Walking on again

5th-year Mike Anello a rare breed

October 1, 2009, 9:09 PM

By: Eric Hansen

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Writhing on the field, pretending not to feel the pain, Mike Anello looked into Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis' eyes and made a promise.

He would be back in 2009 to make a difference.

Mike Anello

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Mike Anello is a rarity at Notre Dame -- a fifth-year walk-on.

"He told me lying on the field with his broken leg," Weis said, incredulously, months later. "He said, 'I'm going to be back here for a fifth year, and you can count on me for Nevada.' He is lying on the field and he was thinking about the opener for next year."

The special teams specialist will be ready again Saturday when the Irish (3-1) host Washington (2-2) at Notre Dame Stadium.

Rarely do former walk-ons get invited back for a fifth year at Notre Dame. Even more rarely do they jump at the invitation.

But the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Carl Sandburg High grad has been spellbound with the place and vice versa ever since being talked into coming to ND by … a janitor.

"I was close to going to the University of Illinois," he said. "I came for a visit [when in high school] and was wandering through Dillon Hall. I had like a two-minute conversation with this janitor, who had stopped me. I walked away, and something about it kind of struck me. It's been the best decision I've made.

"Now here I am a fifth-year senior. I tell people I'm on a victory lap right now. This is an amazing place. I tell people all the time, 'There's a difference between playing in front of 80,000 people and playing in front of 80,000 Notre Dame fans, because those people have so much passion."

Anello doesn't channel all his own passion into football. This fall he is in the process of helping to organize an event for the St. Baldrick's Foundation.

St. Baldrick's is the world's largest volunteer-driven fundraising event for childhood cancer research. Thousands of volunteers shave their heads in solidarity of children with cancer, while requesting donations of support from friends and family.

This past offseason, Anello and roughly a dozen of his teammates shaved their heads and visited with some cancer-stricken kids.

"When I broke my leg, all through the rehab right through the start of the season, I felt pain," he said. "And whenever I did, I thought of two things: our troops fighting for this country and those kids and their big smiles. And I never let myself feel bad about my situation.

"One of the kids knew who I was. Even the ones who didn't, it didn't matter to them. You could see what an impact we could have on them, and that's why I'm trying to do more."

More teammates with shaved heads. More events throughout the year. More events smack in the middle of football season, if Anello has his way.

On the field, Anello certainly had his way last season. The former Illinois Scholastic Wrestler of the Year posted numbers so prolific that the third-string cornerback actually made the Lott Trophy watch list, along with guys like Big Ten Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones of Michigan State and USC All-America safety Taylor Mays.

To put Anello's impact into perspective, ND had 72 kicks (kickoffs and punts) returned against it last year, and Anello made the tackle on 23 of them, including the play that broke his leg.

He also blocked a punt against Navy and partially blocked one against Syracuse, forced two fumbles and recovered one fumble.

This year the numbers are down so far -- just three tackles. But Weis attributes the slower statistical start to the fact the Irish have had just two punts returned against them in four games so far this season.

"As a cover guy, his numbers will increase as the year goes on," Weis said. "There's no doubt we'll get production from him."

Even if the numbers stay flat, it seems Anello will find a way to keep his promise. In fact, he has taken on the role of coaching the scout-team secondary in practice.

"I'd love to do some coaching for real someday," said Anello, who will do it on the side, with all the corporate/financial people trying to get their hands on him and his near 4.0 GPA in the coming months. "There were so many coaches that made a difference in my life that I just want to give back somehow, some way.

"For now, what I try to do with the show-team guys is get them to buy into making the most of their time down there. No one wants to be down there. They want to be up with the first-team guys. But that's why I've been successful the past couple of years. I made the most of every scout-team rep. I don't know any other way to do things."

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