him when he rejoined the squad the following year.
“It slowed the game down a lot for me watching from the stands,” Stonebreaker said. “It’s basically tackling the man with the ball; it’s not that difficult of a game to play.”
It wasn’t at Notre Dame, but circumstances beyond his control made the transition to the professional level difficult.
Selected 245th overall in the ninth round of the 1991 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears, Stonebreaker appeared in 16 games that season (eight tackles), was in limbo for two years after being cut and played in two contests for the New Orleans Saints in 1994. He spent 1995 with the Frankfurt Galaxy of the World League and was part of a World Bowl championship before saying goodbye to the game.
“Playing for the Chicago Bears when you’re 24 or 25 years old, you’re single and you have a pocket full of money in the greatest sports town in the country … It was a dream come true,” he said. “Mike Singletary was there in the last couple years of his career. In my mind I was an inside linebacker and was more comfortable in between the tackles. I look back at my NFL career and I didn’t get a lot of chances on the field during games to play that position. I’ve always had confidence in my ability. Practice gear and game gear are two totally different things you can’t gauge until you get 15-20 snaps during the game. I always felt that over the course of game I was going to react more accurately and quicker. I just never really got that opportunity at that level.”
It was an “uphill battle” Stonebreaker was no longer willing to fight, and he was eager for new challenges. A yearlong road trip around the country helped him clear his head before a chance encounter in San Francisco piqued his curiosity concerning the business world.
He started a check-cashing/guarantee company that took off and was eventually sold six years later. That enterprise began with 15 outdated computers, all of which required swapping out the motherboards and SIM cards — a task he learned after purchasing a copy of “Windows For Dummies”. Now he’s back in New Orleans with his girlfriend and four daughters, enjoying the perks of his most recent venture started in 2004.
Like many 46 year olds, Stonebreaker’s average day is fueled by caffeine. In fact, he’s pretty particular about his coffee selection. As CEO of N.O. Brew Coffee — a cold-drip, handcrafted product he and his business partner, Fred Peer, brew, bottle, and label themselves — Stonebreaker weathered Hurricane Katrina and now boasts a presence in stores all over the United States.
“I always felt like I had that entrepreneurial spirit and/or didn’t like to take orders from other people, so I figured I might as well work for myself,” he said.
That’s who Michael Stonebreaker is now — content, successful entrepreneur and boss man. The years spent cracking offensive players with spectacular ferocity seem like a lifetime ago, but he credits that special time for shaping his character.
Speaking of which …
“Coffee has 278 distinguishing characteristics, second only to red wine,” Stonebreaker said. “Cold-dripping coffee leaves 70 percent of the bitter acids in the beans, which leads to a smoother product.
“A lot of people don’t like to deal with the grounds and the nuts of coffee; coffee’s a dirty business. We take that away, process 500 pounds of coffee at a time, bottle it and sell it in the refrigeration section of grocery stores.”
Stonebreaker said he was never wired for some of the typical jobs athletes gravitate toward when their playing careers end, most notably coaching.
“Coaches put too much time in,” he said, downplaying an evident work ethic that’s necessary for the 15-hour days he works in the coffee game. “They’re up until 10 or 11 o’clock breaking down film. My good friend Todd Lyght [cornerback at Notre Dame] has been coaching for about four or five years now [currently as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles]. He absolutely loves it, but it’s just not for me.”
In some ways, neither was playing professional football.
“Going to work every day in the air conditioning is a lot easier than day three of camp,” Stonebreaker said. “You’re laying in the grass at 7 a.m., your head feels like it’s about to explode and you know you have three practices ahead of you in the 98-degree heat. This [business] is not that difficult. I knew we were going to be successful because I knew I was going to put the time in.”