First of all, Glenn Earl wasn’t supposed to jump. Heck, Glenn Earl wasn’t even supposed to be on the field.
With 28 seconds to go, with Notre Dame having given up an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter to find itself tied with Air Force, 28-28, and the Falcons ready to kick a game-winning 28-yard field goal, Earl was on the field, having made his first start for the Fighting Irish, exhausted after having been on the field for every defensive play.
Earl’s father, Glenn Sr., was in the stands at Notre Dame Stadium. His legs were tired, for Glenn Sr. had stood so often, watching his son play as a starting strong safety.
Glenn Sr. had been a three-sport athlete at Hammond (Ind.) High and had played college football at Indiana State. But this was different, so much more exciting, so much more exhilarating. His son was playing in the shadow of the Golden Dome and now the Irish were in the vicinity of a heartbreaking, embarrassing loss to a big underdog.
So Glenn Sr. stood again. And Air Force kicker Dave Adams swung his leg. And Glenn Jr. couldn’t stay on the ground. Glenn Jr. jumped. The ball rose. So did Glenn Jr. The ball grazed his fingers. Glenn came down. So did the ball.
And Notre Dame won, 34-31. In overtime. The Irish didn’t lose again after that game in South Bend on Oct. 28. For their efforts, the Fighting Irish were invited to the Fiesta Bowl, a Bowl Championship Series game worth $13.5 million.
So now Glenn Earl Jr. is called the $13.5-million man, which makes him blush. It makes him uncomfortable, but that’s how people can be, always thinking about money. Notre Dame’s special teams coach, Kirk Doll, now has a play called “the Earl block.” Earl sincerely hopes he is on the field again some day when the Earl block is called. But for now, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound sophomore is back to being a backup, which is just fine.
Notre Dame Coach Bob Davie has found his job secure again. It would have been hanging by a thread if Notre Dame had lost to Air Force and found itself in some minor bowl game again.
Davie says he couldn’t see Earl jump or block the field goal. Davie watches film and sees how stoic he looks. But that’s not nervelessness, he says.
“It’s shock. I was in shock. I was in shock that we had lost our lead and I was in shock that Glenn blocked that kick.”
Earl was shocked too.
Senior strong safety Ron Israel was injured for this game so Earl, the backup, got the start.
Earl was not one of those hotshot Notre Dame recruits.
Greg Mattison, the Notre Dame coach responsible for recruiting the Chicago area, was at Naperville North High to see running back Chris Brown. He also saw Glenn Earl.
“Mattison got interested,” Glenn Sr. says. “I give Greg Mattison all the credit for discovering my son.”
It was a dream come true for Earl, going to Notre Dame.
“It was an easy choice,” Earl says. “And I’ve never thought otherwise.”
So Earl was happy to apprentice behind Israel. His family was thrilled to follow Earl too. Acie Earl, the Iowa basketball player, is Glenn’s cousin, and Glenn Sr. had supported his nephew and traveled the Big Ten, watching Acie play basketball. Now he was traveling the Midwest and beyond, watching his son play football.
He had found how seriously some take Notre Dame football and how any move his son, not even a first-teamer, made would result in e-mail from Notre Dame alums around the country.
Glenn Sr. could feel the tension around the team this year, knew people thought Davie’s job was on the line if the Irish didn’t move closer to the top 10.
“So when Air Force was there, ready to kick that field goal, I had a sick feeling in my stomach,” Glenn Sr. says. “This was so big. This was the BCS on the line.”
The play was supposed to be a middle block, Glenn Jr. says.
“Tony Driver [senior free safety] was supposed to be the designated leaper,” Earl says. “I was supposed to watch for the fake. I wasn’t supposed to jump. But I thought I had nothing to lose. I couldn’t help myself. I just decided to Superman it, leap over Tony, put both hands up. I never felt the ball hit my hands until I hit the ground and heard the crowd roaring. And then I wondered what I had done.”
Doll, the special teams coach, says Earl is correct about how he wasn’t supposed to jump, but he also says that Earl did the right thing.
“We should have told him to jump,” Doll says. “Air Force wasn’t going to run a fake in that situation. The effect that Glenn’s block had on our season, on the way this all turned out, I don’t think I’ve ever been around a bigger play.”
Glenn Sr. never saw the block.
“Parents sit on the visitors’ side, at about the 15- or 20-yard line,” he says. “The play was happening near the opposite end zone. As I was watching the play unfold, it was like the game was marching away from us, down the field. The game was slipping away.
“As the Air Force kid went to kick, I had my headphones on, listening to Westwood One radio, but my batteries were low and the crowd noise was so high I couldn’t hear. The snap was made, the kick was supposed to go up. It looked like it was blocked, but I couldn’t see for sure. One of the parents in front of me turned and said, ‘Isn’t No. 19 your son?’ You know, there was this space and time disconnect. All of a sudden I realized, ‘Yeah, he is.’ Then I heard the announcer say Glenn had blocked it.”
Glenn Sr. says he had to “reserve my ecstasy,” until the Irish had won.
By the time he got home, Glenn Sr. said, his voice mailbox was full and he had dozens of e-mails.
Glenn Jr. says the significance of what he had done didn’t hit for two or three days.
“But all of a sudden, I’m hearing myself called the $13-million man,” he says. “I’m hearing from alums and students. There’s all these newspaper articles. I felt funny about it because, really, I hadn’t done my assignment.”
Glenn Sr. has watched his videotape of the game, oh, “about 1,000 times,” he says. “I think I’ll go watch it again right now.”
Davie says Earl’s block was the biggest play of the season, “a play which turned a lot of things around here.”
Doll says Earl’s block typifies this team.
“Glenn was very conscientious the whole game. It was the first start for a kid who hadn’t gotten a lot of notoriety.”
And for the creator of the Earl block, things still seem a Notre Dame fairy tale happening to someone else.
“At the beginning of the year, most people wrote us off,” Earl says. “There is so much scrutiny of this program, I’ve found that out. When you make a play like I did at Notre Dame it is so magnified. We’ve been to the Independence Bowl, the Gator Bowl lately and no disrespect to those bowls but Notre Dame is supposed to be in a BCS bowl.
“In a way, I can’t believe I made that play. I wasn’t supposed to be in the game. I wasn’t supposed to jump on the play. It feels weird to think my play is worth all that money, and I don’t think of it like that. I don’t play football at Notre Dame because of the money. I play football at Notre Dame because I love football and I love Notre Dame.”