If there wasn’t already a movie about an unlikely Notre Dame football walk-on, defensive lineman Grant Patton might have scripts to browse. When he was a senior at St. Xavier High School in Louisville, he did not play football. During his first two years of college, he did not even attend Notre Dame. When he was finally accepted to the university as a junior, he played for his dormitory’s intramural football team. But on Jan. 7 the senior will put on his gold helmet and run through the tunnel with the Fighting Irish as they face Alabama for the national championship. He’s “Rudy” with a cellphone and a Twitter account, and he’s as astonished by his journey as anyone.
“It’s almost unbelievable,” Patton said by phone from South Bend, Ind., perhaps while pinching himself. “To be on the field, with that jersey, with that helmet, it’s like a Disney moment.”
Patton was a seldom-used backup tight end as a junior at St. Xavier. That spring he became a standout discus thrower, drawing college interest from the likes of Yale, Cornell and Louisville. He left the St. X football team as a senior so he could focus on track and field.
But his lifelong devotion to the Fighting Irish never wavered. He made St. X athletics T-shirts with designs similar to Notre Dame’s, and the morning after his senior prom, he drove to South Bend to watch the annual Blue-Gold intrasquad scrimmage. (Who doesn’t want to drive four-something hours the morning after the prom?)
“I was just standing there,” Patton said, “and I decided I wanted to be able to wear one of those jerseys one day.”
This aim could not be quenched by a trip to the sporting goods store. Patton wanted to become a Notre Dame football player despite the myriad reasons it seemed implausible. He hadn’t been recruited by the Irish or even granted admission as an undergraduate.
He enrolled at Holy Cross College in South Bend, which often serves as a feeder for Notre Dame transfers, and he interned in the Notre Dame sports marketing department. He sold T-shirts at sporting events, was an announcer at softball games and even filled in as a cheerleader for a women’s basketball game.
Patton tried to transfer before the fall semester of his sophomore year, but he was denied. He tried again before the spring semester and was rejected again. On his third attempt he was accepted.
As a junior he played offensive line, defensive line and fullback in the university’s intramural league, which is full-contact, full-pads and full-on.
“It was football in its purest form,” he said. “It was a blast.”
His dorm, Sorin College, won the university championship in Notre Dame Stadium, and a slice of Patton’s dream had come true. But his outsize ambitions lingered.
He submitted an initial application to walk on, listing basics such as height, weight and playing experience. Of course, 6-foot-6, 256-pound linemen do not grow on trees — or, for that matter, clovers.
Patton was invited to the football office for an interview, and when he left he was told he’d have 15 spring practices to prove himself. At the first session an assistant coach told him the experience would be as challenging as drinking from a fire hose.
“And he was right,” Patton said.
Three walk-on defensive linemen were vying for two spots. One was summoned to the football facility to clean out his locker when spring practice ended, and that was how Patton found out he’d made the team.
“It’s just a great story for kids to know that if you have a dream and you follow it, you can do anything,” St. X coach Mike Glaser said.
Patton picked the perfect time to become a Notre Dame football player. The No. 1 Irish blitzed through a 12-0 season, including victories over Michigan, Stanford and Oklahoma. Although Patton has not played, the experience has been indelible.
He said the first time he ran out of the locker room under the iconic, hand-painted “Play Like a Champion Today” sign, he felt numb. He knelt on the grass and gathered himself.
His role is a mixture of tackling dummy, cheerleader and practice player, and he’s fine with that. He received a framed jersey on senior day and heard his name announced in front of 80,000 fans, and now he’s headed to Miami, where he will wear his gold helmet and be a part of a national title game.
“It’s crazy after games when you see 200 people outside wanting his autograph,” said his mother, Alison. “He’s not Manti T’eo or the quarterback, but they don’t care. He’s someone who plays for Notre Dame, and that’s all he ever wanted.”