Corporate America, meet Rick DiBernardo. Notre Dame graduate. Marketing and psychology major. Looking for something in the marketing or administration field with good opportunity for advancement. Something that offers a little more security than his last job.
Rick DiBernardo, meet members of the business community. Shake hands and tell them how eager you are to get started. Mention that degree from Notre Dame. Maybe you’ll run into a friendly alumnus.
Now that we’ve dispensed with the formalities, let’s explain how this meeting came about. DiBernardo is entering the job market after quietly exiting the National Football League. On July 21, the former Edison High School standout walked into the training camp office of St. Louis Cardinal Coach Gene Stallings, talked with him briefly about his supply of linebackers, then informed him of his decision to retire.
At 23--a veteran of just one NFL season--DiBernardo decided it was time to try another career. He was tired of playing football. Tired of reading the transactions in the sports section each day, hoping his name wasn’t listed. Tired of calling a St. Louis Holiday Inn his home.
He’s walking away from football without a limp, without so much as a scar on either knee. And he’s doing so with the knowledge that the game has helped him accumulate other options. He used football, he says, “before it used me.”
He has already had interviews with two marketing firms based in Orange County, and he is hoping more are forthcoming. Last Friday, he attended a meeting of Notre Dame alumni in search of job leads. He also is considering returning to school to pursue his master’s degree.
DiBernardo was in the NFL for only one season, but he says that was long enough to see borderline players like himself ignore reality and go from tryout to tryout in search of a job.
“I think the saddest thing is to see people like that who have a family,” DiBernardo said. “You know, what’s the wife supposed to think? You’ve got to be solid somewhere. You’ve got to have some kind of base.
"(At St. Louis) they were cutting players last year up to the second-to-last game. They were still cutting people and bringing new guys in. No security at all. Every week, I was pulling my hair out to make sure I was still on the team for another week.”
The prospect of DiBernardo remaining on the Cardinal roster this season didn’t look very bright. He was a highly reserved reserve linebacker for St. Louis in 1986 who found his niche as the long snapper on special teams. He wasn’t expected to get more playing time at outside linebacker this season, and he returned to camp to find that the Cardinals had brought in a new player to fill the long-snapper role. Free agent Michael Morris was signed during the off-season, so DiBernardo was fairly niche-less when he entered training camp in July. What better reason to pursue another line of work?
But DiBernardo had contemplated early retirement before he reported to the Cardinals’ training camp at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill. He had told friends last spring that he was considering giving up football and returning to Notre Dame and pursue his master’s in business. As the day to report to camp grew nearer, he had second thoughts.
“I thought maybe I was just going through some kind of depressed stage,” he said. “Maybe it was just sitting at home during the off-season and getting bored. I starting thinking too much. I just decided, ‘Well, maybe I’ll just go to camp and my mind will change and I’ll want to play.’
“So I gave it a chance and I just found out that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was dreading getting up in the morning. I figured, ‘I can’t go through life like this.’ ”
This certainly wasn’t what he had in mind when he left Edison High School for Notre Dame in 1982 as one of Orange County’s most high-profile prep athletes. He was a first-team, All-Big Five selection as a junior and senior at Edison, and he played on Southern Section championship teams both seasons. Edison football teams went 32-1 in two-plus seasons with DiBernardo on the varsity roster. He also was a starting forward on the Chargers’ basketball team. As a junior, he had two interceptions in the Chargers’ 14-0 victory over Fountain Valley in the Big Five championship game, then, the next night, had 14 points and 16 rebounds in a basketball game against Ocean View.
Notre Dame won out in a recruiting derby that included, among others, USC, UCLA, Nebraska and Washington. DiBernardo headed to South Bend, Ind., as a Parade All-American, with visions of national championships and that Fighting Irish prestige.
But DiBernardo’s college career coincided with the troubled times of Gerry Faust, then the Notre Dame coach. Under Faust, the Fighting Irish were fighting to retain their place of prominence in college football. And they were losing . . . far too often, as far as the student body and alumni were concerned. Faust was constantly under fire.
“He was a great guy,” DiBernardo said. “Off the field, he would do anything for you.”
And on the field?
“There was just so much talent there, he didn’t really know what to do with it. I don’t know if anybody knew what to do with the talent we had. Almost everybody there was a high school All-American. It’s really hard to tell a high school All-American, ‘You have to be second-string.’ ”
DiBernardo said changes in Faust’s staff of assistants created an unsettled atmosphere in the shadows of the Golden Dome. His fondest memories as a Notre Dame football player are being awarded the game ball after the Irish beat USC, 19-7, in the rain and mud at the Coliseum in 1984, and having Penn State Coach Joe Paterno approach him on the field and say, “Son, you played one hell of a game.”
Said DiBernardo: “But that all happened during my junior year. My senior year was kind of a disappointment to me. Things happened. I didn’t play as much as I thought I should have.”
So, when the NFL draft rolled around, DiBernardo realized it would not be easy for him to break into pro football. He wasn’t drafted, but he later signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa Bay traded him to the Cardinals . . . for a 12th-round draft choice.
But after one season in the NFL, DiBernardo found job security as elusive as Tony Dorsett in the open field. He figures he made his point: he made an NFL roster after being bypassed in the draft. Now it’s time to see how far that Notre Dame degree will take him.
“This year it might be hard for me to watch pro football,” he said, “because it might give me that second (thought) feeling . . . that regret that maybe I should have stayed there. But I know in my heart that I made the right decision.”