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Notre Dame’s Prime-Time Walk-Ons

The recent news about Notre Dame junior linebacker Joe Schmidt elevating himself from walk-on to scholarship status, according to his teammates on Twitter, prompts one to think about what walk-ons have had the greatest impact at Notre Dame the past 50 years.

Shane Walton went from soccer star to football All-American at Notre Dame at the turn of this century.

“Rudy” gets the ink and royalties, but even better theater has been the actual Frank Merriwell-type stories on the field — not including the phenomenal string of special teams mainstays such as Mike Anello and Chris Salvi, or walk-on kickers Bob Thomas, Chuck Male, Mike Johnston, John Carney, Ted Gradel, Reggie Ho, Kevin Pendergast and David Ruffer.

Here are seven walk-ons who made profound impacts on offense or defense the past half-century:

ED GULYAS (1970-71)
There used to be a running joke in the 1960s and 1970s about Notre Dame’s relatively unheralded running backs such as Bob Gladieux, Denny Allan, Jeff Zimmerman, Ed Zeigler, Bill Gallagher, Bill Barz, Andy Huff, John Cieszkowski, Gary Diminick, Darryl Dewan … and, above all, Ed Gulyas: “You can’t expect to play for [Notre Dame running backs coach] Tom Pagna if you’re big and fast.” Under head coach Ara Parseghian, the best athletes, other than at quarterback, usually lined up on defense.

During Notre Dame’s No. 2 finish in 1970, capped by an upset of No. 1-ranked Texas, the California walk-on Gulyas emerged with a team-high 534 yards rushing. Gulyas also was an effective receiver, catching a 30-yard go-ahead touchdown pass in the second half versus Dan Devine’s Missouri team and making a diving catch of a Joe Theismann pass that gained 46 yards and set up the fourth-quarter game-winning TD in the hard-fought 10-7 victory over Georgia Tech.

Although he missed much of his senior year in 1971 with an injury, Gulyas’ five TDs that season still tied for the team lead.

TIM RUDNICK (1972-73)
Gary Potempa was the esteemed recruit from Notre Dame High in the Chicago area that year, but prep teammate Rudnick decided to join him at the big leagues Notre Dame in a walk-on capacity.

Surprisingly, the free safety inherited Theismann’s No. 7 jersey in 1971, after Theismann’s graduation, and became a two-year starter in a secondary that included stalwarts such as Luther Bradley and Mike Townsend on the 1973 national championship unit.

Rudnick intercepted six passes in those two seasons and his 10 pass deflections in ’73 were second to Bradley’s 11.

MIKE ORIARD (1968-69)
In his 1982 critically-acclaimed book, “The End Of Autumn,” Oriard revealed that a Spokane, Wash., dermatologist who was treating his acne problem made the call on Oriard’s behalf to the Notre Dame coaches to take him as a walk-on.

“Not exactly the stuff of Hollywood epics,” Oriard wrote.

The book revealed in detail the discouragement and daily temptations to quit that a walk-on endures. Yet after two years of getting hopes squashed, Oriard was the starting center midway through his junior year (after converting from defense) and selected as a team-captain his senior year in 1969 before partaking in an NFL career.

PAT EILERS & MIKE BRENNAN (1988-89)
These two walk-ons became starters on the 1988-89 units that set the school record for most consecutive victories with 23.

Guard Brennan’s first start came in the epic 31-30 victory over Miami – a game where flanker Eilers scored the go-ahead touchdown on a running play. They also would play in the NFL, Eilers for six years as a safety/special teams stalwart, and Brennan three years as an offensive tackle.

Both of their fathers were Notre Dame graduates, and they grew up imbued with its spirit. Their aspirations to play football at Notre Dame, though, were a long shot. William & Mary told Brennan he could never play for them, and Eilers opted to enroll at Yale, where he shared time on the freshman team in 1986.

During his freshman year at Notre Dame Brennan played lacrosse, where he could have been a star. Instead, he decided to try out as a 180-pound tight end before shifting to tackle.

“I thought to myself, ‘If I go ahead and walk away from lacrosse in order to play football, I will throw everything I’ve ever achieved away and start all over from the bottom,’ ” Brennan said. “That was a frightening thought. But I knew it was my chance to test myself because it was an all-or-nothing situation for me, and fear can be a great motivator.”

Eilers transferred to Notre Dame after his freshman year at Yale to pursue an ostensibly crazy dream. After working at safety in 1986 and 1987, he split starts with Ricky Watters at flanker in 1988 before having the position to himself in 1989 when Watters moved back to running back.

“If there is a burning desire to achieve something, and in your heart you know you can do it, then you should go for it even if everyone else doesn’t believe in you,” Eilers said. “I didn’t want to look back 20 years later and say, ‘I wonder how I could have done if I went to Notre Dame?’ I knew what I was getting into when I arrived as a walk-on. But I just made up my mind that I wasn’t going to give the coaches any decision but to play me.”

Walk-ons not only can make for good theater, but sometimes they also steal the show.

NICK RASSAS (1964-65)
Rudy had the best movie reviews — but it was Rassas who made a greater impact on film.

The walk-on out of Loyola Academy in Winnetka, Ill., tried out as a halfback for Joe Kuharich’s Notre Dame squad in 1961, but he was sidelined all of 1962 with a broken ankle. Midway through the 1963 campaign under interim head coach Hugh Devore, the varsity traveled to Stanford and Rassas stayed home and partook in a filmed scrimmage session. Desperate to find a diamond in the rough amidst a 2-7 season, Devore, after watching the film, told Rassas to “put on a white jersey” — meaning he was the new starting halfback.

When Ara Parseghian arrived in 1964, he utilized Rassas in the secondary and at halfback at the start of the campaign before changing his mind after a 12-yard run by Rassas.

“When I got to the bench, Ara said, ‘From now on, you’ll play only defense,’ ” Rassas recalled. “I guess I must have looked tired or something. Maybe Ara thought I would get hurt, but that was my last offensive play.”

Rassas went on to become a consensus All-American on defense, placing eighth nationally in interceptions (6) in 1965 and first in punt returns, with a school-record three going for scores. He also was a second-round draft pick.

SHANE WALTON (1999-2002)
Speaking of making an impact on film…

In the spring of 1999, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Jim Colletto was watching tape of a prospect from The Bishop’s School in San Diego, Calif. The athlete he intended to assess was pretty good, but he kept noticing someone else on the tape who dazzled him. Thus, Colletto placed a call to the high school head coach and inquired about this “hidden” gem. How can he get in touch with this player?

“He’s on your soccer team there at Notre Dame,” replied the high school coach.

The said player was Shane Walton, who in 1998 as a rookie forward led the Notre Dame soccer team in scoring with 10 goals and seven assists, earning second-team All-Big East honors. Similar to lacrosse star, Brennan, though, he opted to start from the bottom by pursuing his football dream.

By 1999, Walton was put on scholarship, and he became a starting cornerback next year, helping Notre Dame to a BCS bid. His highlight that season included intercepting a Drew Brees and returning it for a 60-yard touchdown in a 23-21 victory over Rose-Bowl bound Purdue.

A three-year starter, Walton earned consensus All-America notice in 2002 under first-year head coach Tyrone Willingham, who directed Notre Dame to an 8-0 start and No. 4 ranking before finishing 10-3. Walton was the team MVP not only with his leadership in the locker room but his excellence on the field. He paced the team in interceptions (7) and passes broken up (7), not including flicking away a two-point conversion late in the 25-23 victory over Michigan before making the game-clinching interception.

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