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Throwback Thursday: Q&A with Former Notre Dame Football Walk-On, Justin Meko

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“Trust, love and commitment” are three critical pillars that will help you succeed.

Boston College V Notre Dame

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish draw a fan base from across the United States. The University itself also draws a student body that is from all areas of this great country. She is truly a national University. Justin Meko had a childhood a bit like mine in that his father’s career took their family to several states. Despite the multiple top tier Universities he was exposed to along his journey, Our Lady’s University continued to call him home, a call he could not ignore. Here is Justin Meko’s story.

Where did you grow up?

I was a little bit of a nomad growing up. My father worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons and his career path forced us to move frequently. It was a great experience. I lived in small towns and big cities and I was exposed to a variety of cultures. We lived in multiple states including California, Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. I lived in Georgia when the Bulldogs were atop the college football world, in Miami when Jimmy Johnson’s Hurricanes dominated college football, and in Virginia when the University of Virginia’s football team was number one for the only time in their history, all of which made being a Notre Dame fan at school quite challenging. The one thing it does for sure is breed your allegiance to your team, as you must defend it quite often! I was lucky to live in Springfield, VA, just outside of Washington DC, for the entirety of my high school years (West Springfield High School). It was a great community with amazing people and I am grateful that I was able to spend my formative years there.

How did you become interested in playing football?

I grew up the youngest of three boys in a time before video games captivated the youth and we were always outside playing sports. My two older brothers, however, were forbidden from playing football because my mom thought it was too dangerous. My middle brother Matthew ended up playing rugby in high school, and went on to captain the University of Notre Dame rugby team. Luckily, this ended up paving the way for me to play football. When my mom saw the violence of rugby, which was played without pads, she decided it would be okay for me to play football because it was played with pads on. I am grateful to him for taking one for the team for his younger brother.

Did you play any other sports growing up?

I played a little bit of everything growing up. Through my sophomore year in high school, I played football, basketball and baseball. During my junior and senior years, I focused on football and basketball. There are many similarities between the two sports in terms of the teamwork, discipline, and not turning the ball over. While I am talking about my experience with sports as I was growing up, I would like to put a plug in for youth sports coaches. I was fortunate to play for some great youth sports coaches (Jim Benson, Bill Birch, and Mike Ferrario). They are the fabric of communities and they do a great job of teaching fundamentals and teamwork principles. Too often, we take those people for granted and they play such an important role in the lives of youth. They are volunteers who are greatly underappreciated. They are the ones who are helping kids reach for their dreams. They stoked the fire, kept pushing me, and dared me to dream big. My high school coach selflessly used the opportunity to open doors for my teammates and me. He cared as much about our futures as he did winning games on Friday nights.

What made you interested in playing football at Notre Dame?

It started as a childhood dream and it predated the movie “Rudy.” My father tried at an early age to insert Coach Holtz into the Holy Trinity. However, growing up moving around there were three constants in my life: faith, family and Notre Dame football. When we moved my mother would first find a church to join and my brothers and I were always signed up to be altar servers. She then focused on picking a school. We frequently moved during the summers so for 3 months before we met kids at school my brothers and I only had each other. Being forced to interact with each other like that forged tremendous bonds between us.

The other constant was Notre Dame football. We always made time for the Notre Dame games whether it was on television or on the radio. In fact, I remember sitting in the car, in the driveway, with my dad listening to the radio broadcast of the Coach Holtz show on Thursday nights. We sat in the car because the house reception was not strong enough. I am sure the neighbors thought we were a little nuts. The 88 team is my all-time favorite Notre Dame team. The members of the team were the ones I found myself trying to emulate the most. The only time I have ever been late to Mass was for a Notre Dame - Michigan game, and my dad let us sit out in the parking lot and listen to Notre Dame pull out a victory.

My dad got his master’s from ND, and it was a childhood dream of mine to one-day play football at Notre Dame. I came out of the womb wearing a blue and gold diaper. (laughs) The first game I attended as a fan was the Notre Dame vs. Miami game in 1985 and I cried on the way home. My heart was destroyed. I did not want to go to school Monday morning and hear it from my classmates about my team. On the car ride home, my dad promised there would be brighter days for Notre Dame football.

I was in 6th grade when the 1988 team won the national championship. My oldest brother was a freshman at Notre Dame that year. Those guys were my favorite. I absolutely worshipped them. Those golden years of Notre Dame Football, from 1988 – 1991, were just captivating. I fell in love with Notre Dame when we took my brother to his freshman orientation. Then when you added in the product on the field, and my dad’s prophesy coming true (brighter days for Notre Dame football), it just continued to fuel the fire of my dream to play football at Notre Dame.

