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WOPU Nation: Notre Dame Football’s Walk-Ons have an Unrivaled Bond

August 21, 2020 at 5:00 AM
by Michael Owens
WOPU Nation: Notre Dame Football’s Walk-Ons have an Unrivaled Bond

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College Football is defined by the sixty minutes on the gridiron each Saturday, but that is not where games are won or lost. The unsung heroes of Notre Dame Football are behind the scenes putting in the work at each practice. A group that is seldom in the spotlight, the walk-ons at the University of Notre Dame, have formed a legacy and group known as the Walk-On Players Union.

Note: this is the first in a series of articles we will be writing about Notre Dame’s WOPU Nation and the unique bonds its forms for its members both on and off the field that carries on long after their time at Notre Dame comes to an end.

Life-Changing Decision

Humble beginnings in South Bend. Deciding to walk-on at Notre Dame or anywhere is a significant decision for these student-athletes. Some players pass up scholarships at local schools in hopes of playing for one of the most historic programs in college football. For the players and their families, it is a sizable financial commitment to attend the University without a scholarship.

Many fans throughout the country are familiar with the story of perhaps the most famous walk-on of all-time Rudy Ruettiger. The movie portrays how Rudy was able to make it through tryouts and ultimately achieve his dream of running out of the tunnel. Today, most walk-ons are “preferred” and have been in communication with the coaches on their role within the program.

However, there are still “Rudy-like” stories coming out of South Bend. Current walk-on Xavier Lezynski attended student tryouts and was cut on his first attempt. Thanks to his determination and perseverance, he was able to make the team on his second attempt.

WOPU Nation

A student-led initiative is formed. WOPU Nation was certainly not around when Rudy attended Notre Dame, and the term is new for the program. According to current walk-on John Mahoney, the title of WOPU Nation has been around for nearly two decades. Members of this organization have built bonds that have lasted well after their playing careers, and alumni of WOPU Nation can now be seen tailgating for games in the fall.

Who are the leaders of this group? The leaders of WOPU Nation are typically the seniors who have been handed down their responsibilities from the players who came before them. Formally, the Irish walk-on’s select a President and Vice-President to supervise this group.

This year, the President of WOPU Nation is senior John Mahoney from West Des Moines, Iowa. He is accompanied by Vice-President Patrick Pelini from Youngstown, Ohio.

Family in South Bend

Senior Walk-Ons take on leadership roles. WOPU Nation has a group text with the entire roster of walk-ons, which typically comprises thirty to forty student-athletes. These messages include golf outings, football meetings, and overall team-building exercises. WOPU Nation has built a relationship that is unparalleled across college football. 

This group goes beyond the playing field and outside the coaching staff. It is great to see individual players step up to take these roles year after year. 

Retention defines WOPU Nation. Player turnover is one of the most significant setbacks across college football and sports in general. Retaining walk-ons is what separates Notre Dame from other institutions. John Mahoney has attributed the cohesiveness, relationships, and leadership to players putting in the effort for all four seasons.

How much does this mean to the players? Chris Finke made it clear when he scored touchdowns, often throwing up the “W” with his hands for WOPU Nation.

Walk-Ons at Notre Dame vs. Other Programs

All athletes are equal in South Bend. The University of Notre Dame always operates the “right way,” and that is no different from how the football program treats its walk-on players. All students at the University room together, no matter what sport they do or do not play. There are no separate areas for the walk-ons, scholarship athletes, or the general students. A feature that helps to establish an identity for individuals beyond the playing field.

At some schools, athletes are placed together and get special privileges not awarded to non-student athletes. But, at the University of Notre Dame, football players build connections with students with all kinds of backgrounds.

Building relationships on campus. The cohesiveness of Notre Dame not only on the playing field but in the classroom is second to none. Whereas some schools allow players to take mainly online classes, the University has almost every class in person. Although COVID-19 has forced students into remote learning, hopefully temporarily, the school has always valued in-person education. 

Conversely, when Heisman winner Joe Burrow was asked about his relationship with his classmates at LSU, he said, “Obviously, I don’t go to class because I only take online classes, so I don’t get to see any of those people.” 

I may be old school, but to me, that defeats the entire purpose of college.

Goals for WOPU Nation

Earning a Scholarship. When a Notre Dame walk-on earns a scholarship, no one could be prouder than the fellow members of WOPU Nation. Although they may get kicked out of the walk-on group messages for 20 minutes, they are always allowed back in once the joke is over.

