MIAMI — Cierre Wood’s life is drastically different than it was this time a year ago, when he and his Notre Dame teammates let a 14-point second-half lead over Florida State slip away in a Champs Sports Bowl defeat en route to a disappointing 8-5 record.
Cierre Wood doesn't know if he'll be back next year, but he appreciates everything that's happened over the last 12 months
Saturday, standing on the sideline at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, where No. 1 Notre Dame will take on No. 2 Alabama Monday for the BCS National Championship, the senior running back basked in glory of being four quarters away from college football’s pinnacle.
He expected as much.
“I can honestly say, for our class, we had a chance to win it all; we knew that from the get-go coming in,” Wood said. “At the beginning of the season did I know or think we’d finish in the national championship? I knew we had a chance — a high chance.
“There’s a lot of things that have to go right … we just had to take care of business in those big games.”
And not everything went right or according to plan, and Wood’s personal journey to Miami wasn’t without a series of unexpected turns.
Wood chose Notre Dame in part for an opportunity to play right way, which isn’t how things played out. Redshirted as a freshman in former head coach Charlie Weis’ final season in 2009, a jilted Wood admitted there was need for an attitude adjustment, which was easier to implement when he began to play a major role in 2010 (603 yards and three touchdowns on 119 carries) behind starter Armando Allen.
Last fall, Wood shared snaps with late-blooming senior Jonas Gray, and the two combined for 1,914 yards and 21 touchdowns, with Wood registering 1,102 yards and nine scores. Coming off such a productive year, Wood, who became a father of a baby girl at the end of 2011, expected to be the featured back in 2012.
With that role he would have had no trouble stockpiling footage for NFL scouts, turn pro and be able to take care of little 1-year-old Braelyn, whom most Fighting Irish fans saw for the first time at Notre Dame’s Senior Day on Nov. 17 against Wake Forest.
Wood shared carries this year with roommate and fellow senior Theo Riddick and sophomore George Atkinson III, developing close friendships with both
Instead, Wood was suspended for the first two games of the year for violating team rules, ended up supporting senior Theo Riddick, who spent the previous two years at slot receiver, and seemingly being muzzled by third-year head coach Brian Kelly.
An often braggadocios Wood said he doesn’t know why he was rarely made available to the media this season, nor does he care, and that his relationship with Kelly remained healthy.
“He’s had my back since he first got here,” Wood, who said he’ll wait until sometime after the championship game to announce whether he’ll return for another season or enter the NFL Draft, said of Kelly. “It took me a while to get used to him — same thing with him getting used to us, and me in particular. When I was in trouble and all that stuff, he had my back the whole time. He was in my head making sure I was stable and making sure my mind wasn’t wandering. I would say my relationship with him is very, very good.”
Wood’s newest relationship is much more complicated. His daughter lives with her mother, Wood’s girlfriend, in Las Vegas. The two rely on online video conferencing to stay in touch. Wood says he understands what Braelyn is saying, and that she understands him. Most importantly, he said, “I can see her face and she can see my face, so she can know who I am.”
“Being around them while they’re this young is a very, very important thing, at least to me it is,” He said. “That does play a big role in my decision. I talk to her day in and day out.”
On that sunny day in November, when Wood took the field at Notre Dame Stadium for the final time, the two shared an embrace at the 50-yard line.
“That was honestly the best moment of my life,” said Wood, who enters Monday’s title game with 740 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 110 carries in 10 contests. “That was the main thing I wanted, to have my daughter on the field with me. My mom put her down and she actually walked to me as I was coming up to her. That actually made me shed a tear as I was walking up to her. That’s just one of the most beautiful things that’s ever happened in my life. I’m so blessed and proud to have my daughter by my side.”
He made the most of a difficult situation over the last year, sending every leftover dime to Las Vegas, and covering the cost of a family reunion in South Bend for Braelyn’s first birthday.
“It forces you to grow up a lot more,” he explained. “Usually when I get financial aid and stuff like that, I’m like, ‘Yes, I’m about to go shopping; I’m about to do this and this.’ Now it’s like, when I get it, I send all the money back home so she can have diapers and so she can have this and have that.
“When it was her birthday, I flew her and my girlfriend out here and we were just having a good time. We celebrated her birthday, [had] cake and bought her all sorts of clothes. I bought her all kinds of Ralph Lauren because she’s like me — she likes the style. I spent like half of that [financial aid] just on her alone. Usually, I’m like a selfish person when it comes to money and stuff like that. I always want to buy stuff for me; I want to buy shoes, cologne, everything. Now it’s like, I don’t care about me. I couldn’t care less. I can survive off of $20 if I had to. I could get some noodles and some juice and I’d be good. As long as she has everything she needs, then that’s all I really care about.”
And winning football games — even if it means sliding out of the spotlight. Riddick carried the ball 180 times this year, churning out 880 yards and five touchdowns to pace the Irish. Sophomore George Atkinson III has carried the ball 51 times for 361 yards and five scores.
“Given the fact that the more I saw me, Theo and George practice, the more we started to understand more things as far as the all-around game of football, not just our position, I knew all of us were going to play,” he said. “I had no problem with that. Those are two of my best friends on the team. Theo is my roommate and George, I’ve connected with George since he got here. … We all just hit it off. We all had the best of relations as far as this whole season goes. I pretty much knew I was going to have to split time, and I was perfectly fine with that. As long as we were successful, that’s all I really cared about.
“We have a good team, we have a good stable of running backs, we all can eat, as we say, and we can all share the wealth. I had no problem with that at all.”