By AL LESAR
9:00 am, April 23, 2012
Irish Sports Report
Eighty-some players on the field.
Eighty-some tales of woe.
Look beyond those shiny gold helmets crowning hulking muscle-covered bodies.
Beyond their high-profile popularity. Beyond the coddling and special attention. Well beyond the headlines and the national television exposure.
These are young adults. Probably finding their way in life for the first time, far from home and a trusted support system.
It’s a safe bet that every Notre Dame football player has had his “fork in the road” moment. Either this way, or that way. It usually happens early in a career, but the reasons run the gamut. Immaturity adds to the confusion.
A girlfriend back home? The weather? Notre Dame’s academics? A dust-up on the field that never was resolved? The weather? South Bend’s social scene? Homesickness? Lack of playing time? The weather?
Aaron Lynch’s fork in the road appeared to have come over a 10-day span that led to his departure. While most players find a way to work through the malaise, the sophomore-to-be defensive lineman with an amazing future chose to bail.
Nobody knows for sure what broke that camel’s back. Hard to put a finger on what really caused the break-up.
Whatever the case, that loss hurts. After the April 14 practice, coach Brian Kelly talked about a seamless adjustment on the defensive line. Seams might not show, but a glaring lack of Lynch’s tenacity will.
A defensive front that could bring pressure was supposed to cover for a secondary in limbo. Now ... who knows?
Coaches these days are challenged to do more than coach. A degree in social work or psychology might well serve a locker room filled with questions and issues.
“In some fashion, coaching ... You have to be able to talk to kids and find out what those buttons are that are going to get them to open up and talk about what their issues are,” Kelly said. “I try to find myself doing that on a day-to-day basis. Some days you need it a little bit more.
“They’re 18-to-21-year-olds. They’re going to have good days and bad days. I’m constantly trying to be in touch with it. Our (assistant) coaches try really hard. That social worker, that psychologist, it all goes into being a good coach and a good teacher.”
Senior linebacker Manti Te’o, who crossed a bunch of time zones from Hawaii to Indiana to get to Notre Dame, can relate to what Lynch must have been going through.
“When I was younger, there were many times after practice where I just said, ‘I don’t want to be here,’” Te’o said. “But it’s a growing process. You have to mature. It’s hard.
“It’s hard wherever you go, whether you’re at USC, Notre Dame, you’re away from home. And for a young 18-, 19-year-old not being able to go home and see mom and dad and your siblings and having a home-cooked meal waiting for you, and coming here you finish practice and you have to figure out what you’re going to eat ...
“You realize, ‘I’ve got to wash my clothes. I got to wash the dishes.’ It’s a culture shock. It’s never easy.”
“Fortunately for me, I just fought through it and I stuck it out. That’s one thing I learned from my little brother’s (Lynch) experience. I wanted him to stick it out and reap the benefits of being here at Notre Dame and take care of his family. But I know he’ll take care of his family wherever he goes.”
Braxston Cave, who will be a fifth-year center, only had to cross through a handful of stoplights to get from his home to campus, but his adjustment period didn’t come without bumps.
“The biggest thing is being able to accept your role and knowing the responsibilities that you’re going to have to take on,” Cave said. “As a young guy, you’ve got tons of class, study hall; then with football on top of it, learning a playbook, new techniques.
“You have to accept it, take the teaching, try and get better and not look at it like, ‘People are getting on me and I’ve got all this stuff to do.’ Just be open-minded to all of it.”
No room for, “Oh, woe is me.”
“(There’s a) ton (of pressure on a young guy),” Cave said. “Especially at a school like this. You’re carrying a heavy load of classes. You want to be in a position to play. There’s a ton of pressure to do well. A lot of that pressure comes from yourself.
“My biggest thing was learning how to manage my time. I’m a procrastinator, big time. In high school, I’d wait until the night before to do anything and everything. I learned that you can’t do that here. That was the first adjustment I had to make.”
Kapron Lewis-Moore, a defensive lineman who is getting ready for his fifth fall in South Bend, had trouble adjusting to the winters. South Bend in January and February is a little tougher than Weatherford, Texas.
“The winter my freshman year (was the fork in the road),” Lewis-Moore said. “‘I don’t know if Notre Dame’s for me: Too cold, too much snow, wind-chill negative-20.’ I bonded with a couple other guys feeling the same way. We’d just bite the bit and go to work every day.”
Misery loves company?
“Yeah,” he said laughing. “Kinda like that.”
The guys who stick learn how to survive. Those who bail are seeking greener pastures.
Lynch likely wasn’t the only Irish football player with issues the last couple weeks.
He’s just the only one who chose not to find a way to cope.