In recent memory, Chris Finke was awarded a scholarship and, ultimately, a captain role for the Fighting Irish. Finke was a big advocate for walk-ons while at Notre Dame, and his story is an inspiration to players who may have been overlooked out of high school.

Becoming a “Notre Dame Man” after graduation. Notre Dame goes beyond the playing field, attending the school is a four-year decision that will pay off the next forty years and beyond. Sports fans often forget that these are young men who have their entire lives ahead of them.

Final Thoughts 

Walk-Ons are not in it for the glory. Fans only get to see the product on Saturdays when a touchdown is scored, but there is a lot more that goes on behind the scenes. Including walk-ons, the Irish roster is composed of over 100 players, few of which see significant playing time on Saturdays. 

So why do they do it? Their passion and commitment to better themselves and their teammates for the next opponent. 

Graduating Champions. Yes, some players can work their way into playing time, and some even become captains. However, one’s success is not determined merely by statistics. The work that these young men put in every day in practice makes them winners. 

Notre Dame is about more than football. It is about the leaders that these walk-ons become in their communities long after they take off their jerseys.

Christopher Schilling makes a great point at the pep rally!

November 23, 2019 at 6:00 AM
Christopher Schilling makes a great point at the pep rally!

Check out Mark's tweet!

How Nick Lezynski went from Notre Dame walk-on to graduate assistant to potentially something bigger

April 25, 2019 at 5:00 AM
by Pete Sampson
How Nick Lezynski went from Notre Dame walk-on to graduate assistant to potentially something bigger

(Photo: Matt Cashore)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The meeting started with an introduction because Jack Swarbrick probably didn’t know the walk-ons who had requested it. Also, Notre Dame’s athletic director was in the middle of making a decision that would shape the next decade of a college football’s bluest blood program, one so adrift it had just decided to pay Charlie Weis nearly

$18 million to go away. And so, under those circumstances, Nick Lezynski and Mike Garcia started with their names, the first entry of the outline they’d bring into Swarbrick’s office a decade ago.

Lezynski was a walk-on quarterback turned walk-on defensive back, sharing a depth chart with Jimmy Clausen as a sophomore and Harrison Smith as a junior. Garcia held similar status among receivers that included Michael Floyd and Golden Tate, which is to say not much status at all. Still, the pair of Notre Dame legacies saw the meeting with Swarbrick as a moral imperative no matter how ridiculous it appeared.

They marched into Swarbrick’s office with a seven-point outline to discuss everything from culture to pep rallies to their availability to help Swarbrick in the future. To Lezynski and Garcia, Notre Dame was not just the pinnacle of college football, it was the peak of sport.

“Fortune favors the bold,” Lezynski said. “Looking back now, wow, that was probably a little too audacious for somebody in that position. Our love for Notre Dame was the overriding thing. Any nervousness or hesitation that we had, if we had a chance to push it forward to help Notre Dame, we’re going to do it.

“The window is so small.”

Ten years later, Lezynski has been proven right and wrong as he enters his second season as a graduate assistant at his alma mater. Because no matter how far Lezynski got from Notre Dame during underling stops at Holy Cross and Connecticut, plus a season as Lafayette’s linebackers coach, he never really left. And next season when Lezynski does venture out, he won’t really leave then, either.

The window for Lezynski to affect Notre Dame isn’t small. It’s a lifetime. It’s a family tree, the kind with roots that compel you to walk into Jack Swarbrick’s office, after a junior season of keeping your head down to impress former special teams coach Brian Polian, now the current special teams coach, too. From that perspective, maybe that meeting to map out the future of Notre Dame football is just a natural plot point in an original story.

The walk-on who wanted to offer input on the eventual hire of Brian Kelly turned into the walk-on who impressed former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco enough to land a GA job at Connecticut. And he left behind enough references in South Bend that when current defensive coordinator Clark Lea started looking for a linebacker GA after his own promotion, he knew he wanted to hire Lezynski before interviewing him.

Strength coach Matt Balis gave Lezynski a stamp of approval from their time at Connecticut together. So too did former Notre Dame teammate Tommy Rees, now the program’s quarterbacks coach.

“Tommy said, ‘Oh my God, Nick Lezynski is one of the best guys, ever,’ ” Lea said. “That’s a high endorsement from a guy who doesn’t hand out high endorsements.

“As we’re fighting for a national championship, you have to pull yourself off the mat sometimes. We all need that person. Nick’s got such strong character. It’s been incredible. He’s been a God- send for me.”

