Notre Dame is one of the few college football teams that truly can boast a national following.
Why, there’s even an alumni chapter in the Minnesota Vikings locker room.
“It’s really fun to be able to talk trash to everybody,” said center John Sullivan, who has a leprechaun tattoo on his left shoulder.
Sullivan is one of five ex-Notre Dame players on the Vikings, the most of any NFL team. There are currently 26 former Fighting Irish on active rosters around the league, and the next-closest team is Indianapolis with three, according to STATS LLC.
So not only do Notre Dame alumni make up nearly 10 percent of Minnesota’s roster but the Vikings have almost 20 percent of the NFL’s, well, Irish heritage. After drafting Sullivan in the sixth round in 2008, they took tight end Kyle Rudolph in the second round in 2011. This year, they selected safety Harrison Smith in the first round and safety Robert Blanton in the fifth round. They also signed tight end John Carlson, a second-round pick by Seattle in 2008, as a free agent.
With the Fighting Irish undefeated and set to play Alabama for the BCS championship on Jan. 7, there’s no doubt which school colors have been the brightest around the Vikings this season. Bragging rights were clear after Notre Dame beat Stanford (running back Toby Gerhart), Oklahoma (running back Adrian Peterson and right tackle Phil Loadholt) and of course rival USC (left tackle Matt Kalil, defensive end Everson Griffen and tight end Rhett Ellison).
“We’re always coming in here after their games saying, ‘We told you so.’ So far it’s been a good year,” Smith said.
They’ve even roughed out a plan to fly to Miami for the big game, as long as a potential practice — should the Vikings make the playoffs — doesn’t interfere.
Regular season games are typically tough to watch, with Saturday afternoon travel on weeks with road games or meetings in the hotel at night. But Blanton and Smith tried to watch together when the Vikings were on the road and Notre Dame had a prime-time kickoff. Sullivan chartered a flight with Rudolph and Loadholt to watch the game at Oklahoma on Oct. 27, a weekend the Vikings had off.
“Afterward, Phil came up to us and said, ‘You guys just physically dominated the game,’” Rudolph recalled. “It’s been a long time since Notre Dame’s gone on the road to a top-10 team and just dominated the game.”
That’s true. None of these five teammates lost fewer than three times in any season they were at Notre Dame. Some years, they didn’t even play in a bowl game.
Jealousy of the current team isn’t part of their mindset, though.
“Pretty proud of those guys,” Blanton said.
Just as proud of the traditionally strict academic standards, as they all noted, as the success on the field.
“They follow the rules there. It’s one of those places where you don’t get away with stuff. They expect you to go to class. They make sure everyone graduates,” said Carlson, who met his wife, Danielle, at Notre Dame.
The Vikings didn’t exactly make a conscious effort to create such a high concentration of former Fighting Irish.
“I think it was more coincidence because we’re always going to stack our draft board according to a player’s ability, and our rating system is building on upside and potential,” general manager Rick Spielman said. “I don’t know that we’ve honed in, just because they go to a Notre Dame or a USC or an Ohio State or something like that.”
The Vikings, though, have shaped their roster philosophy around a stated desire for tough, smart, passionate players, attributes that Notre Dame products often possess, even during some of the down years they’ve had in the last decade.
“Clearly there’s something about that school that our front office and the people making our personnel decisions like, but at the same time it really comes down to a case-by-case basis,” Sullivan said. “You can find great people from a whole lot of schools. I think we’ve got a lot of great people here. That can come from the whole spectrum of college football.”
Only the Notre Dame guys will be able to cheer for their team in the national championship game next month, however. The Vikings don’t have any Alabama players on the roster now.
“We have to make sure that while we’re on top,” Rudolph said, “we let everyone else know.”