I’ve been working on a new Notre Dame project as of late (details on that coming later!), and I had the chance to catch up with former Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Martin Scruggs a few weeks ago. I thought this would be a good time to share with you some of my original interview with him from a few years back. Martin was blessed to have played at Notre Dame during the 1988 championship season, and his eyes still light up when asked to speak about his Alma Mater. He is very active in the Notre Dame Alumni Association. He first started out as the Monogram Representative on the Black Alumni Board, and then as the Region 13 Director for Diversity. Martin is an inspiration to so many. Here are some of Martin’s favorite memories from his time at Notre Dame.
“Friday night lights” at a high school in Texas is like nothing else you’ve ever seen. From parades and pep rallies to marching bands: the whole town is there and everything is larger than life. And if you play football in Texas and show any kind of promise, the colleges will inevitably come knocking; regardless of whether or not you want to play football at the college level. Martin Scruggs was a late entry to the high school football scene in Texas, but he loved it and excelled at it, which made the mailbox fill up and the phone start to ring. When he received a letter from Notre Dame his short list took a northern turn. The opportunity at Notre Dame was unique because Martin could both play football and participate in ROTC. So this military brat headed north to South Bend, Indiana, to see what Notre Dame was all about. The journey ended up being more than Martin could have ever imagined: a national championship, an outstanding education, and a career in the military. This is Martin Scruggs’ story.
“My biggest challenge at Notre Dame was learning how to balance the rigorous demands of academics and football simultaneously, especially freshman year. Keeping up with 15 to 18 credit hours, ROTC and football took quite a balancing act. Figuring out how much time you needed to spend studying and working that study time around football practice, travel and games came with a little trial and error that first year. I started out as an aerospace engineering major and ended up switching to government/political science. Trying to keep up with physics and calculus my freshman year while playing football caused me to decide that I needed to find a major that was slightly less demanding. I originally thought I was going to be a pilot and/or design planes but in hindsight it is difficult to decide at 18-years-old what you want to do for the rest of your life.”
Head football coach at Notre Dame is an arduous job, but coach Lou Holtz is in a very special group of Notre Dame head coaches. He seemed to accept the challenges in front of him effortlessly, and developed the young men who played for him, mind, body and spirit.
“One of the things that made Coach Holtz so unique was that he really cared for his players and for their development into young men. He was one of the few college coaches who stressed academics during the recruiting process as opposed to only selling me on the accolades of the football program. He emphasized the importance of academics and that Notre Dame football players are expected to be professional in everything they do, both on and off the field. Many of the other universities that I visited had academic standards but it was not stressed. One school even told me that although I had to meet with the academic folks, that academics weren’t really stressed there. Coach Holtz will always have a unique place at Notre Dame. While other coaches may come along and win national titles, Coach Holtz did it with standards that will always give him a place all his own.”
One thing about Coach Holtz that really stands out in my memory was his sense of discipline and how he held the upperclassmen responsible for molding and shaping those young men below them. Did I mention that you’re never late to a Coach Holtz meeting? Never. I remember rushing over to go to a meeting when I was running late and when I got there the door was closed. Once the door was closed you couldn’t go in, you had to stand there and wait because you knew exactly what was going to happen when the door opened. I was a freshman, and Dean Brown was also late that day, so we’re both standing there waiting, waiting, waiting. And finally Coach Holtz comes out and gives us this intense look. He starts yelling at Dean, ‘How can I expect to have the underclassmen here on time when you can’t even get here on time? How can I teach them when you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing!’”
“He taught us how to do it correctly on the field and then how to translate that into successful careers off the field. Jerome Bettis and Tim Brown are prime examples; successful NFL careers and then successful post-NFL careers. And then there are guys like Rocket (Raghib “Rocket” Ismail), who give back to current student-athletes. Coach Holtz taught us to give back to the community both during and after football. He made sure the older guys set a good example for the younger guys. And he made sure that we knew that even though we all weren’t going to play in the NFL, there is plenty of life to live after football. Another great thing about Coach Holtz is that he encouraged each and every one of us to follow our dreams. He never once told me I couldn’t do football and ROTC. I did Air Force ROTC all four years at Notre Dame. The ROTC program was excited about having a football player on board and vice versa; and it was a natural fit for me after doing football and ROTC in high school. I still had to go to drills and the ROTC classes but as I moved up the ranks into senior leadership I was able to manage the two schedules better. They knew that my being a football player meant that I was in good shape, so that got me out of some of the early morning runs, which meant I only had to do the mandatory ones. The football program also made allowances for me when I had ROTC activities to attend. Both the football team and the ROTC program leveraged each other to show how diverse they were by having a student who did football and ROTC.”
Freshmen assume when they come to Notre Dame to play football that they are going to win a national championship. That usually is not the case, but for Scruggs it was his reality.
