- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- For about two years, Matthias and Kenan Farley had a bet going: Who could grow his hair longer? The winner would receive nothing. For the loser who gave in and chopped his dreads off first, fate would simply intervene and deliver a cruel destiny.
"It would bring shame on the household," Kenan said, struggling to contain laughter.
By cutting his hair for the first workouts upon his arrival at Notre Dame, Matthias lost the bet. He kept the remains out of sentimental value, storing them at his parents' house in Charlotte, N.C. And what he has done with the Fighting Irish in the two years since has caused the exact opposite effect of the wager's intended consequences.
Irony hardly begins to define the rapid rise of Farley, who will start at safety against Alabama in Monday night's Discover BCS National Championship. The sixth of eight children -- and the fourth of six brothers -- Farley avoided the gridiron for much of his life to carve his own identity. He gave in as a prep junior, went to Notre Dame as a receiver, then changed positions after a redshirt season. Then he found himself starting four weeks into his first year of playing, Jamoris Slaughter's Week 3 Achilles tear giving way to the next challenge for an eccentric athlete always seeking new ones.
"He's not afraid of anything, any challenge," head coach Brian Kelly said. "If you ask him if he's got to take Portuguese, he'll learn Portuguese. There's nothing that he looks at and goes, 'I can't do this.' He's got so much pride and so much confidence in himself that any task that you ask him to do, he's going to find a way."
Such is life in a family with an unspoken demand of excellence.
Mark, a jazz drummer, home-schooled most of his kids with wife, Falinda, now an online marketer. One brother, Timon, 29, played hoops in Italy. Another, Nathan, 27, played tight end at Coastal Carolina. Along the way came Charis (26), Kenan (24) and Joy (23), who played volleyball and modeled, followed by Matthias (19) and Silas (18), who passed up going to Harvard to take an apprenticeship with the New York City Ballet. All of their names are tied to biblical readings in one way or another.
On Sept. 19, 1996, Titus was born. Internal blockage kept waste from exiting his body. From oldest to youngest, all of his older siblings got to hold him before he died 30 minutes after birth.
"I think it made us all more tender-hearted," Falinda said. "We don't take life for granted. We appreciate each other more, and we appreciated this baby boy."
The togetherness of the family has been on display throughout Notre Dame's resurgent season and throughout the attention that Matthias' play during it has brought it. When the Irish clinched the title-game spot with a goal-line stand at USC, Nathan, who lives in Los Angeles, was being mobbed by friends in the stands.
"Everyone was like congratulating me as if I made the tackle myself," Nathan said. "I'm like, 'I've been hanging with y'all all day. I didn't do any of that.'"
When Timon, an account manager at the Select Group in Raleigh, walked into a meeting Friday morning, one of his bosses announced that all of his co-workers had pooled in money from their own pockets to pay for a flight and hotel so that Timon could see Matthias play on Monday.
It is all coming around for the Farleys, who have paid it forward every step of the way. Matthias makes it a point to seek out the young and the handicapped after games. His family and friends distributed nameless checks to needy people around Christmastime following a holiday dinner at the house of a family friend, who embarked on the act of charity after a successful year financially.
"I think that to whom much has been given, much is required," Timon said. "So I think there's been some generosity from our family to one another as siblings, but I think it's a product of being appreciative of some great gifts from other people."
Matthias' oldest and youngest siblings will be at Sun Life Stadium with his parents and countless other friends. The rest will be watching from their separate pockets of the country, with Kenan likely holding a blown-up head of Matthias that he and his girlfriend had made earlier this season, complete with the hair that Matthias has rarely groomed since that initial cut.
"He's definitely got the beard," said Kenan, who works at a tech company in Charlotte.
During Notre Dame's first media session here Thursday, a reporter asked a number of Irish players about their facial hair. The question was met with quips here and there, and then came Farley's turn.
"A lot of it's genetic," he said. "I think you have to have, first off, the capability to grow a beard, and there's a lot of maintenance that you might not think of: The lip hair becomes an issue every once in a while; you have to trim it or lose your top lip. If you let it go long enough, you'll lose your bottom lip, and then eating becomes a hassle.
"So just the constant grooming really shows commitment to the beard once it gets past a certain point."
If that doggedness sounds familiar, that is because, on a larger scale, it is.
Upon his switch to defense, Farley would go to safeties coach Bob Elliott's office after every practice, studying 30 to 40 minutes of film before he joined the rest of his teammates for a belated dinner.
"I've got to give him credit because he was willing to do all the extra work that it takes," Elliott said. "Some guys will do the work that's put out there for them, and Matthias does that work, plus he goes and searches for work to get himself better, and he's spent a lot of extra time."
A former aspiring soccer star, Farley broke his right thumb in an Oct. 27 win at Oklahoma. He had two plates and four pins inserted afterward and never missed a game, playing with his digit heavily wrapped. During one game at Charlotte Christian High, he had suffered a severe dislocation of a finger and did not tell anyone until afterward. A team trainer told his father that he had the highest pain tolerance of any athlete he had ever seen.
Yet Farley's off-the-field demeanor paints a juxtaposition like few others.
His sister Charis examined personalities in college and determined that Matthias was orange, fitting with his energetic, sociable and likable character.
When Nathan sat him down during his senior year of high school to tell him how college offered fresh starts for everyone, Matthias shrugged, saying he planned on wearing tie-dyed shirts and carrying a guitar strapped to his back at all times.
"He can't play guitar, but he was just going to be mysterious or something," Nathan said. "He's a strange bird, but I love the dude."
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