For today’s Throwback Thursday post, on the 15th day of August, I’m going to give you a sneak peek at the 15th chapter of my new book, “Triumphs From Notre Dame: Echoes of Her Loyal Sons and Daughters.” In Chapter 15 I tell the story of former Notre Dame Fighting Irish football player Raki Nelson, (class of 2002), and how he decided to follow the spark he felt for football and pursue a collegiate career at the University of Notre Dame.
“I played little league baseball as a kid, but baseball felt way too slow for me; I needed something with more action, more excitement. As I hit the teenage years, basketball and football definitely ignited my passion.” Raki played both basketball and football at Bishop McDevitt High School, home of another Notre Dame Football player you may remember, Ricky Watters. Raki shared with me one win that his basketball team had in a high school tournament, over another player you may have heard of - Kobe Bryant; a win that now seems like a much bigger deal than it did back then.
“I remember playing in this tournament against Lower Merion High School, and they had this guy on their team, Kobe Bryant. We really didn’t know who Kobe was, but after watching him play, Kobe seemed like he was really going to be something. We beat them that day and I probably scored about 27 points, but in comparison, Kobe had about 40 points. He also cried foul a lot in that game , but we ended up coming out on top. I remember when I heard Kobe was going into the NBA draft thinking, ‘Hey, we beat that guy!’”
As the time grew closer for Raki to figure out where his post high school path was going to take him, he was confident that football was his ticket to the next level. As he did his homework on the various colleges he was interested in, toured campuses, and talked to coaches, he may not have noticed what was happening, but the Notre Dame Value Stream was already making its way towards him.
“I was very interested in the University of Florida, North Carolina and Pitt; Syracuse was interested in me as well, though I wasn’t very interested in them. However, when I made my visit to Syracuse, my host was Donovan McNabb, which was pretty cool. Pitt was pursuing me very hard, and then Notre Dame came into the picture a bit late in the recruiting process. When you play football at a Catholic high school, ND was always in the back of your mind, but when Coach Holtz and Coach Mosley started to pursue me, Notre Dame rose to the top of the pile. Eric Chappell (quarterback from Carver High School in Montgomery, AL) and I had both been at UF and Notre Dame at the same time for our official visits, and we had exchanged numbers at Notre Dame. We were talking on the phone, comparing Florida and Notre Dame, and the more we talked, the more we both liked what we saw at ND. I really liked the atmosphere at Notre Dame. Everything I saw during my visit was very appealing, and that’s where I decided my football career would continue.”
Can I trust you? Are you committed? Do you care?” - Coach Lou Holtz
Pretty much every player who has played for Coach Holtz has had that moment at which they realize exactly what is expected of them. Raki had his moment early-on in his Notre Dame Football career.
“It was ’96, my freshman year, we were just wrapping up practice and Coach Holtz was making his final remarks about practice. I was goofing off a little bit, telling my friends something, and while Coach was still talking I said something funny and burst out laughing. Everyone froze. ‘Who was that??’ And then the red sea parted, and there I was, exposed to Coach Holtz. Coach screamed, ‘Raki, get your butt up here!’ And he proceeded to chew me out, right there in front of everyone. He told me, as a result of my disturbance during his practice, I was not going to dress for the Boston College game. My stomach sank. My mom, dad, and my third grade teacher were all coming in for the game. What was I going to do? But coach took care of everything, they all got their tickets. But me? I didn’t dress, and I watched the game from my dorm room. That was some lesson for me. When coach was talking, no one talked. It’s all about respect.”
All college football players have their favorite in-game moments, but for the Notre Dame guys who had the privilege of playing football under head coach Lou Holtz, they also have a few classic Holtz moments to share. On more than one occasion, Coach Holtz’s players may have thought he was truly out of his mind. But as they learned the lessons Coach Holtz was trying to impart upon them, through his unique coaching style, they discovered that not only was he not crazy, but that he 100% cared about them, and was only trying to mold them into the best versions of themselves. This was Coach Holtz at his finest.
“I missed a block against Washington in my freshman year (1996), and at our next practice we ran drills involving the same situation. Once again, I didn’t block the guy correctly, and then it happened. Coach Holtz comes over, takes off his hat, slams it on the ground, and puts his face right onto my cage. The next thing I know, I see that his face got cut on my cage and is bleeding. He’s not just bleeding, he’s bleeding everywhere, and he’s screaming at me, ‘HIT ME!! HIT ME!! HIT ME!!’ I look back at him and say, ‘Coach, I’m not going to hit you.’ And he’s still screaming at me, ‘HIT ME! HIT ME!’ And so I had to block him a little bit. He just wanted to prove to me how much he cared, and to make absolutely sure I did not miss that block again. And what happened after that? I became a pretty darn good blocker from there on out. He truly cared about each and every one of us, and he wanted us all to be the best we could be. He showed me that day he’d go to war for me, and he did during the Air Force game. I made a catch, which the refs said was not a catch. Holtz asked me if I caught it, and when I said yes, he fought the ref for me. Whenever he says he’s going to do something, he does it. He’s a great person.”
You can read more of Raki’s story in my new book which should be available in about two weeks! And, in case you’re not counting, Notre Dame football returns in 17 days!!
Cheers & GO IRISH!