- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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MONROE, Ga. -- Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt's football career started when he took the first step out the front door of his mother's home on a cul-de-sac in rural Georgia.
Determined to attend the first day of summer conditioning for football players at Monroe (Ga.) Area High School in late May 2007, Tuitt left home around 7 a.m. and started what he believed would be about a one-hour walk.
After more than four hours, 10 miles and approximately 10,000 steps, Tuitt finally reached the high school's field house. He was drenched in sweat from walking in the stifling Georgia humidity and arrived more than two hours after the other players had left.
"I didn't know how far he walked," Monroe Area High coach Matt Fligg said. "I didn't even know who he was. He said he'd walked a few hours. When I took him home, I was dumbfounded. I really didn't believe that's where he lived. But when I picked him up the next day, he came out the front door.
"I can promise you one thing -- it was the last time he ever walked to practice."
On Monday night, Tuitt will reach what is so far the pinnacle of his football career when No. 1 Notre Dame plays No. 2 Alabama in the Discover BCS National Championship at Sun Life Stadium.
More than five years after he marched past two firehouses, a handful of churches, a golf course and plenty of rolling countryside to launch his football career, he was named an All-American this season, having led the Fighting Irish with 12 sacks and 13 ½ tackles for loss. Tuitt, a 6-foot-6, 303-pound sophomore, needs two sacks against the Crimson Tide to break Notre Dame's single-season record.
Tuitt, who already is being projected as a potential top-10 pick in the 2014 NFL draft if he leaves Notre Dame after his junior season, says he wouldn't be where he is today without taking that long walk not so long ago, even if it ended up being a lot farther than he thought.
"I just put my mind to it," Tuitt said. "I'd never played football before and I was determined to join the team. When my mom picked me up from school every day, it seemed like it only took five minutes to get home. I guess she was driving really fast. I figured if it was a five-minute drive, it was probably like a one-hour walk."
When Tuitt returned home after his first practice, he still had to answer to the woman who had instructed him not to go. His mother, Tamara Bartlett, a deputy with the Gwinnett County (Ga.) Sheriff's Department, had told him to wait to go to practice until she returned home from work.
"I didn't find out until I got home," Bartlett said. "I was mad. I told him to wait until I got home, but he didn't want to miss practice."
Even after Tuitt became one of the country's most recruited high school players, his mother wasn't afraid to discipline him. During Tuitt's junior season at Monroe Area High in 2009, she marched onto the field and pulled him out of practice for not taking out the garbage.
"He started to be lax in what he was supposed to be doing around the house," Bartlett said. "I don't reward not doing what you're supposed to be doing. I'm sure he was embarrassed, but I wasn't. I told Fligg that I didn't care about his football program. All I was worried about was his education; football was recreation."
Tuitt said the episode was "straight embarrassing," but now understands what his mother was trying to teach him.
"She's a strong woman and she means everything to me," Tuitt said. "She followed through on everything she said. She taught me that even the little things mattered -- even taking out the trash."
A single mother of four sons, Bartlett grew up in Miami before moving to Georgia several years ago. When Tuitt was being recruited during his senior season of high school in 2010, he initially committed to attend Notre Dame. After Tuitt changed his mind and wanted to go to Georgia Tech, his mother made him recommit to the Fighting Irish.
"I liked Notre Dame," Bartlett said. "I just felt like Notre Dame had more to offer him in the long run. I liked Georgia Tech, but I feel like it's more regional. Notre Dame is internationally [known], and I thought it had more to offer him. I wanted him to branch out and learn life. I didn't feel like he'd learn anything being so close to home."
Tuitt said he had other reasons for sticking with the Fighting Irish. Tuitt had never met his father, Cornelius Williams, who lived in New York. Tuitt believed that if he played at Notre Dame, maybe his father would see one of his games on TV. And maybe that would be enough reason for a father to reconnect with a son he never knew.
"It wasn't the entire reason to go to Notre Dame, but it was one of the big reasons," Tuitt said. "Notre Dame is a national team. I knew he was in New York, and there are a lot of Notre Dame fans there. I thought maybe he'd see me one day and decide to reach out."
Bartlett said Tuitt hadn't seen his father since he was 5 years old. Tuitt doesn't remember meeting his father because he was so young. Bartlett met Williams during a summer vacation in which she stayed with relatives in New York. She became pregnant, but Williams was never a part of his son's life.
"I was just trying to reach out to my father and see what he looked like and what he was like," Tuitt said.
Tragically, Tuitt never got the chance. In August, weeks before Notre Dame opened the season against Navy in Dublin, Bartlett and her three younger sons drove to South Bend, Ind., to tell Tuitt that his father was dead. Williams, who was 40, died of a heart attack sometime last year, a relative told them.
"It was disappointing," Tuitt said. "A lot of my goals really went down the drain. It was really difficult, and I had to learn to get past it. It was one of the reasons I was playing football -- to reach out to him."
Bartlett said her son took the news pretty hard.
"It wasn't difficult for me," Bartlett said. "But my son didn't take it well, and I hurt because he was hurting. I knew Stephon wanted to meet his father and meet that side of him."
On Monday night, Tuitt will play for his teammates and his family when he tries to help the Fighting Irish win their first national championship since 1988. Bartlett will be in the stands with Tuitt's three brothers and grandmother.
Sometime during the game, Tuitt might even remember that long walk in Georgia, when it all started.
"It was longer than I thought," Tuitt said. "But none of this would have happened if I'd never made it."
Stephon Tuitt has come a long way to have a chance at winning the BCS championship as a key member of Notre Dame's defense. The distance has made him appreciate the journey, Mark Schlabach writes.