We’ve all read about the favorite experiences of Notre Dame scholarship student-athletes. The famous “Play Like a Champion Today” sign and the rituals of touching it on your way out of the locker room. The first time running out of the tunnel and into Notre Dame Stadium. That moment when your cleats hit the cushion and you look up to see the thousands of cheering fans. We’ve heard lots of stories about top players coming in and loving these moments, but what about those other guys that put in the blood, sweat, and tears – the walk-ons — are they welcomed? Are they treated like outcasts? Are they embraced and supported to share those great experiences in the same manner, or are they shunned? Take a walk with me along the journey of one such Notre Dame football walk-on, Tim Klusas.
Q: Where are did you grow up? And at what point did you become interested in attending and possibly playing football at Notre Dame?
A: “We moved around a lot as I was growing up as my dad’s career in corporate finance advanced. I lived in Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, and New Jersey, with Indianapolis, Indiana, being my final stop and the place where I finished high school. Notre Dame was always a school that I wanted to attend. When I was in high school my parents told me if I got into Notre Dame – don’t even think about it – just go. Go anywhere you want, they said, but if you want us to visit and if you want to come home during the holidays, go to Notre Dame.”
“I was an all-conference and honorable mention all-state football player in high school, but I wasn’t getting any attention from schools like Notre Dame. I was recruited by several local non-Division I schools such as Wabash College, DePauw University, Butler University and Earlham College in addition to the Ivies. I also received some preliminary interest from some Division I schools such as the Air Force Academy and Stanford University. However, I don’t really think they were looking at me for my football talents but more so because I would meet their academic requirements. I was pretty serious about the Air Force Academy, but once I got accepted by Notre Dame I stopped pursuing the Academy. In order to attend the Air Force Academy you must have a letter of recommendation from your congressman and I didn’t want to take that recommendation away from someone else in my district if I was pretty sure I was going to attend Notre Dame.”
Q: Were you offered football scholarships to other schools? What made you attend Notre Dame over one of these other schools?
A: “While I had some indications for scholarship opportunities from some of the schools which were looking at me, in the end a degree from Notre Dame was a much more attractive proposition for me. I decided I’d rather take the risk of going to Notre Dame and trying to be a walk-on for their football team and graduate with a degree from ND than go elsewhere to be a starter on the football team.”
Q: What was it like being a Notre Dame football walk-on during the early 90s? Can you walk us through the process of trying to become a walk-on? Did you know how hard it would be to make the team?
A: “I wanted to come on as a kicker in the fall, and so I went on a one day tryout at the beginning of my freshman year, but they already had a lot of kickers and so I was told to stay in shape and come back for winter conditioning and try out again in the spring. I did my best to stay in shape and participated in winter conditioning with the team which consists of running and conditioning drills, but of course no ball work with the football. Then after doing that all winter we had spring practice and that is when I got another tryout. In high school I was a kicker, defensive lineman, and a running back. I talked to the running backs coach and he encouraged me to try out as a running back instead of as a kicker as I had previously done in the fall. Of course he was very clear about not making any promises. I went through spring practice with the team which was a remarkable experience. It was great to be with people who you had previously seen play football on television and now you’re right next to them, playing alongside and against them. Even though I was outmatched as far as size, speed, and strength, I made the team as a walk-on running back. I really don’t know why they kept me on the team. I guess because I kept showing up for practice day in and day out while others were dropping off. I’m sure the coaches were thinking ‘maybe someone forgot to talk to him – he’s back again!’” (laughs)
“My sophomore year I was in the backfield with Jerome Bettis and Reggie Brooks. My junior year, the incoming freshman included Randy Kinder, Marc Edwards and Robert Farmer. They were all players of the year from their respective hometowns and states. It was an honor for me to be able to have a chance to play with that caliber of football players and people.”
“I think athletes come to Notre Dame to compete with the best of the best.”