What other schools were you looking at?

It ran the gamut over the course of two years. I was blessed to have Frank Creneti as a high school football coach and his son Tod was also on his coaching staff. Coach Creneti was very experienced in the recruiting process and he worked hard to provide me as many opportunities as possible. Similarly, Tod had recently gone through the process himself and he made himself available for sage guidance and advice. There was also a player on my team, Damone Boone, a Parade All-American running back, which brought a lot of attention to our school and our team. When Tom Clements came to recruit in our area, my coach was able to share my highlight tape, and my transcript, which provided me the opportunity to be a walk-on at Notre Dame. Being that both of my brothers had attended at Notre Dame, and my dad had gone there as well, there was a significant amount of pressure on me to get in and go to ND. I did not want to be the outcast at family reunions. As the recruiting process was ending, I was focused on the United States Military Academy at West Point, Brown, Colgate, Maryland, North Carolina, Georgetown and walking on at Notre Dame. (Every time my dad and I would be on a recruiting trip he would say, it looks nice, but it’s not Notre Dame.)

It reached a point for me where I was going to walk-on at Notre Dame or use the sport to get the best education possible. I was candid with the coaches recruiting me and to their credit; they were honest and forthright with me as well. For example, Bob Sutton at West Point was blunt when I met with him, “I don’t recruit against Notre Dame.” What it came down to was never wanting to regret passing up the opportunity to walk on at Notre Dame. I never wanted to go somewhere else and live with the “what if?” for the rest of my life, and I have no regrets on the decision my 18-year-old self made.

What was the transition like from playing football in high school, to competing at the collegiate level?

It was overwhelming. The talent was awe-inspiring at the Division I level. The class I was in was the number one recruiting class in the country. It was filled with people I had read about in the newspaper, who I was a fan of, and you walk out there and they are on your team. And with me being a fan of Notre Dame since birth, seeing Coach Holtz show up to practice on his golf cart, surrounded by players you’ve been watching and cheering for on TV, who are now there stretching next to you; talk about shock and awe. It is like jumping into a dream. Once you pinch yourself and realize you are not in a dream, you have such an admiration for the athleticism and talent you are surrounded by. We were three deep with high school All-Americans. Our offensive lineman were huge and could run and jump. You would see glimpses of amazing talent in high school, but nowhere near the depth of talent of what you see at the Division I level. The attention to detail was another big change. The focus on fundamentals was something I had never seen before. When you are fairly athletic and talented growing up, you are not coached too much. I had many great coaches, but in high school, you can get by on your athleticism. When you get to college, your athleticism is not going to be a game changer; it is the fundamentals that take you to the next level.

We watched film of the previous practice every day before we began the next practice. Every step, every hand placement, every movement is highly scrutinized. What was fascinating as an observer on the inside is that often times the most talented player does not play, it is the most coachable player. The talent margins are so thin that the coach does not have to play the best player, the next player down is close enough. If the coach can depend on the next guy down to execute the plays, even though they may not be as talented, or may be a step slower; if they are more coachable they will get the starting position. It was interesting to see some of the most talented players often times did not see the field because they were not coachable, which was new to me. Ninety-eight percent of the guys there had never been coached before because they were just that much better, from an athleticism standpoint, than their peers were.

Psychologically you have to be mentally tough. I realized pretty early on that my athleticism was going to limit me, and that I needed to fully embrace my role on the scout team. Most of the guys who played football at Notre Dame had never ridden the bench before. The psychological swing of being promised the world during the recruiting process and then to get to the school of your choice, which may be the school of your dreams, and be criticized and constantly told everything you’re doing is wrong is pretty significant. You have to be able to embrace the emotional and mental side of it in addition to the physical side of it. At the same time, you are adjusting to a robust academic schedule, and being self-disciplined enough to get up and go to class every day. It is a big adjustment for all students, but even more so for student-athletes. The freshman who shows up and does amazing things on the field … they are a unicorn. That is not normal.

What was it like to be a student-athlete at Notre Dame?

