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Irish Free Agency: 1980-89

Every year a number of former college football standouts go undrafted and try to break into the National Football League via free agency. Among the Notre Dame alumni that weren’t selected in the seven-round NFL Draft this year were center Braxston Cave, offensive guard Mike Golic Jr., wide receiver John Goodman and running back Cierre Wood. Each signed undrafted free agent deals in the days that followed, with Cave inking a deal with Cleveland, Golic Jr. landing in Pittsburgh, Goodman signing with Cincinnati and Wood reaching an agreement with Houston.

Offensive guard Mike Golic Jr. has an opportunity with Pittsburgh heading into the 2013 season.

That’s only the first step, however, as it’s difficult to last in the league going that route. It got us thinking: Which former Fighting Irish players to go undrafted had the most successful careers in the NFL? Which ones went one and done? Which had potential but where derailed by injury?

In part four of our series, we examine the former Notre Dame standouts that worked their way into the NFL as undrafted free agents from 1980-89 and how they fared:

1980 — Linebacker Mike Whittington (1980-83) lasted four seasons with the New York Giants and didn’t record any statistics before moving on to the USFL’s Memphis Showboats.

1986 — Safety Pat Ballage was activated for five games over two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, but did not register a tackle.

Traded to the St. Louis Cardinals from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, reserve linebacker Rick Dibernardo (1986-87) lined up at long snapper in 16 games as a rookie. He appeared in three games for St. Louis the following year before being cut in September.

Fullback/running back Chris Smith (1986-87) played in one game in 1986 and played as a scab for a few games during the strike in the 1987 season, when he had 26 rushing attempts for 114 yards.

1987 — Linebackers Dave Butler and Mike Kovaleski appeared in one game for Cleveland, and Ron Weissenhofer saw the field in once contest for the New Orleans Saints.

Offensive linemen Shawn Heffern and Ron Plants both played in one game for the Indianapolis Colts.

Tight end Joel Williams appeared in three games for the Miami Dolphins and did not have a reception.

Cornerback Troy Wilson returned 10 punts in three games for Cleveland, averaging 10.1 yards per return.

1988 — Placekicker John Carney went undrafted in 1987, but connected with Tampa Bay for the 1988-89 seasons. He went on to play for the Los Angeles Rams (1990), San Diego Chargers (1990-2000), New Orleans Saints (2001-06), Jacksonville Jaguars (2007), Kansas City Chiefs (2007), New York Giants (2008) and New Orleans Saints again (2009-10). He was a three-time All-Pro selection (1990, 1994 and 2008), won a Super Bowl ring as a consultant with the Saints, which beat Indianapolis 31-17 on Feb. 7, 2010. He was waived in October 2010 at the age of 46 (oldest active player at the time).

Carney made 473 of 574 career field goal attempts (82.4 percent) and 625 of 635 extra points (98.4 percent), with a career long field goal of 54 yards and finishing his career with 2,062 points.

1989 — Receiver Joe Howard-Johnson won a Super Bowl ring (1990 season) with Washington (1989-91), spending the first two seasons as a kickoff and punt return specialist. He brought back 31 punts for 299 yards and 43 kickoffs for 949 yards and a touchdown those two years. He played in just two games for the Redskins in 1991. The following season he started six of 15 games played for Minnesota, catching 21 passes for 211 yards and a score.

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