How Notre Dame's Joe Schmidt helped a grieving family

Notre Dame middle linebacker Joe Schmidt went from walk-on to team captain during a stellar career. Cal Sport Media/AP Images

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A father and his oldest son arrived at Notre Dame from New Orleans for a college visit last August before the Irish's 2014 opener against Rice.

The father's brother had attended Notre Dame -- as their father did before him -- and Dad wanted to give the first of his seven kids a sense of the tradition.

During their tour, an instructor told a story about a walk-on who would go on to lead the Irish in tackles that Saturday against the Owls. The guide said the player had been admitted to Notre Dame in 2011 on his academic record and earned an athletic scholarship in fewer than three years. He said the 6-foot-1, 235-pounder would be starting at middle linebacker, and that he had won over his team and campus with his determination.

That linebacker would go on to win over many others in those next two seasons in his rise from walk-on to team MVP and, eventually, team captain. He became one of the most visible faces of the Notre Dame program. But he had an even bigger impact on that father visiting Notre Dame with his son that Labor Day weekend.

I like that guy, the man said to himself on the tour.

Then he heard the player's name: Joe Schmidt.

That name gave the father, Evans Schmidt, a special reason to root for the linebacker: Evans had a 9-year-old with the same name.

The boy had died three months earlier.

Even by Notre Dame standards, Joe Schmidt's storybook career at the school -- which will come to a close with Friday's BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State -- is well-worn territory. Thanks to Schmidt's starring role in Showtime's "A Season With" series, his name became known in many households that have no connection to South Bend.

But his impact goes beyond the tired "Rudy" comparisons. It goes beyond having the second-most regular-season tackles by an Irish player in each of the past two years -- despite missing four of those games in 2014. And it goes beyond Notre Dame's 17-3 record in games that he started -- and the fact that just eight total points separate him from a perfect 20-0.

"Sometimes when you reach this point with a student-athlete, you embrace the relationship, but you start to rue the day they're not around," athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. "Joe's a kid I know is going to stay connected to the place. I don't worry at all about a future relationship."

Each Thursday this season, Schmidt joined Swarbrick as co-host on the AD's radio show. The pair was a hit, in part because Schmidt, unlike many players, embraces the media.

Swarbrick has been impressed by the depth of questions Schmidt asked on the radio show. Coaches of various Irish sports teams are regular guests, and Schmidt, who interned in the school's investment office, would often skip the throat-clearing queries and dive straight into guests' analytics and leadership philosophies.

"There's so much about him that we can closely identify with as coaches that makes it such a great relationship," said head coach Brian Kelly, who was also once an undersized linebacker, albeit one who played for a Division II school.

Schmidt's smarts and football acumen aren't the only reasons he has developed such a fan base at the school and in the community. The linebacker was the team's nominee for the American Football Coaches Association Good Works team, which honors football players for their community service, and one of his volunteer activities is helping the elderly at Healthwin, a physical therapy clinic. He had become such a hit among staff and patients that the group had T-shirts designed for game days. They sent two pictures of the Saturday scene to the Irish football complex: The photos show dozens of senior citizens, each wearing a blue-and-gold T-shirt that says, "Joe's The Man."

Dear Joe,

My name is Evans Schmidt. We have not met before. ...

The letter, dated Oct. 13, 2014, began like so many others -- a Notre Dame fan professing his love for the school and admiration of Joe's rise through the football program. Three paragraphs in, though, Evans said his family had a special reason to root for Joe: Evans' son, Joseph, had been killed that past Memorial Day in a boating accident:

To watch you out there, in a special way, allows me to cheer not just for all those wonderful values of hard work and leadership but it also allows me to cheer in a way I can't fully explain, for our little Joe in heaven.

A teary-eyed Joe Schmidt, confined to the couch after ankle surgery, handed the letter to his mother, Debra, who had been living near campus for the season.

"Mom," he said, "I can't take it."

Mom had an idea. Notre Dame players are given medals that are blessed at a pre-game mass. What if Joe sent one to the other Schmidt family? So Joe took the medal he received before senior day against Louisville and gave it to his mother. For whatever reason, it stayed in Debra's purse until the Irish's awards banquet three weeks later, when her son was announced as team MVP.

That week, the two packaged up the medal, a letter from each of them and a picture of the medal attached to a Notre Dame helmet and Joe's MVP plaque. Joe signed the image: "Schmidt Family, I'm sharing my journey with you."

Evans Schmidt, a lawyer, was in his office around Christmas time when he received the package. The gift inspired overwhelming emotion.

"When I reached out to Joe Schmidt last year, it was in the aftermath of the greatest personal tragedy and loss I've ever known and likely will ever know," Evans Schmidt said. "I've never written an athlete in my life, but I felt a certain affinity to this kid.

"What is truly remarkable is both his and his mother's very human, considerate and loving response to our family. Our family had precious little to offer Joe Schmidt ... but he chose to reach out to us, a family he had never met, 1,000 miles away, struggling with loss."

Reach out to anyone around the Michiana region, and you're sure to hear a story of someone interacting with Joe Schmidt: There's Pat Concannon and his group of fellow New York City firefighters who invited Schmidt over to hang. There's 17-year-old paralympic gold medalist Sam Grewe, who was adopted by the Irish football team in 2012 as he battled cancer in his knee, and whom Schmidt still brings over for dinner and video games. There's the grandmother in Niles, Michigan, who wrote last season to say that her husband had passed, and that the highlight of his Notre Dame fandom had come two years earlier, when he and his family were paired with Schmidt at a spring game luncheon.

But this, this was different. A family writing about their late son? Who had the same name?

"Joseph doesn't understand why he would be inspirational to people," Debra said. "I tell him, 'Not everyone gets to achieve the dream, not everyone gets to go out and work as hard as you have and achieve some of the things that you've been able to achieve.'"

One of Schmidt's sisters ran track at Notre Dame a decade ago. She was friends with quarterback Brady Quinn, who always made time for a young Joe whenever he visited. That kindness stuck with him.

The letter he wrote to the Schmidt family in New Orleans is in their kitchen now. Evans' oldest son, Evans Jr., ended up at Washington and Lee University on a scholarship. But the family will never forget their college trip to Notre Dame and all that came from it.

And while Joe Schmidt wraps up his Notre Dame career as a star for the Irish, the lasting impression he made on Evans Schmidt and his family has nothing to do with football.

"What a kind, generous and considerate act," Evans Schmidt said. "It was an act of pure human goodness [that] is difficult for me to fully express. Joe did not need to do that. It gained him no fame or fortune, but his kindness in reaching out to a grieving family will never be forgotten, and in our eyes, Joe Schmidt will forever be a hero to us regardless of the number of tackles he makes or how many victories the Irish rack up this season."