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Perseverance paying off

3 Dwenger grads worked hard to become key cogs for No. 1 Irish

Three former Bishop Dwenger players could all end up tonight as members of a BCS championship football team.

Receiver John Goodman, tight end Tyler Eifert and defensive lineman Tony Springmann all contributed this season as No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) reached tonight’s title game against No. 2 Alabama (12-1) in Miami.

And all three share a attribute that allows them to compete at college football’s highest level, according to Dwenger coach Chris Svarczkopf.

“I think perseverance is a great word for all three of them,” Svarczkopf said. “They had times where it has been dark, where it has been you haven’t seen any future in this, they’ve been hurt and hurt bad, all of them have had bad backs. They’ve all had some type of issue there. They’ve all just battled through it and hung in there.

“I think that the thing they all have in common is that they’ve all persevered.”

The three Dwenger graduates also have special stories that brought them to Notre Dame and helped them contribute to the Irish’s first undefeated season since the program’s last championship in 1988.

Determined to succeed

John Goodman was determined not to go inside on a miss.

He had moved the family’s recycling bin in front of the garage door the Goodmans had just moved into a week ago. He stood at the bottom of the sloped driveway and fired a baseball at the bin, which he called his “strike zone.”

“When I came home, there were dents all over the garage door,” his mother, Julie, said. “I said, ‘Why are there dents all over?’ And he said, ‘I was using the recycling bin as a target.’ I said, ‘Why are there so many (dents)?’ And he said, ‘I was going to keep trying until I got it into the target.’ And those dents are still out there.”

The dents in the garage door were just one sign that Goodman was driven to be the best when it came to any athletic endeavor.

Another also involved baseball when Goodman won three of four events at Mr. Mac Day, an event for Wildcat League baseball players. Julie Goodman expected her son to be thrilled to have three first-place trophies, instead he was just mad about not winning the fourth.

“That was when he was little, probably 8 or 9, I knew then that he was a little bit unusual,” Julie said.

While Goodman enjoyed baseball and also excelled at basketball and track – reaching the state finals in the 50-meter dash as a freshman at Dwenger – football was always the sport he loved the most.

And it was obvious early that he had the skills necessary to succeed.

“You could see it when he was 9 years old, he was already throwing the ball nearly 40 yards,” said his father, Andy, who coached John in football at St. Jude’s in seventh and eighth grade. “He just always had the ability to run. He was pretty special when he would take off running with the ball. You could tell then. He just had the ability to run and throw.”

Goodman also had motivation to excel right at home. His older brother T.J. also played football at Dwenger and then at Saint Francis.

And growing up, Goodman always wanted to try and beat his older brother, especially in a race.

“(T.J.) was a speed demon as well,” Goodman said. “He was bigger and stronger and faster than me, but I would always want to race him and compete with him in something. … He is really the one I attribute all of my speed success to, because he got me going at a young age.”

The brothers last raced when Goodman was a freshman in high school. T.J. won, but as Goodman continued to mature through high school, his brother knew the days of winning their competitions were over.

“John was never scared of anybody,” T.J. said. “He would never break down. Any kind of argument athletically, he would say let’s race. That was his thing. He wanted to race people.”

And he wanted to play football for Notre Dame, and he did everything he could to make that happen.

Goodman would wake up at 5 a.m. every day for most of his junior and all of his senior high school seasons to work out with Athletes with Purpose. His parents never once had to drag him out of bed.

The work paid off when the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder received his offer from Notre Dame, and he was quick to commit when he attended the Irish’s junior day.

“It was the happiest moment of my life,” said Goodman, who has seven receptions for 159 yards with three touchdowns this season. “It was exhilarating. I had chills going through my spine and everything.”

He will try to add one more exhilarating feeling with Notre Dame tonight when the Irish try to capture the national title.

Strong will, passion

Tyler Eifert is an easy-going guy, but when this year’s Mackey Award winner – given to the nation’s top tight end – sets his mind to something, he will not let it go.

It was something his grade-school religion teacher found out when Eifert was convinced he was right and she was wrong.

“He was in fifth- or sixth-grade religion class, and it was with his favorite teacher he’s ever had, Mrs. Hogan, and he got an answer wrong on the test,” said Eifert’s mother, Julie. “He could have sworn that was the right answer. He started talking to other kids in the class and they are like, ‘Yeah, I put that on there too.’ He had everybody in the class who got the wrong answer and kind of protest. They took their pencils and made signs and said we want a kind of a re-vote or can you please look at this question. She did. She looked it up and the answer could have gone both ways, and everybody that got the answer wrong, he got it changed. The teacher came to his eighth-grade graduation and said she would never forget Ty doing that. She liked his persistency and if he thought he was right, he was going to fight for that answer.

“If he thinks he is right or stuff should be changed, he would do it.”

Eifert put the same strong-willed determination and passion he had to get an answer correct on a test into sports. He started playing golf at 4, and he also played basketball and football growing up. Eifert’s desire to win was obvious from the start.