“I was on the scout team which lined up as the opposing team against our defensive starters. I can tell you from firsthand experience how great the talent was on the defensive side of the ball. Demetrius DuBose, Junior Bryant, Bryant Young, Pete Bercich. When you are a walk-on and you’re trying to hit the hole and you see Demetrius take six steps toward you with the ball before you even take two toward the hole, it’s scary – he had amazing talent.”
Q: Did your coaches make you feel like a walk-on?
A: “Maybe some of the other position coaches who were focused on their position players, but not mine. Coach Holtz also made everyone feel as if they were not only important to the well-being of the team but also a direct contributor towards the outcome of the game. As a player I was an inconsequential part of the team yet Coach Holtz made me feel like I needed to watch game film and make sure I was prepared in case the ‘six guys ahead of me’ couldn’t dress for the game.”
“I was one of the few walk-ons that traveled with the team and dressed for the away games. I got the ball a few times at the end of a game to run out the clock. I was told whatever happens, don’t fumble, don’t run out-of-bounds (stops the clock), and I had better not fumble. I never wanted to miss a practice for any reason because I was a walk-on who traveled with the team, and I wanted to do everything in my power to retain that privilege!”
“Coach Holtz knew who each and every one of us was, myself included. He would always take a one-on-one meeting with me, even on short notice. I could never give him enough credit for what I learned as a player. He comes off as such an entertaining guy and many people mistake his sense of humor for being aloof at times, but Coach Holtz knew every detail of every play. If your foot was angled the wrong way, he knew it and pointed it out. If your split (distance between you and the person lined up next to you) was three inches off, he knew it and would have a ruler provided on the practice field to measure your splits. Sometimes if you were right you actually got the benefit of having a measurement. I took away many things from Coach Holtz. He made me feel important and that is why I tried to give as much effort as I could. I learned how powerful it was to engage people and make them realize they determine success or failure in any process.”
“Coach Holtz had his three standard questions. Can I trust you? Are you committed to excellence? Do you care about me? We try to use these questions as fundamental parts of evaluating people in our business every day.”
Q: Did the other players treat you differently because you were a walk-on?
A: “Not really, the other players were great. They were gracious to me in making me feel like you were an integral part of the team. I don’t remember anyone really caring who was on scholarship and who wasn’t. What I appreciate is here you have a group of 18-22 year old young men. They are thinking about a million other things that they’d rather be doing other than being at practice having coaches scream at them and point out their mistakes. They are black, white, Hispanic, Catholic, not Catholic. We could not have been more different but we were all part of the team and we were a cohesive unit. We were all focused on becoming the best team that we could be, on winning games and living up to the high standard that placed upon us by the privilege of playing at Notre Dame. Play smart, play tough, and give your best effort.”
“Even my fellow running backs, we were all there to help each other out. It was a well-functioning team. It makes you aspire to be part of something like that again. There was so little fighting, no politics even though we spent many hours together, and everyone was supportive both on and off the field. Whether you were having trouble with a class or a certain subject, there was always someone there to help you. There was always someone there supporting you… and later in life, can you make an introduction for me? Can you put in the good word for me? You appreciate that much more the further you get away from it.”
Q: What is your favorite Coach Holtz story or moment?
A: “I missed one practice – one – – during the time I was on the team because I suffered a hamstring injury. Coach Holtz walked up behind me, didn’t stop, didn’t even look up from the ground, and said, ‘I didn’t think you were fast enough to pull a hamstring’ And just walked off like that. That was the one and only practice that I missed during my playing time at ND.”
“Coach Holtz used to always tell me, ‘I always liked you — you’re one of the few guys I can look in the eye when I talk to you.’ (He said he had to look up to everyone else).”
“My favorite Lou Holtz experiences though occurred during the 1993 season. The Florida State game, the whole outcome at the end of the season, he really taught us about dealing with both success and failure.”
“Two weeks before we played FSU we played Navy in Philadelphia. We were heavy favorites in that game. Navy was up at halftime. In his halftime speech Coach Holtz said to us, ‘we’ve got to be more focused. Just do your job and it will take care of itself.’ We went out and beat Navy decisively in the second half.”