Lezynski spent last season learning Lea’s system and serving as the linebackers coach of linebackers who weren’t playing. He spent enough time with Jack Lamb that the freshman, who took a redshirt last season but might start this fall, sought Lezynski out last week for advice, even with Lea in the building. Lezynski also cut up film for the starters when they wanted it, whether that was their own tape or NFL linebackers. When Te’von Coney wanted clips of how to improve his pass drops, Lezynski was on it. When Drue Tranquill wanted to talk run fits, Lezynski was there for that, too.

It’s all an act of service for Lezynski, who seems to know what Notre Dame’s defense needs before it needs it. When Lea’s stream of defensive consciousness takes him into a potential tendency against a particular look, Lezynski takes note. And when Lea revisits that current two weeks later and asks for film, Lezynski already has it cut.

“He’s just on top of it that way,” Lea said. “As it turns out, I lean on him a ton. He’s family to me.”

There’s some truth to that. Lea and Lezynski have young kids and when Lea’s daughter Mara enters the football offices she finds Lezynski, calls him “Nack” and the two doodle on whiteboards in meeting rooms. Lezynski has two daughters of his own, Sloane, who was born before he returned to Notre Dame with his wife Jessica, a former Notre Dame cheerleader, and Bryn, who was born Dec. 14. That’s 10 days early of her due date of Christmas Eve, which happened to be the program departure date for the Cotton Bowl.

Sometimes timing just works out.

When Lezynski had options to leave Notre Dame for a fulltime job elsewhere after last season, he stayed in South Bend for his families, both the one at home and the one in the Gug. Family, after all, is how Lezynski got here in the first place.

Nick Lezynski doesn’t remember when he first became a Notre Dame fan because it predated memory.

Dad Gregory graduated from Notre Dame, where he wrestled, boxed and played rugby. Mother Jacqueline graduated from Notre Dame, too. She played volleyball. Two uncles on his dad’s side graduated from the school and worked in the football recruiting office. An uncle on his mom’s side, Lou Pagley, was a backup receiver under Dan Devine. Sister Siobhan was on the pom squad here. Younger brother Blaise played baseball for Notre Dame. Youngest brother Xavier is a junior walk-on tight end.

Lezynski’s parents recorded seasons of Notre Dame football and stored those VHS tapes in the family movie bin at home in Newtown, Pa. That’s how Lezynski educated himself of the program, old college games replacing Saturday morning cartoons.

“It’d be summer time and I’d be like, ‘I still have the 1990 season to watch,’ ” Lezynski said. “Notre Dame, to me when I was little, it was like Disney World for a lot of kids.”

His parents encouraged that interest, Lezynski born the year after Notre Dame’s last national championship. Jacqueline made it plain what it would take to go to school here, never mind the football part. When Nick started bringing home first-grade spelling tests with 100 percent grades and asking if those marks were good enough to get in, Jacqueline politely let her oldest son know there was a long way to go.

Lezynski never left Notre Dame’s orbit from there. He became a three-sport athlete at Notre Dame High School in football, basketball and lacrosse, with lacrosse the most likely sport to take him to college. He had lacrosse offers at some East Coast schools and took a recruiting visit to Holy Cross that made his college decision for him.

The night after a high school football game, Lezynski headed to Worcester, Mass., on Sept. 24, 2006, to meet with the lacrosse program. It was the same night as Notre Dame’s road game at Michigan State in a monsoon, and Lezynski made a point to watch in the dorms before heading to a house party with his potential future teammates around halftime.

“Notre Dame was down 18 points or something like that. I was just pissed, the whole night,” Lezynski said. “Two hours later I’m trying to find my way back to the dorm and I was so pissed because all I could think about was how Notre Dame just got crushed by Michigan State.”

Walking home, Lezynski stopped outside a dorm window and saw the game playing on the common room’s television. Standing amongst landscaping, he watched Terrail Lambert’s game-winning interception return and his game-ending pick that followed a couple minutes later.

“At that point, I’m going to Notre Dame,” Lezynski said. “I would regret it if I didn’t go all out and go to Notre Dame and try to play football at Notre Dame.”

Lezynski walked on after his first semester with Garcia in the early days of the WOPU (Walk On Players Union), when nobody knew what it was. That was fine, because Lezynski, Garcia and just about every other walk-on short of Mike Anello were anonymous, anyway. The Weis staff had bigger issues than remembering the names of legacies. And when Kelly’s staff arrived after Lezynski’s junior season, getting known wasn’t any easier.

The incoming staff had to evaluate its scholarship talent before dipping into the walk- ons, where Lezynski was turning heads, even if that mostly happened after practice. Stuck on special teams behind Steve Filer, a former four- star recruit who was 50 pounds bigger and almost a half foot taller, getting a look during workouts was just about impossible.

