This week I’d like to take some time to walk down memory lane with my friend and classmate, former Notre Dame Fighting Irish tight end, Irv Smith. He lights up the room as soon as he walks in with that smile and signature dimples. He’s a friend to everyone, would give you the shirt off his back, and always found a way to talk the dining hall ladies out of an extra steak on “steak night.” (Even though none of us were sure they were really steaks.) Irv Smith worked his way from being a three-sport star at tiny Pemberton High in New Jersey to becoming the 20th overall pick in the first round of the 1993 NFL Draft. At Pemberton High, Smith earned all-division, all-county and all-state accolades as a tight end, linebacker and safety in football and also starred in baseball and basketball. Irv originally committed to play football at Clemson until the Notre Dame Value Stream got a hold of him and he changed his path. He played football and baseball at Notre Dame and was talented enough on the baseball diamond to be drafted by the Houston Astros after his junior year at Notre Dame, but he decided to stay for his senior year to focus on football. Irv was drafted by the New Orleans Saints with the 20th pick of the first round and went on to play seven seasons in the NFL with the Saints, San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns. Smith finished his NFL career with 183 receptions for 1,788 yards, averaging 9.8 yards per carry, and had 15 touchdowns.
How did Irv Smith end up at Notre Dame even after Notre Dame very clearly told Irv that he would be riding the bench behind Derek Brown for his first three years?
“Notre Dame was actually my last choice. It was my last choice because Derek Brown was a freshman at ND when I was a senior in high school, Notre Dame had just won the national championship, and they flat out told me that I would be Brown’s backup for my first three years. All of the other schools that I was looking at promised me a starting position. I was looking at Florida State, USC, UCLA, Clemson and Auburn. When I took my visit to FSU, it was for the FSU - Florida game and ‘Neon’ Deion Sanders was a senior at FSU. Auburn was supposed to be my fifth and final visit. I was getting ready to commit to Auburn during my official recruiting trip when they called me the Monday prior to my visit and told me they had just signed two tight ends that weekend (one of whom was Fred Baxter) and they no longer had a scholarship for me. I was getting ready to sign and they said ‘no thank you’ to me. Once Notre Dame got wind of this, they put some pressure on me to make my fifth visit there. I told them that I would take my fifth visit there, but firmly told them that it was my intention to commit to Clemson.”
Irv took his official visit to Notre Dame even though he verbally committed to Clemson that very same day. Just when Irv thought he had everything figured out, he soon came to realize he didn’t have anything figured out.
“I verbally committed to Clemson the Friday that I left to make my official visit at ND. The entire weekend I was at Notre Dame I fought the fact that I really did love the place. Before I took my visit, I didn’t even know what state Notre Dame was in, and here I was falling in love with the school. The players I met that weekend not only told me about how great it was to play football at Notre Dame, but that it was a place that would literally change your life. That Notre Dame was so much more than just a football school. I went home and told my parents that I had changed my mind. I was going to Notre Dame. I was a backup tight end for three years, but it truly did change my life.”
Just as the football players at ND won Irv over during his official visit, he did the same thing for many other young men visiting Notre Dame for the first time.
“When I was at Notre Dame, I became that guy who convinced the visiting recruits that Notre Dame was the place they wanted to be. Some of the guys that I helped bring to Notre Dame included Jeff Burris, John Covington, Oscar McBride, Tommy Carter, Jerome Bettis, Oliver Gibson, Ray Zellars and Bryant Young. The recruits would get dropped off to me Friday night and we had them until Sunday morning when they met Coach Holtz and Coach Vinny Cerrato. We made them see all that Notre Dame had to offer, and that you were also making lifelong friends along the way.”
If you spent any time watching Notre Dame football during the early 1990s, the image of Irv dragging multiple Indiana defenders into the end zone is surely emblazoned in your mind. It’s one of his best memories of his time at Notre Dame as well.
“The Indiana game (Sept. 7, 1991) when I dragged two Indiana defenders 20 yards to score a touchdown, I’m not sure anything could top that. It was a home game, the opening game of my junior year and I had worked so hard to prove that I was good enough to be out there. I played baseball and football my first two years at ND. I liked baseball, but I loved football. I eventually gave up baseball to pursue football full-time, and that play made me realize that playing Notre Dame football was exactly where I wanted to be. It gave me the motivation to work hard to get my opportunity to shine.”
“It wasn’t even so much the actual play that sticks out in my mind so much, but the moment when Derek Brown and the guys picked me up in the end zone and tried to carry me off the field. As I was getting close to the side line I realized that Coach Holtz was screaming at me, ‘You’re on the field goal unit … get out there!’ Derek Brown was the man, the starter, the stud, and to see him happy for me was a real turning point for me.”
Football wasn’t always Irv’s primary path at Notre Dame. A two-sport student-athlete, Irv split his non-academic hours at Notre Dame between playing baseball and football. A wake-up call from head coach Lou Holtz helped Irv clarify his focus and narrow his path.
“During my sophomore year I was playing both football and baseball. Both Coach Murphy (baseball) and Coach Holtz had signed off on this. As soon as the football season was over, and the bowl game behind us, I started working out with the baseball team. When March came around I had spring practice with the football team as well as baseball games and practice. I walked into Coach Holtz’s office and said, ‘I am currently in the middle of the baseball season, I need to figure out a way to work in spring football practice.’ I wanted to make sure he knew that I wasn’t just skipping out on spring football practice. Coach Holtz says to me, ‘I love you Irv, but I think what is best for you is for you to focus 100 percent on baseball and skip spring football practice. In fact, when football comes around, I want you to continue to focus on baseball. With Derek Brown going to be a senior in the fall, and now we’ve got Oscar McBride and Karmeeleyah McGill, and in addition to those three we’ve signed a few new guys. I’m not going to take your scholarship from you, but I think baseball is best for you.’“
Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity. ~Lou Holtz
“I looked at him and thought, ‘Are you serious?’ He’s sitting there telling me, Irv, we don’t need you anymore. I walked out of his office completely broken. I went next door to Coach Joe Moore’s office and told Coach Moore what happened and he said, ‘WHAT??’ The two of us walked into Coach Holtz’s office and Coach Moore says, ‘What do we have to do to keep Irv on the team?’ Then Coach Moore says, ‘Coach Holtz, Irv is going to be at practice today. Please give him one more chance.’ After Coach Holtz agreed to this, Coach Moore walks out with me and tells me, ‘Go out to practice today and show Coach Holtz that you deserve to be on this team.’ Then I go tell Coach Murphy what is going on and he gives me the OK to go to every spring football practice that week to show Coach Holtz what I’ve got.”
“I go to practice the first day and Coach Holtz has me running fourth-string. He had Oscar McBride running second, Karmeeleyah McGill third, and me at the bottom of the barrel. I came out that day and absolutely killed it. I finished out that baseball season, but after that experience, I made the decision that I was going to focus 100 percent on football. When I told Coach Murphy that I was no longer going to play baseball, he told me, ‘Go do your thing!’ And when I called Coach Moore with my decision, he said, ‘Irv, we’ve got ya!’ Coach Holtz wanted to motivate me. He wanted it to be my decision, to play football full-time. He really knew how to push everyone’s buttons. He knew that year was a critical time for me. That it was time for me to either put up or shut up, but he had done it in a way that the decision was on me.”
Irv currently has some pretty great projects in the works with Executive Global Tours, including a couple of fantastic trips to Ireland; one supporting the Lou’s Lads Foundation, and one benefiting the Anthony Fasano Foundation/Brady Quin’s 3rd and Goal Foundation. Follow him on Twitter and get all of the information!
Cheers & GO IRISH!