SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Playing the best football of his life and leading Notre Dame’s playoff push, senior defensive tackle Sheldon Day doesn’t deal with many what ifs.
Ten months ago, Day had a difficult choice to make: Stay in school, push for a national championship and improve his draft stock, or leave Notre Dame for the NFL and earn those hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of dollars immediately.
“It was definitely foggy,” Day said of his mind while working through his decision.
Day announced his intention to remain at Notre Dame on Jan. 10 (he received a “stay in school” grade from the NFL Draft advisory board). A few days later, left tackle Ronnie Stanley followed suit, with Day’s decision to stick around a major influence.
Day’s mother, Carol Boyd, advised her son to remain at Notre Dame, too. Getting a degree from Notre Dame’s prestigious Mendoza College of Business, in which Day is majoring in I.T. management, was important. Staying healthy for a full season was important. Gaining strength and a better understanding of defensive schemes was important. The potential for winning a championship was important.
All of those strides and accomplishments made by Day, one of the most important players on the No. 4 Irish, this year have given his mother plenty to yell about this fall.
“Even on the field warming up, he has an air about himself where, kicking and running, there’s just an air about him that he’s just transformed into this new — you can see it,” Boyd said. “His physique is different. The way he carries himself is so different.
“… I’m like, ‘that’s my baby!’”
Day leads Notre Dame’s defense with 11 1/2 tackles for a loss and 10 quarterback hurries, and is second on the team with three sacks. Coach Brian Kelly said the Indianapolis native’s play has been “off the charts” this year, with those stats a large reason behind the boom part of Notre Dame’s boom-or-bust defense.
“He's just a committed player. He wants his last year to be his best year,” Kelly said. “He wants to help this football team as a captain, and I think -- he came back for a reason. He came back so this would be his best year and help Notre Dame and help himself, and I think he's living up to all those things.”
At 6-foot-2, 285 pounds, Day — crediting strength coach Paul Longo — said he’s stronger than he’s ever been. Working with defensive line coach Keith Gilmore and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, Day added, has put him in an excellent mental state. He’s one of the team’s most important leaders, too.
“He's a driving force in the locker room, in the meeting room, on the practice field and on the playing field,” linebacker and fellow captain Joe Schmidt said.
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Day’s embracing of his leadership role has been one of his biggest gains over the last year. As a junior captain in 2014, he still deferred to the upperclassmen on Notre Dame’s roster — his mom described him as more of an adviser than a leader.
This year, he’s completely different.
“He’s always been that old soul, but I think he’s just added a little bit more too it, that self-worth where, I’ve got this, I can do this, I’m capable of doing it,” Boyd said. “He’s always been mature for his age. He just owned it.”
Graduate student linebacker Jarrett Grace — the guy who once was next in line behind Manti Te’o — said Day has found the right combination of being vocal and leading by example.
“He says the right things when they need to be said in the correct manner,” Grace said. “And he gets on upperclassmen, lowerclassmen, and you gotta respect what he says because he’s out there, he’s getting it. He’s playing great. And he’s not a guy who complains by any means. You can’t find any knock on Sheldon Day. He’s a tremendous teammate.”
When Day jogs on to the field at Notre Dame Stadium one final time Saturday against Wake Forest, he’ll do it as a critical member of an 8-1 team that’s three wins away from potentially reaching the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame isn’t in this position without everything Day has become.
“That’s going to be one of those tears of joy, tears of sadness because that’ll be it for that field,” Boyd said. “That’s the last home game. So that’s going to be bittersweet to look around and say that’s the last time I’ll see my baby playing on that field.”
Boyd is grateful for everything Notre Dame has done for her son, which has supported him as he’s grown as a football player, student and man over the last four years. She’s grateful, too, for how the university has accepted her, too — she’s pretty much the team mom, a role she’s not willing to relinquish after Saturday’s final home game.
“I’m trying to find somebody to adopt,” Boyd laughed, saying she’s available for any incoming freshmen to keep her role as team mom. “… I cook, I clean, your mom’s too far away, I’ll see you. Just let me be your momma so I can keep coming to the game.”
But there’s only one player she could yell “that’s my baby!” for. That’s Sheldon Day, who will leave South Bend with a legacy of being a great player and great leader for a team that — depending on these next three weeks — could bring Notre Dame into its first College Football Playoff.
“I know if I see my mom cry it's going to make me cry," Day said. "But I'm going to try to stay strong. There are a lot of emotions last time running out of that tunnel in front of 80,000-plus. It's going to be a great time and a great experience. Just kind of overwhelming a little bit, and just to know that I've done a lot of good things in my career here, and I'm just happy that I can have a senior night.”
“I’m so excited,” Boyd said. “I might be so excited I’ll pick him up.”