It was a most amazing experience. It was truly God, Country, and Notre Dame for me. My faith grew. The Masses on Sunday nights in the dorms were some of the best services I have ever participated in. I was on an Army ROTC scholarship, and so that is where my commitment as it relates to the military service began and introduced me to a whole another set of classmates who were extraordinary people. In addition, I thoroughly embraced the Notre Dame experience. My oldest brother did not play any sports at Notre Dame, and my middle brother was the captain of the Rugby team at ND, but they both told me to embrace the Notre Dame experience. Being an athlete gave me experiences that I probably would not have gotten as a student. They brought in speakers such as Gerald Ford, General McCarthy, Joe Theisman, Eddie Robinson, and Rick Patino. These were experiences that we probably took for granted because we did not realize how fortunate we were. We knew it was cool but these truly were unique experiences, and unique to Notre Dame in that regard.

I participated in dorm politics, I spent a semester doing a Friday afternoon newscast on the local campus radio station (I think my friends were the only ones who listened to it but I really enjoyed it), and I was involved in a lot of the dorm activities (Dillon Pep Rally, SYRs, etc.). My closest friends in life to this day are the guys in the dorm (Dillon Hall aka The Center of the Universe) whom I met my first year. We have shared amazing life moments together: graduation, weddings, golf outings, Notre Dame Victories... and we have supported each other during life’s most difficult times. The bonds that dorm living forges are like no other I have ever encountered. (On 9/11, one of my dear friends Joe Hand was at NYU law school, and I held my breath until I heard from him at 10pm that night.)

What was your relationship with Coach Holtz like at Notre Dame?

As an underclassman and walk-on, it was distant. I tried my best not to draw attention upon myself from a negative standpoint. I followed the rules and made sure I did what was asked of me in practice. My first two years at Notre Dame were Coach Holtz’s last two years at Notre Dame. As a member of the scout team, your job was to give the team effective looks of the upcoming opponent. You did that through film study and cue cards that were provided by the graduate assistants. I was a defensive back and so I spent a lot of time with the receivers and Coach Urban Meyer. We watched film together before each practice and then Coach would tell you what he wanted to see in practice. However, the worst thing you could do was screw up a look and force the offense to repeat something in practice. Mental errors or fundamental breakdowns were always quick to draw the ire of Coach. The structure of practice was incredibly disciplined and not a minute was wasted. Practice was broken down into five-minute periods. He established clear expectations and I understood what my role was in order to fulfil those expectations.

Bob Davie was the head coach for my last two years at Notre Dame. There were definite differences between how Coach Holtz ran the team and how Coach Davie did. Discipline and attention to detail were two of them. If you messed up with Coach Holtz, there were immediate consequences. If you messed up with Coach Davie, he would keep going with practice and address it later. From a reflection standpoint, when you have those mental errors and breakdowns, if you do not address them right away and hold players accountable, the errors end up manifesting at the worst times. The mental errors and penalties happened more frequently in games under Coach Davie, as his practices were just not as intense as Coach Holtz’s practices. Under Holtz, because of his practices being so intense, when you were playing in a game, you were operating under muscle memory.

Coach Davie tended to gravitate towards the defense, 80-90% of the time. Coach Holtz could take over any position group during a practice and coach them. He would bounce around during practice and insert himself into the different position groups. He did stay away from Coach Moore though, as Moore did his own thing. There was a mutual respect between the two of them that was evident and his offensive lines proved themselves over-and-over again. Coach Davie had more of a personal relationship with his players prior to becoming the head coach and he struggled with becoming the CEO of the program.

At so many universities (such as Alabama, Oklahoma, Nebraska), coaching is such a small part of the head coach’s job, as there are so many other responsibilities and obligations on their plate. At Notre Dame, after Coach Faust was let go, they said they would never hire someone who did not have head coaching experience, and yet they repeated that mistake with Coach Davie. Holtz said he needed every year of head coaching experiences that he had prior to Notre Dame in order to be successful at ND. Coach Holtz embraced the role of head coach and all of the pageantry around Notre Dame, and Coach Davie rather shouldered it as a heavy load.

What things did Coach Holtz do to help you improve?

He helped me more as a man than as a football player. The tenants of his program were pillars for life: trust, love and commitment. The principles he shared I utilize each day of my life: self-discipline, work ethic, resiliency (not flinching in face of adversity), preparation and selflessness (embracing your role and putting aside your personal needs for the needs of the team). Similarly, he demanded that we showed up on time (LLH time, or Louis Leo Holtz time), sat up straight, looked people in the eye, dressed professionally and did not cut corners. Those virtues and attributes have benefited me in a wide variety of environments and situations. In the military as well as in the office environment, “trust, love and commitment” are three critical pillars that will help you succeed. I have used his quotes in all areas of my life.