“We had a bye, so the two weeks of preparation for the FSU game was Coach Holtz at his best. He was Dr. Psychology. It started in the locker room after the Navy game in Philadelphia with ‘they are the best team ever’. He continued when we got back to ND, ‘they are so good and we are just OK at best. I don’t know how we are going to even come close to playing with these guys – let alone win.’ Then on Monday (ten days before the game) we look at film and he says, ‘There is no way we can play with these guys, but there are a couple of things we can do so maybe we won’t get embarrassed on our home field.’ Then on Tuesday he says, ‘Well, we had a good practice today and maybe we can keep this game close.’ On Wednesday he says, ‘We had another good practice today and I think we might, might, have a really, really long shot at winning this game in the second half.’ Of course we are all wondering what he is seeing to change his mind. By the time we get to the weekend before the game he says, ‘Wow, I think we really might have a halfway decent shot at winning this.’ The week of the game, ‘We are going to win this game because we are going to play our game, and when such and such happens they are going to react in such and such way that they are not accustomed to reacting.’”
“William Floyd was the fullback for FSU, so during the practices in preparation for the FSU game I was to be playing ‘as’ William Floyd. I had to watch all of the film and be able to stand just the way he stood for each different play that he made. I did everything I could to prepare my teammates for every play they would see from Floyd. A couple of times they ran a play in the game that our defense recognized immediately and stuffed. This was what Coach Holtz did: prepare us for every facet of the game.”
“Coach Holtz had a knack for telling us exactly what was going to happen in a game, and sure enough it would. In preparation for the FSU game he told us, ‘They are going to come out and score on us really quickly but then this is what going to happen next.’ And that is exactly what happened. They didn’t know quite how to handle us as the game wore on and that is exactly what Holtz said would happen.”
“Coach Holtz had what he called “The Plan.’ Getting us ready for FSU the day before the game he told us, ‘Follow the Plan, the Plan is infallible. We’re not going to turn over the ball, we are going to hit them harder than they hit us, and this is how we are going to beat them because we follow the plan.’ Of course we had all bought in and the Plan had gotten us this far. Then he told us, ‘I have a confession. (Dead silence) I’ve known Bobby Bowden (FSU Coach) for a long time and once when w were both young, struggling coaches Bobby called me for some advice….and I gave him The Plan.’ We all gasp. How are we going to win if Coach Holtz game him ‘The Plan.’? This is terrible! We were so close! Then Coach Holtz continues, , ‘but I just want you to know I only gave him half of The Plan… so that’s why we are going to win.’ It was like a wave of confidence crested.”
“The week following FSU we played Boston College and lost in the final seconds of the game. We were a sure bet to win the national championship by defeating Boston College and then winning our Bowl game, but not after the loss. After the game, everyone was in the locker room sobbing and looking distraught, because we knew a National Championship was a long shot. Here comes Coach Holtz. Instead of telling us that it was going to be okay he said, ‘you should feel how bad this feels. It hurts. It should hurt. It hurts me, it hurts you. This is what it’s like when you come up short. You remember this. You remember this after football, after Notre Dame, this is what coming up short feels like… and it hurts. When you get a chance to finish something, you finish it.’ Here we are at a massive disappointment at the pinnacle of our lives to this point and Coach Holtz is telling us that we will go on and do great things because of this.”
“Every time you think ‘I can do a little bit more to prepare,’ do it.”
Q: Had you heard of Rudy before you attended ND? Are you here because of Rudy or in spite of Rudy?
A: “I had not heard of Rudy when I was looking at Notre Dame. They actually filmed the movie while I was a student. Rudy and I do actually have a lot in common (Rudy is from Joliet, Illinois which is where I was born) — and Rudy says we are both good looking guys!” (laughs)
Q: Where has your career taken you since your time at Notre Dame?