“We all thought he was crazy,” Garcia said. “There would be days in August, super hot, and Diaco would track him down after practice because Nick is running sprints by himself. ‘Nick, you’re done. You’re done here. We’re doing all our work during practice, not after practice.’ ”

Nick was taken aback, like, really?

“Nick had that extra desire to better himself. It was all related to Notre Dame, related to getting Her to where She needs to be.”

Lezynski became a travel squad regular and played against Pittsburgh and Utah during Kelly’s first season. Lezynski knew there was a ceiling to playing time, a reality he was fine with as long as he smashed into that ceiling first. Getting invited to return as a fifth-year senior during Kelly’s second season was probably validation enough.

“I get a pit in my stomach that I didn’t do enough to make a bigger impact on Saturdays,” Lezynski said. “My goal was to maximize my talent and I had no business being on the team.”

He didn’t think he had much business returning the program a year ago, either.

Nick Lezynski turned Notre Dame down the first time. He had a good thing going at Lafayette after a fine first season as a full-time assistant coach. He had his own room of linebackers. He had a young family. He was close to home in eastern Pennsylvania and working at a school with some Notre Dame similarities to it. So no, when former walk-on teammate and current special teams analyst Tyler Plantz reached out about the open GA position in South Bend, Lezynski turned it down. No need to forward his résumé up the chain of command.

“We’re done with being a GA. We’re good here,” Lezynski said. “I had just worked to get my head above the water.”

No need to voluntarily jump back in.

Independent of all this, Lea had begun researching potential GAs to work with the linebackers. He went through the coaching staffs of Ivy League schools, looking or candidates young enough to be GAs and experienced enough to have actually coached. Nothing popped up. Then Lea started into the Patriot League and found Lezynski. He asked Rees, Balis and Plantz. Then Lea called Lezynski.

“When the defensive coordinator calls, it’s a little bit different,” Lezynski said. “All the thoughts and hesitations in my mind, he answered them before I could express them.”

That’s because Lea was Lezynski a decade earlier. The same year Lezynski was walking onto the Notre Dame football team, Lea was walking away from a full-time job coaching linebackers at South Dakota State for a return to the graduate assistant lifestyle at UCLA. He’d had his own room in Brookings, S.D. And he wanted Lezynski to have something closer to that than a typical GA would.

Lezynski had already done the analytics and data entry part of being a GA. And Lea still needed some of that stuff, but he needed an assistant assistant coach, too. Lea promised Lezynski a chance to help run drills and interact with players, which he did all spring practice. While Lea coaches the inside linebackers, Lezynski will work with the rovers, or vice versa.

“As much as I should have just said, ‘Yeah! I’m working at Notre Dame!’ for me, it was more than that. It needed to be the right situation,” Lezynski said. “Everything (Lea) said, it’s been that and beyond. Empowering young coaches, developing us, allowing us to have an impact with the players, that’s something I’m so thankful for. He’s helped me become such a better coach than I was.”

Notre Dame will feel Lezynski’s impact a different way this fall when those third-team linebackers he’s coached hit the lineup. And in that way, the connection between Nick Lezynski and Notre Dame will remain after he’s gone as Jack Lamb, Shayne Simon and Jordan Genmark Heath anchor Notre Dame’s defense in the coming seasons.

Lezynski will track most of that development on his DVR or via texts from Garcia or on calls from Lea. But until then, Lezynski gets to stay for one final season. The walk-on turned graduate assistant turned coach who returned to being a graduate assistant gets to live through one last season in Disney World. If a year ago he wasn’t sure he wanted to come back, turning down fulltime job offers this last offseason is a reminder how much he wants to stay.

“Why not fuel up one last time and maybe delay the gratification of having my own room for something that I really, really want in the future, which is to be the best coach that I can be,” Lezynski said. “Having been a walk-on and a GA for as long as I have, what would one more year mean?”

For a graduate assistant with Notre Dame in his DNA, it’s a chance to stay home a bit longer. And it’s almost a certainty that it will turn into something bigger a year from now, in job title if not in employer.

“Nick is gonna be a rock star,” Lea said. “He’s gonna continue to have opportunities because who doesn’t want to hire that guy?”  

Pete Sampson is a staff writer for The Athletic on the Notre Dame football beat, a program he’s covered for the past 17 seasons. The former editor and co-founder of Irish Illustrated, Pete has covered five different regimes in South Bend, reporting on the Fighting Irish, from the end of Bob Davie through the era of Brian Kelly.