I wrote him a letter after that Miami game and he wrote back, “Focus on your academics because if you do not have good grades, even if you are a good football player, you will not be able to go to Notre Dame.” I still have the letter hanging in my man cave. My mom used it as a hammer on occasion, but to have my dream come true it was truly life changing.

What skills/tools did he give you to help you manage the challenging academics at Notre Dame along with the rigors of playing football?

He constantly prioritized academics. Class attendance was tracked, class performance was monitored and we were given academic advisors that stayed close to us throughout each semester. We were given every opportunity to be successful.

As far as balancing playing football and being a member of the Army ROTC, I did not have a lot of time to goof off at Notre Dame. If I had not been so busy, I would have spent time doing things that would not have been productive. It drove me to be self-disciplined as opposed to feeling as if I was missing things. ROTC was very flexible with football obligations, and football was flexible with my ROTC obligations. I was in a great situation. Tom McMahon was the defensive back coach, and he had respect and admiration for what I was doing in the ROTC part of the house being that his dad was a veteran. It never was an issue or a challenge for me.

What is your favorite Notre Dame Football memory?

Well, I have a couple of them! Beating Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Marc Bulger during my senior year at Notre Dame is a lot more special now than I realized at the time. My son likes to tell his friends that his dad beat Tom Brady and he is not lying. Coach Holtz’s last game at Notre Dame Stadium was a special memory because he is on the Mount Rushmore of Notre Dame coaches. (I went from crying at the Miami loss, to crying over the man that turned the program around as he left.)

The off-season workouts were not fun, but they were memorable. Those experiences brought the team together. They were brutal from a physical standpoint and you had to push each other to persevere. Trekking across campus in freezing temperatures at 6 am on a January morning to go through a grueling workout will quickly bond those experiencing it. It was fun to see the guys rallying around each other, as each of you are struggling to find the energy to survive the workout.

My first play was special because my parents were there. It was awesome to be able to share the culmination of a childhood dream with the folks who supported it the most.

However, my most precious memory off the field was meeting my wife second semester senior year. I took a class at Saint Mary’s College. One guy and 25 co-eds. I like to say I had the pick of the litter. My wife will tell you she had slim pickings. The class was in the basement of one of the facilities over there. On the way out on the first day, I timed my exit to leave with her. Doing my best Casanova impersonation I quickly came up with a conversation starter. I asked, “How do you get out of this place?” Without flinching she responded, “Same way you came in.” I knew I had to meet the hard to get challenge and luckily, I did. Coach Holtz told us to never back down from a challenge and do not flinch, and that is exactly what I did. (Three children & a happy marriage later, I think I succeeded!)

Off the field, it was the friendships I mentioned previously. I roomed with basketball player Phil Hickey for three years and we were as tight as brothers (we still are). We were there for each other in good times and bad. I had a core group of guys and some of my fondest memories are sitting in the dorm hallway solving the world’s problems with them. We went on Spring Break together each year and that was always amazing, but the daily interactions are what I recall most fondly.

Did you play football in the NFL? If yes, what was it like?

No, I like to tell my son I was “drafted” by a more formidable force than any NFL team. I attended Notre Dame on an Army ROTC scholarship (like my two brothers before me) and I was commissioned as a US Army Transportation Corp officer graduation weekend. The Army was a most impactful experience and a recurring theme in my life; I was again blessed to be surrounded by amazing men and women from across our country. Men and women who selflessly raised their right hand and volunteered to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. On a personal note, if you see a soldier in uniform or a veteran wearing a veteran hat, please take a moment to thank them for their service. They truly are heroes who make a tremendous amount of personal sacrifices to protect the freedoms we too often take for granted. I was stationed at Fort Story in Virginia Beach and I also spent time in Ramstein, Germany.

In the Army, I was in the 11th Transportation Battalion and was fortunate to be surrounded by some incredible people. In the locker room, you can get into discussions and dialogues on a variety of topics, and you can hear views you may not have had yourself, which allows you to empathize with other folks. This helped me during my time in the military, which is a melting pot just like our country. For many of us, the only thing we had in common was that we had volunteered to be there. We were made up of different races, creeds, and socioeconomic classes. Which takes me back to trust, love, and commitment. If you show the soldiers you are leading you can be trusted, that you have a mutual admiration for them, and that you care about their well-being, they will function at a high level.

Where did life take you after football?

