Walk-on Hebert achieves success
For Johnathan Hebert, going to Notre Dame was a dream come true.
"I was always a big Notre Dame fan," he recalled. "But I honestly believed I wasn't going to be accepted. I told myself that if I did get accepted, though, that I was going here."
But Hebert probably never would have expected to be in the position he is now.
Although a walk-on split end, he has exceeded his role in helping achieve success for the team. That role has become increasingly important as time goes on.
No one could vouch for that more than the team's most recent opponent, Michigan State. During a second-quarter possession last weekend, Hebert blocked a punt by MSU's Craig Jarrett to give the Irish the ball at the Spartans' 23-yard line.
Last weekend's game, in which he had two tackles on special teams, was just one of the many breakthroughs he has made as a football player.
Before Hebert got the chance to wear the blue and gold on Saturday's, he started in interhall football, playing for Zahm Hall his freshman year. Eventually, though, he felt the calling to join the football team, from an unlikely source down the hall.
"[Playing interhall football] was really fun," Hebert recalled. "But there was this guy down the hall, Tim Lynch, who was a walk-on. I became really good friends with him, and he sort of convinced me."
Despite hearing Lynch's story of battling his way onto the team, Hebert was skeptical about joining.
"I really didn't think it was possible when I first came here and saw all the players," Hebert said. "But he basically gave me lots of advice. He was also really little, so I thought, `If this little guy can make it, I'm going to try.'"
After trying out for the team, and eventually being accepted, Hebert found himself looking at a tough hill to climb.
"Basically, my first spring was kind of like being at the bottom of a totem pole," he said. "You don't get to do any drills. I tried to do some of them, but I sometimes was doing them wrong. Of course, you get sent straight to the scout team, and that's what I started out doing. In fact, I'm still doing scout team stuff now."
After working his way up the ladder on the scout team his sophomore year, Hebert finally got his chance to take his first steps on the field as a player, against defending national champion Michigan last season.
"To tell you the truth, I was pretty nervous beforehand," Hebert recalled. "But once I got on the field, it kind of feels like practice. There's just so much adrenaline pumping with all those people there. There's such a huge difference between being on the sidelines and on the field."
Hebert was in on a blocking play as a receiver and didn't expect to return to action so soon. But next weekend against Michigan State, fate stepped in once again.
"I was actually listed as a third-string on kickoff returns," Hebert said. "But in the first quarter, both guys ahead of me got hurt on the same play. That's how I got on special teams for that game. [The coaches] then just left me on it for the rest of the year."
He played all 12 regular season games as a reserve wide receiver for the Irish that year, as well as in the Gator Bowl. Playing a vital role in special teams on kickoff return and punt return squads, he continued to improve in the offseason.
When junior Ron Israel suffered an ankle injury this season, Hebert became his replacement on both return squads, eventually leading to his blocked punt last weekend.
"I really didn't think I was going to block it," Hebert recalled. "I really wasn't expecting to get to it, but I reached out my arm and it hit my hand."
While Hebert may not be a quickly recognized athlete on campus, his teammates know about his spirit and determination.
"He's always really enthusiastic, always ready to go," said Brendan O'Connor, Hebert's classmate and a former walk-on. "Last year, when we were scouting for the Navy game, we had him [imitate] a player on the scout team. He'd keep getting hit, and hopping back up. You know he was hurting, but he went on playing anyway."
Juggling daily football practices, maintaining his grades as a mechanical engineering major and working at Career and Placement Services, Hebert keeps a busy schedule both in and out of football season.
"It's not so tough, but you have to spend all your time doing it," he said about balancing his daily workload. "But if you happen to slack off, it's hard. Basically, all my time is just work, school and football. There's little time for anything else."
All Sports Stories for Wednesday, September 22, 1999