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Leading Role

Walk-on Dillingham earns key spot for the Irish

September 29, 2002|From Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Pat Dillingham already has authored a Hollywood ending more unlikely than "Rudy."

And it may just be the first chapter in the Dillingham story.

Not only has Dillingham gone from walk-on to scholarship player, he led the Irish to a come-from-behind win to keep their surprising unbeaten season going. Even more unlikely, he is listed as Notre Dame's starting quarterback--at least until Carlyle Holiday returns from a shoulder injury.

"At this time last year, I don't think I could have pictured this," Dillingham said.

Who could have? The Irish, off to their worst start ever at 0-3 a year ago, are ranked No. 10 and their quarterback against Stanford on Oct. 5 could be a 6-1, 209-pound sophomore whose team went 2-8 when he was a high school senior. He wasn't offered any scholarships.

"People are saying it's 'Rudy' all over again," said Mike Mitchell, Dillingham's coach at St. Francis High in Mountain View, Calif.. "It's not. Rudy never got in a game that counted and brought them back."

Different in a lot of ways. Dillingham didn't have the hard life that Rudy Ruettiger did. Ruettiger, one of 14 children in his family, was a die-hard Irish fan but couldn't afford college. He got a job out of high school as a turbine operator, joined the Navy and, at 23, pursued his dream of playing for Notre Dame after a friend died.

"My story was not a football story," Ruettiger said. "My story was more about going against the odds of what life was handing me. I was just looking to survive and to fulfill that one moment that we're all looking for. Dillingham has done that, too, though."

Dillingham didn't grow up a big Notre Dame fan. His father is the team physician with the San Francisco 49ers, and Dillingham remembers players such as Joe Montana coming by the house for treatment.

He fell in love with Notre Dame while attending summer camp after his junior year. Dillingham decided to walk-on even though the Irish had four quarterbacks on scholarship and he didn't have the running ability needed to run the option.

"I tried to tell him he should probably look at some Division II schools, but he said Notre Dame was where he wanted to go," Mitchell said.

He was so far down the depth chart last season that he never even learned the offense. As scout team quarterback, he was too busy learning opponents' offenses.

He moved up the depth chart through attrition. Jared Clark switched to tight end in the spring and Matt LoVecchio transferred to Indiana. That left only Dillingham and another walk-on as backups to Holiday.

Following a workout in July, Dillingham was floored when he was awakened from a nap by a telephone call from Coach Tyrone Willingham's secretary saying she had scholarship papers for him to sign.

"I didn't see it coming," he said.

Things kept getting better. Even after the arrival of Chris Olsen, a highly rated recruit from New Jersey, Dillingham kept the No. 2 job. He even got out on the field late against Maryland in the opener. There was a slight miscue--he was introduced by the public-address announcer as Jason Beckstrom, an injured Irish cornerback who also wears No. 9.

Dillingham didn't attempt a pass and he didn't get carried off the field on his teammates' shoulders like Ruettiger did after his 27-second appearance in 1975. But Dillingham's story didn't end there.

He kept getting ready for his chance, standing behind Holiday in practices and envisioning himself running the offense.

"Coach always told me I'm one hit away," he said.

That one hit occurred late in the third quarter against Michigan State, when Holiday was tackled and landed awkwardly on his left shoulder. The Irish fell behind, 17-14, with 1:45 left, but Dillingham brought them back quickly. He completed a pass, then Michigan State was called for pass interference. Dillingham threw an eight-yard pass to Arnaz Battle, who made a few moves and turned it into a game-winning 60-yard touchdown.

Dillingham doesn't want the story to end there. Although the Irish are hopeful Holiday will be ready for Stanford, they are working to get Dillingham ready.

Willingham has warned Dillingham not to get caught up in the attention. Willingham knows. He was a walk-on at Michigan State in 1972 who later got a scholarship. Two years later, he went 3-1 as a starter after Charlie Baggett got hurt.

Willingham has confidence in Dillingham, saying that in the West Coast offense, the most important factor for a quarterback is good decision-making.

"I think he'll be one of those guys that just has that kind of calm to him about his play, most things won't bother him too much," he said.

And even if Holiday is ready to play against Stanford, Dillingham knows he's one hit away.

"I've learned just from being here with all the changes that have happened that when opportunities come your way, you better be prepared," he said. "This is my opportunity."

What more could a walk-on ask for--except maybe a ride off the field on the shoulders of his teammates and a Hollywood movie deal.

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