On this Memorial Day, I want to wax philosophical, if that’s the right word, on what it means to sign on the dotted line. Of course, to place my thoughts within the context of Notre Dame football, I have on my mind the prevarications of one Eddie Vanderdoes, our once Signing Day prize turned runaway bride. Since news of his cold feet or academic issues broke, the internet has been awash in journagossip, a word first used or maybe even invented by Kathleen Parker of the denverpost.com in 2008. Basically, journagossip is the product of tweets and status updates swirled together in a cascade of 1’s and 0’s with barely any vetting or editting getting in the way. For a recent example, look no further than Joe Davidson at the Sacramento Bee’s “reporting” on the Eddie Vanderdoes situation as it unfolded.
To set the stage, then, remember that Notre Dame Nation exploded in a climax of hyperbole when Eddie Vanderdoes signed for the Irish. A five-star stud, Vanderdoes spurned USC and others to sign for Notre Dame and instantly satisfied ever punter and pundit who wanted to be concerned about defensive depth at the end of the 2013. In short, with Nix and Tuitt as concensus First Round picks next year, Eddie was going to be the elixir that would magically soothe the pain of their departure. And then, apparently, he’s decided not to come. Or there are academic issues. Or something.
When a student-athlete, and his or her guardian if under the age of twenty-one, voluntarily sign on the dotted line, his or her National Letter of Intent (LNI) binds athlete and instutition in a contract in which the school agrees to provide one year of scholarship and the athlete agrees to go there. If the athlete changes his or her mind for whatever reason and decides not to go, the athlete faces a one year ban in all sports, providing he or she decides to attend another NLI institution. With 627 Division I and II schools participating in the program, though, the athlete’s options are pretty limited. Of course, the institution holding the NLI can grant a release, freeing the athlete to switch schools without penalty. And, the athlete is allowed to appeal a school’s refusal and argue the extenuating circumstances that favor a penalty-free release.
And that’s what got me thinking. Why should Notre Dame grant Vanderdoes a release? Why is Notre Dame the big, bad wolf in this drama? Of course, the arguments in favor of ND being nice and letting the young man out are easy to grasp and easy to make: he’s a kid. To wit, many of us were thrilled when Gunner Kiel fled Baton Rouge for the warm embrace of Coach Kelly’s tutelage. We laughed at Les Miles’s for lashing out and we excused Kiel’s about-faces, in part, because he was only eighteen. Importantly, though, as an early enrollee, Kiel never signed an NLI with either Indiana or LSU. I’m not the first person to suggest that Gunner played the game very, very well.
But,Vanderdoes did sign, and Notre Dame should make that stick. Barring impossible-to-predict misfortune, whatever happens with Eddie and the Irish, he will go on to play Division I football at the school of his choice, for free, and will likely enjoy hearing his name get called on Draft Day. I’d like you to compare that rosey-yet-probable scenario with the silent certainty of what happened to Le Ron Adrian Wilson and Matthew Everett Wilder.
Matthew and Le Ron were both eighteen years old when they were killed. Matthew, from Hammond, Louisiana, and Le Ron, from Queens, New York, and, given their ages at death, their parents or guardians, signed and committed to contracts of enlistment as certainly as Eddie Vanderdoes did to play football for the Irish. To fulfill his commitment, all Eddie had to do was play one season of football at Notre Dame.
To fulfill their contracts of enlistment in the United States Army, Matthew and Le Ron had to attend “boot camp,” then training in their military occupational specialty, and then complete the term of their enlistment. In boot camp and beyond, given their very junior enlisted ranks, they were subjected to physical and mental stressors, stripped of most of their individuality, and then given it back, reassembled and clothed in government issue green. For Matthew, the end came at Maywand, Afghanistan, and for Le Ron, at Baghdad, Iraq. The figurative roads that terminated in literal roads hiding the improvised explosive devices that would claim them began when they signed on the dotted line.
Having deployed once myself, back in 2003, I coaxed and cajoled my share of young (and old) men and women into the shuddering belly of the C-17 transport plane that took us to Germany and then Kuwait, by way of Ohio, obviously, because Air Force. When lost for better argument, I fell back, too easily, on the contract. Of course, there were references to the cause, the mission, the unit, brotherhood, etc. But, at the end of the day, I told them, “you’re getting on that plane with me because you have to.” And, as I sat swaying in the cargo netting a jillion feet over the Atlantic, I knew, in part, that I was there, too, because I signed on the dotted line. I signed my own letter of intent.
Years later, I was granted a release, long after my obligations had been fulfilled. Long after Wilder and Wilson were returned home. They were never let go, not from their contract, not by their families, their comrades in arms, and not by their country. Vanderdoes will be let go someday. Whatever penalty he pays now is pale in comparison.
The stories of Le Ron and Matthew, and all the fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq, can be traced here. Visit the site today.