“He was very competitive,” said his father, Greg. “He had nervous butterflies even in the fifth grade before games. He was very nervous about the games. Julie and I always joked about how in the fifth grade, I think they lost a game, and he was crying after a game. We were just like, ‘Oh my God, Tyler, this is just fifth-grade football, this isn’t like a national championship or anything. This is just fifth-grade football, come on. It’s OK. There is tomorrow.’

“He just took everything to heart and was very competitive at a young age.”

Steve Fiacable coached Eifert at Saint Vincent in fifth and sixth grade, and the former Indiana offensive lineman could tell then that Eifert was special because of the grade-schooler’s athletic talents and internal drive.

“He was the type of kid if he had a game Saturday morning, he would be ready the night before,” Fiacable said. “If they lost, he would be bawling. He would get really upset. He just cared so much and had so much desire and passion.”

That passion and drive never left Eifert through his years at Dwenger and when he started waking up every day at 4:30 a.m. to work out at AWP to try and help his chances of securing a Division I football scholarship.

“We would hear the chimes on the alarm system going off, and he was out the door and gone. It was amazing to us,” Greg Eifert said.

It’s also amazing that Eifert ended up at Notre Dame. The Irish already had five scholarships committed to tight ends before former coach Charlie Weis and his staff agreed to give the 6-6, 251-pound Eifert a tryout on the recommendations of Svarczkopf and Andy Goodman.

Eifert tried out in between sessions during a camp at Notre Dame, and after it was over, Weis called him over.

“Coach Weis said, ‘Tyler I wasn’t expecting to like you, but I like you a lot,’ ” Greg said. “He said give me a couple of weeks to work some things out here as far as where to put you and we will get back to you. He said I think you will like what we have to say to you. We waited two weeks. It was that July 4 weekend, … that is when coach Weis offered him the scholarship.

“If it wasn’t for him seeing the talent that Ty had, we would never be where we were – being at Notre Dame.”

And Notre Dame never would have had a tight end who caught a team-high 44 passes for 624 yards with four touchdowns this year and set the school record for receptions (134) and receiving yards (1,779) by a tight end.

And the Irish also never would have had a player with as much passion as Eifert, who overcame a career-threatening back injury to position himself to be an early-round NFL draft pick.

“For me, sports has always just been a fear of losing,” Eifert said. “Back in fifth and sixth grade, I would be so nervous I didn’t even want to play. I just want to win so badly, when you don’t win after putting all that hard work in, sometimes it hurts.”

Plenty of hustle

Tony Springmann was 8 years old, and he had no idea what his coaches meant when they told players to hustle.

“That was the first time I heard (hustle), and I was really confused,” Sprinmann said.

Springmann sat down with his father, Dave – who coached him in baseball, basketball and football – to find out what it meant.

“I remember when we came home from a baseball practice one time, he asked me out of the blue, ‘Dad, do I have hustle?’ I said, ‘Yes, Tony, you have hustle.’ ” Dave said. “We talked about that and what it means. You don’t have to be the best athlete. You don’t have to understand everything about the game. You don’t have to know all the plays. But you can always hustle, and he always has.”

When the Sprinmanns moved from Valparaiso to Fort Wayne when Tony was in fifth grade, he didn’t just bring his “hustle” to Saint Vincent, he brought the best gift a coach could receive, according to Fiacable.

“As a fifth- and sixth-grade football coach, you couldn’t imagine how excited I was to see this kid show up to practice the first day,” Fiacable said. “He was bigger than all the sixth-graders and the fifth-graders. As a fifth- and sixth-grade football coach, that’s a very exciting moment when you see a 5-foot-9 or 5-foot-10 kid show up to your team. You feel very blessed.”

In high school, Springmann showed how competitive he could be at practice when he lined up against his older brother, Gus, during Dwenger practices.

Springmann was a sophomore defensive end, and Gus was a senior offensive tackle. The two brothers refused to back down from each other.

“They were always going at one-on-one in drills and scrimmages,” Svarczkopf said. “We figured out right away that this guy is not soft. This is a big guy that plays hard and loves to compete and loves to beat you up. We had to separate those guys a couple of times. They are great brothers, but when they are on the field they have a job do to and neither one is going to back down.”

Springmann credits his older brother for turning him into the player that he is for the Irish.

“I always tried to follow him and do what he did,” Springman said of Gus. “We would play baseball together. I would try to hit his pitches. I still couldn’t. He was always a little ahead of me. That was one of those things that kept me going and going, because I just wanted to beat him.”

Springmann’s hustle isn’t reserved for football.

The 6-6, 300-pound sophomore, who had 11 tackles and two tackles for loss after not playing as a freshman, puts the same effort into working with his hands.

Springmann says he enjoys working on his truck with his father the most, and the two have also installed a gas dryer, changed out a stove and cleared trees.

“I remember we cleared some brush and some trees, and I showed him how to use an ax and a chainsaw,” Dave said. “I realized because we had spent his entire youth on a court or a field somewhere, and he doesn’t know how to swing an ax. I said I’m going to show him how to do it. We are going to cut down some trees. I ran a chainsaw and showed him how to use that, make undercuts and so forth and cut a wedge and fell a tree and chop with an ax. God, he just went at it. It didn’t take long to teach and he just went right at it.

“He’s got hustle in everything that he does.”

tkrausz@jg.net

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