“It was pretty amazing. We all came in with a great deal of talent as freshmen. My class was one of the most talented freshmen classes at Notre Dame in quite some time; Rocket, Rodney Culver, Devon McDonald, Rod Smith, and Derek Brown to name a few. We could all run well. In fact, some of us were faster than a lot of the upper classmen, but we were wild and undisciplined. It was Coach Holtz’s third year at Notre Dame and he had a lot of systems in place. He had a disciplined program and there was an expectation that we were going to be better than the team before us. Coach Holtz got us in line as the new guys. We weren’t disciplined when it came to running routes and we didn’t completely understand what was expected of us to be successful players at the collegiate level. Coach Holtz took care of that.”
“During two-a-day practices in camp that first August, D’Juan Francisco and I ended up being hospitalized for dehydration. Even coming from Texas high school football, it was brutal. Each week everything came more and more together; and each week that you won another game made the next week’s game just that much more important. And then we found ourselves in Arizona playing West Virginia for the national title. It was truly amazing. I went home for Christmas before the national championship game and the local news station interviewed me and had me predict the final score of the game. I predicted it within two points! And then after the game the stations were at the airport welcoming me when I flew home. It was pretty overwhelming for someone who wasn’t a major player on the team.”
“I grew up in a single parent household with my mom who was in the military. She went in as an enlisted soldier and got her first degree from the University of Minnesota and her second degree from the University of Wisconsin. She wasn’t very much into sports and she didn’t really have an attachment to the traditions at either of the schools she attended; what she most wanted was for me to go to school and get a good education. After I visited Notre Dame my mom told me, “That’s where you’re going.” She took care of all of the paperwork from there on out. She definitely understood the value of a Notre Dame education and the opportunities that playing football would give to me.”
As Scruggs reminisces about his time at Notre Dame, his college football career was filled with moments that he won’t forget. Two memories, however, stand out from the rest.
“I didn’t get a lot of playing time. I was redshirted my freshman year, and right before the kickoff classic my sophomore year I dislocated my shoulder and sat out most of that season. I came back late in the season and was playing mostly on special teams. I was thrilled just to be back and playing again. In the Orange Bowl (Notre Dame vs. Colorado, 1991) that year I was on the field on special teams when they called the clipping penalty on Greg Davis. This controversial penalty ended up causing Rocket’s 91 yard punt return for a touchdown (with 1:05 left on the clock) to be called back. I was right behind him and we were all cheering because we thought we had won the game and then I looked back and saw the flag. What a crushing disappointment. I just couldn’t believe it. Even though the ball came back and they were going to kick it to us again, we still believed at that moment that we could do it all over again and win the game. But, of course, we all know how the game ended (Colorado 10 – Notre Dame 9). That right there is one of my favorite Notre Dame memories. How we all pulled together and believed that even though the odds were against us that we could win the game; that we could pull off an amazing comeback. It’s easy to come together when everything is going well, but the way we came together amidst adversity and hard times, that is the definition of teamwork.”
“On a more positive note, another one of my favorite Notre Dame memories was the Sugar Bowl (Notre Dame vs. Florida, 1992). Even through all of the negative press we were receiving - that Cheerios belonged in the bowl more than Notre Dame did - Coach Holtz kept us together and kept us positive the whole time. We couldn’t practice on the field because of all the rain New Orleans was getting, so we had to practice in our socks on the cement floor in the convention hall. As always, Coach had us prepared for Florida and we went out there and showed the world that we did indeed belong in the bowl game. The Mass before that game was quite memorable as well. They knew exactly how to center us and ready us for our big moment.”
While Martin’s career and life after Notre Dame has taken him on many adventures, he always seems to be drawn back to Our Lady’s University. Notre Dame does such a great job of imparting on Her students the importance of giving back. The service opportunities at Notre Dame are around every corner and once you’ve experienced the joy of helping another, it becomes an integral part of your life.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve had the opportunity to be able to give back to the University. I began as the Monogram Representative on the Black Alumni board, and now I’m the Region 13 Director for Diversity. I cover the states of Texas and Oklahoma and deal with diversity issues in the alumni clubs. Mainly I look for students with diverse backgrounds who might be interested in attending Notre Dame. I also help the clubs with their diversity programs in order to help provide a more diverse environment at Notre Dame, and promote diversity in sports such as golf, tennis and hockey.
We had some diversity issues when I was at Notre Dame. There was a sit-in on campus in response to some diversity issues resulting from the actions of some professors, but the diversity issues I encountered on campus did not overwhelm student life. Part of being a student at Notre Dame was having the opportunity to meet people from other parts of the country and even the world. This helped me a great deal in my military career. To be understanding of other cultures and religions and to have respect for all people was a great asset for me. One of the other great things about Notre Dame was that you were truly a student-athlete. You didn’t live in a football dorm like you would at many other universities; you lived in a regular dorm mixed with athletes and non-athletes alike. For my last three years at Notre Dame I lived with non-athletes. It was nice to experience living with people outside of athletics.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s story. Next story, next week!
Cheers & GO IRISH!