SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It was Friday night, Nov. 10, and the little big man of Notre Dame football, the one with David's body and Goliath's heart, was facing one of his toughest opponents.
Joey Getherall straightened himself up to his full 5 feet 7, set his jaw and realized that his emotions were tackling him.
"The whole thing had me in tears, and that was before I even started to speak," Getherall said.
The senior wide receiver was facing the usual 15,000 people in the Notre Dame Athletic and Convocation Center. It was the night before the Irish were to play Boston College, and Getherall was there to speak at the pep rally, an Irish tradition legendary in college football.
Boston College would be his final home game, another landmark in a career that has inspired Irish fans and befuddled coaches of the teams who chose not to recruit him out of La Puente Bishop Amat High four years ago because they thought he was too small. He had chosen this night, rather than a pep rally at an earlier game, because he knew he would feel and want to say so much more.
But he got ambushed, by the moment, by the show around him and by his own emotions.
"I wasn't going to try and fire up the crowd like lots of people do," he said. "I was just going to speak from the heart."
But before he had his chance, Paul Hornung, as big an Irish legend as the pep rallies themselves, spoke from the heart. He talked of one of his former teammates, Don Penza, who had been a team captain in 1953 and who had, in a key game that cost the Irish their unbeaten status, dropped two key passes against Iowa and had stood the next week to face the student body at the pep rally. Hornung said Penza used only two words to rock the place: "I'm sorry."
Hornung's Penza story rocked the place again, leaving Getherall shaken.
"I knew I was next, and I was so sure I would be able to handle this," he said, "but I just couldn't get myself composed. Thank God the band kept playing and people kept cheering, so I had some time."
When he did speak, he told his teammates, all sitting behind him, that they were his family, that they'd been through everything together. He had to stop a couple of times to gather himself, before adding, "I love you guys."
And then he carried things a step further, to the next day's opponent, Boston College, which had beaten the Irish the year before, 31-29, at Notre Dame Stadium. A few Boston College players had torn out chunks of the turf and paraded around with clods held high.
"We'll never forget how they dug up our turf and held it high like trophies," Getherall said. "Tomorrow, they'll get to see our turf again, and I don't think they'll like the taste of it."
Hornung's speech was now an afterthought. Getherall, the speedster from Hacienda Heights, who has had Irish fans in the palm of his hand ever since the opening game of his freshman year in 1997, had them again. It was not expected, not predictable, that a current player, just three days past his 22nd birthday, could wow them better than the old master, Hornung.
But then, not much about Getherall is expected or predictable.
When Getherall comes home for Thanksgiving this week, it will be a working vacation. Notre Dame has an 8-2 record and needs one more victory, Saturday against USC at the Coliseum, to land in a prestigious BCS bowl.
A few weeks ago, USC appeared to present more a speed bump than a roadblock to Notre Dame's aspirations. But Saturday's Trojan victory over UCLA, plus the history of Notre Dame-USC being a pick-'em game, no matter what the odds and records are, means that Getherall and gang face a formidable task.
It also means that the Getherall story becomes even more intriguing.
Among those in the crowd for the Boston College pep rally was a Notre Dame senior named Lindsay Sanford.
"I was crying when Joey spoke," she said. "It was one of the best speeches I've ever heard at a pep rally here. My dad would have loved to hear it. I called home and told him about it."
Her father is Mike Sanford, current assistant coach for the San Diego Chargers and former assistant coach at, among other places, USC and Notre Dame. Mike Sanford was USC's recruiting coordinator in 1996, when the Trojans were the only Pacific 10 Conference school to pass on recruiting Getherall, who had been a high school All-American, had 4.3 speed in the 40 and had led the state of California with a 25.2-yard receiving average.
Getherall's father, Joe, now four years retired from a 28-year career as an LAPD detective, has both a bachelor's and master's degree from USC and was an avid fan until his only son headed for South Bend.
"When I was growing up, it was all USC," Joey said. "USC this and USC that."
Unfortunately for Sanford and USC, Getherall had not grown up enough. His high school playing weight of 145, now all the way up to a Notre Dame listing of 170--"with marbles in his pockets," wrote one sportswriter--was not going to be enough for many Division I programs.