Immediately following graduation, I went into the Army. I served as a platoon leader, a company executive officer, and the battalion adjutant. When my military commitment ended, I leveraged my logistics experience to secure as job with the Norfolk Southern Corporation, a class 1 North American railroad. I moved nine times in 14 years with Norfolk Southern and served in a variety of roles. Norfolk Southern is an amazing company and I will be forever grateful for the opportunities and experiences the corporation provided me. In 2017 I moved back east with Amtrak (near my wife’s parents outside of Philadelphia) where I currently serve as Vice President Operations Safety. As I moved around the company, I was in charge of several different teams, made up of a variety of cultural viewpoints. One common theme I saw, regardless of culture, is that human beings by nature thrive under the trust, love, and commitment philosophy. It is how you give respect and earn respect. It is what allowed me to be successful in so many different roles.

How did being a student-athlete at Notre Dame prepare you for what you are doing today?

In countless ways to be frank. Most importantly, it taught me the power of diversity and inclusion. Football is the greatest team sport in the world and there is nothing like seeing a team built from a motley crew of diverse personalities from all parts of the country…different races, creeds, and socioeconomic classes. It is in the inclusion piece of the puzzle where you leverage the diversity and highlight people’s strengths and disguise weaknesses. I quickly learned that to be successful all that mattered was a mutual and unwavering trust, love, and commitment for each member of the team. Those lessons have served me well in both my personal and professional life.

In my professional career, there is also nothing quite like seeing a team built from a motley crew of diverse personalities. To see when trust, love, and commitment is not just a mantra, but a daily way of doing business. To see how that brings a group of people together is an amazing experience. The other important thing I have learned is this; whether you are on a team, or in the workplace, embracing your role is so important. Not everyone can be the team captain or the CEO, but no matter what your role is you still have to embrace it and give your best in order to make your role effective, and for the entire team to reach their goals and be successful.

What advice would you give current student-athletes?

Take advantage of the entire college experience and do not limit yourself to the football team or the particular sport you play. The most amazing thing about a school like Notre Dame is the people. Try to interact with as many as possible. One of my fondest memories at Notre Dame was when I lived in Dillon Hall and Father Hesburgh came and spoke at the Dillon Hall chapel about his experience working on the Civil Rights Act, and afterward we had our picture taken with him. These are the type of experiences you will always remember, years after you leave college.

What advice do you have for young people that want to compete at the Division I level?

Dream big. My dream started as a kid in Miami, FL, writing a letter to Coach Holtz. This dream was supported at home, first by my parents and my brothers, and then by my extended family and a couple of cousins I was extremely close to. I had high school coaches who always encouraged me and gave me every opportunity to be successful. I had some dynamic teachers who challenged me in the classroom and I had a guidance counselor who mapped out a plan freshman year and held me to it. I have been extremely blessed.

Do you have a funny Coach Holtz story?

The spring game my freshmen year I stayed out on the field signing autographs once the scrimmage was over. You can imagine, as a 19-year old walk-on it was great for the ego-realizing people wanted my autograph. Long story short when I got back to the locker room six upper classmen were standing outside the door and the door was locked. They were quiet, and did not say a word, and I simply got in line. Well the first person to walk out of the door was Coach Holtz with the senior manager. Coach Holtz said, “Write down their names. They are to report to the ‘Breakfast Club’ on Monday morning.” The “Breakfast Club” was a discipline tool. It consisted of extreme conditioning (six am at Loftus) and it was called the “Breakfast Club” because you were likely to throw up your breakfast by the time it was done. After my one and only experience participating in the “Breakfast Club.” not only did I lose my fascination with signing autographs, I have never been late again in my life. It has taken me some time to find the humor in this, but now I can look back and laugh about it.

Do you have any philanthropy work or charity involvement that you would like to share?

I am on the board of Holtz’s Heroes Foundation and I serve as the chairperson of the Scholarship Committee. I have quickly learned that those same players that I so adored as a kid are even better men. Their commitment to the University, their teammates, and Coach Holtz are bar none.

Do you have anything else you would like to add?

Years ago, Father Hesburgh said, “Notre Dame can and must be a crossroads where all the vital intellectual currents of our time meet in dialogue, where the great issues of the Church and the world today are plumbed to their depths, where every sincere inquirer is welcomed and listened to and respected by a serious consideration of what he has to say about his belief or unbelief, his certainty or uncertainty; where differences of culture and religion and conviction can co-exist with friendship, civility, hospitality, respect and love; a place where the endless conversation is harbored and not foreclosed.” I think now more than ever members of the Notre Dame family, including our subway alumni, have a chance to exemplify the vision Father Hesburgh described. We owe it to the Lady on the Dome, our country, and our fellow man. We can and must change the world one interaction at a time.

Cheers & GO IRISH!