A: “After I graduated from ND I worked at a bank doing the credit analysis for commercial loans and developed relationships between the bank and small business owners. Then I went on to become a lender making loans to small business owners. It was a great job. I got to be their confidant and their advisor, not just their lender. Then I went back to school to get my MBA from Cornell University to gain the tools and knowledge to be able to get even more involved with entrepreneurs and small business owners. After my MBA, I worked at a global manufacturing company, Eaton Corporation, working on projects from corporate strategy to divestitures and acquisitions. I was working at Eaton when I was contacted about The Marketing Alliance opportunity, to be the President/CEO. The Marketing Alliance (TMA) was a chance for me to work again with business owners and entrepreneurs through a company that distributes life insurance products.”
“I love working with small business owners. I think my Notre Dame experience plays into that … business owners want you to be more than just a vendor, they need to know you are invested in their success. During the interview process, when we (The Marketing Alliance) discussed my background and how I benefited from playing football at ND as a walk-on, I’m sure they took one look at me and thought, ‘You must be some kind of overachiever. If you can hang in there and do that, you will be fine!’ Our market capitalization has increased by almost ten times since then, and we currently have around 70 employees. Besides insurance distribution, we have two other businesses. The first is an agricultural terrace and tiling business (Empire Construction) in Iowa. We go into farm fields and build underground drainage systems out of plastic tiling which extends the farming seasons and increases the yield of the crop on that farm land. It also reduces soil erosion and maximizes the acreage that can be farmed. The service pays for itself in relatively few years through better yields and more tillable acres. The third business is two franchised locations of a children’s entertainment business.”
Life for Tim Klusas is not dull, that is for sure!
Q: What was your biggest challenge as a Notre Dame student-athlete? How did Notre Dame prepare you for life after college?
A: “Being able to balance the demands of academics and athletics at ND really prepared me for life after college. You knew on the athletic field you were competing with the best of the best which took all of your time. Then you had to walk into the classroom and compete with the best of the best there as well. You knew your peers in the classroom had more time and more energy because they didn’t have the stuff beat out of them every day at practice like you did. I tried to be extremely focused to keep up. When I was doing football, I did football. When I was preparing for a test, I was studying. Time is finite. You have to be extremely focused and organized when you are a student-athlete at a place like Notre Dame. In my freshman English class my professor asked, ‘how many of you were valedictorians?’ and it seemed like half of the class raised their hands. I thought, ‘whew, only half’. Then he asked, ‘how many of you were salutatorians?’ and it looked like the other half of the class raised their hands. And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘oh great.’ Life is not fair. As a student-athlete, sometimes you couldn’t go to every review session for exams because you were at practice, or you were exhausted because you had just flown the red-eye home from the West Coast. Everyone has challenges.”
“I struggled — it was hard. I did a much better job with my studies in graduate school then I did as an undergrad because I could dedicate all of my time and energy to academic life. I was much more prepared and focused while getting my MBA at Cornell.”
“At ND you just knew you were getting the best of the best in everything you did. Both on and off the field.”
Q: What advice would you give current student athletes?
A: “It’s hard to imagine giving advice but I would say, embrace the fact that you are among the best of the best at what you do. It’s okay to fail as long as you learn something from it. Keep your options open and enjoy it because your college years as a student athlete comprise a unique experience and you will gain skills you will use for the rest of your life. You will draw from it for years and years afterwards. Succeeding, failing, preparing for the relationships you make working with others to accomplish a common goal. Embrace these moment because you will truly draw on it for years to come and I think it puts you at a definite advantage over others who have not had those experiences.”
Tim currently lives in St. Louis, Missouri with his wife Beth and their three daughters. You can find out more about Tim’s business ventures at: The Marketing Alliance, Empire Construction and Trenching and Monkey Joe’s.
I’d like to give a big thank you to Tim for stopping by the blog. It was an absolute pleasure to walk through his journey with him. Stay tuned for many more great stories in the “Where are they now?” series!
If you enjoy these “Where are they now?” pieces, please check out my new book: “Echoes From the End Zone: The Men We Became.” I will also be signing books this weekend at the Shamrock Series Luncheon on Friday with Tim Brown and Rick Mirer. Tickets still available here.