Senior tackle once thought he'd stay smaller — now, he is the biggest man on the team
By MIKE CONNOLLY
Kurt Vollers has grown a lot at Notre Dame.
He's bulked up from the 240-pound defensive lineman who enrolled in the fall of 1997 to the 324-pound offensive tackle set to graduate this December. He's gone from someone who never lifted weights until his junior year of high school to a putting up 450 pounds on the bench press.
But more importantly than the weight he's put on or the strength he's gained, he's grown as a person.
"I was kind of a slacker my first couple of years here," he said. "I wasn't really into the football scene. It was just me."
His father, John Vollers, saw the change in his son. Lou Holtz told John Vollers when he recruited his son in 1996 that he would grow as a person at Notre Dame. And that growth would be most apparent between his sophomore and senior years.
"When he talks to his brothers and sisters, there is a direct reflection that wasn't there before," John Vollers said.
Five years later, as the most experienced offensive lineman on the team, Kurt Vollers is a team player and in some ways a leader.
"I've never really been the leadership type of guy," Kurt Vollers said. "I don't like following others either to tell you the truth. But I've never really been the one that goes out and makes sure everyone else follows him. But some of the positional coaches said this is something that I had to do. These are the shoes I am wearing so I have to walk in them."
After Notre Dame started 0-3, Kurt Vollers took some huge leadership strides with the rest of the offensive lineman. In his final season, he wasn't going to go out a loser.
"The big thing for me was I didn't come back for a losing season and I am not going to let it slip to that," Kurt Vollers said. "I just want to bring a big season back and take all these guys with me."
"Kurt Vollers has come a long way," head coach Bob Davie said. "Early on he fought academics, fought some maturity things that you go through and was injured. Now he's come on and been a real leader for us."
Although he has grown a lot and learned a lot about himself and his abilities, there are still many areas where he doesn't know everything. And, in perhaps the greatest sign of his maturity, he willingly admits that he doesn't do everything right.
"Sometimes I am sure I don't do the right thing," Kurt Vollers said. "I am not the person [the coaches] want me to be but it is something I go out to practice and try to do."
And when Kurt Vollers need advice and guidance for the things he doesn't know, he turns to one person: his father John.
Father knows best
Throughout his life, Kurt Vollers has listened to his father's advice.
"I've always tried to go with what my father though was the best for me and it's always seemed to work," Kurt Vollers said. "I just keep going down this path."
When Kurt Vollers was a highly touted high school prospect and major programs from across the country knocked on his door with scholarship offers, he turns to his father for guidance. With nearly every school presenting sparkling offers full of promises and praise, John Vollers helped Kurt Vollers look at what really mattered.
"I would say the No. 1 thing when he and I talked about the different scholarship offers from different schools, one of the things we talked about was the quality of education he could get and the support of the alumni," John Vollers said.
That narrowed the choices down to Notre Dame and USC. In the end, Notre Dame won out.
"Of the two schools that were strongest with [alumni support], SC's [alumni support] was if you stayed in southern California [for a job] but ND was nationwide," John Vollers said.
So the self-described "surfer-skater guy" took his father's advice and signed up for a college hundreds of miles from the beach. But even though he'll admit Notre Dame was the best school for him, he looks forward to his return to California.
"Two and a half more months," he said. "I'll be back on the beach. I don't know if I'll be surfing yet, but I'll get back on the board eventually."
Now that he is at Notre Dame, Kurt Vollers still listens to his father's advice — especially during the tough times.
Some of the lessons he has tried to instill in his son over the years include the basics like the Golden Rule and basic tolerance for other people. But his most important piece of advice is to live for the moment.
"Basically you learn from your past, you prepare for your future but the only thing you have control over is right now," John Vollers said. "If the football team has several losses, you can't cry over them. You just have to be prepared for the next game."
Since the Fiesta Bowl in January, that has been some of the most important advice John Vollers has given his son. But at the same time, Kurt Vollers already knew that lesson.
"We started off with three losses but I am going to try to put those behind me until the end of the season," he said. "Maybe I will be pissed off about them later, but now is not the time."
"I think he already knew [what to do]," John Vollers said. "I tend to reinforce it. I give him some analogies or stories or situations that I have been through in the past. Everyone goes through tough times at different times in their lives. This won't be the first. This won't be the last thing that is challenging."
Kurt Vollers' first public challenge at Notre Dame came on Nov. 13, 1999. Starting tackle Jordan Black was down with an injury so Kurt Vollers was promoted to starting tackle.
"We were in a bad situation that season," Kurt Vollers said. "A lot of people were down. I really wanted to go in there and show people that I deserved to go in there and be in that position. I hadn't done that previously."
The promotion was thought to be temporary. Once the injuries healed, Kurt Vollers would be back on the bench. But he didn't want to follow that plan.
"There was an injury and people were like `Oh well, you'll play this year but as soon as next year comes around, the injuries will heal up and you'll be back on the bench,'" he said. "I wanted to make sure that if I get a chance to get on that field. I am not coming off that field."
Nineteen games later, Kurt Vollers is still starting and has never missed a start. But while Kurt Vollers is not a giant fixture at tackle for the Irish, he never wanted to play offense. When he came to Notre Dame, he wanted to stay small and he wanted to stay on defense.
"Everyone said I was going to play offense in college but my big thing was that I was going to stay below 250 and be a defensive end," 6-foot-7, 324-pound Kurt Vollers said.
Unfortunately for Kurt Vollers his genes were against him. His great-great-grandfather was close to seven feet tall while his great-great-great-grandfather was rumored to be more than seven feet tall.
"We've got this picture of this guy sitting at a table and everyone else looks like they are midgets," John Vollers said.
Thousands of calories a day and three and a half hours of off-season workouts four-five times a week quickly turned the slender freshman into the giant fifth-year senior of today.
"It was hard work getting bigger because I didn't want myself to," Kurt Vollers said. "Everyone else loved it except for me."
The biggest thing Kurt Vollers missed on the offensive side of the ball was the glory. The average fan doesn't really notice the offensive line until it makes a mistake. But defensive linemen get to make tackles and celebrate sacks.
But now the more mature Kurt Vollers is more comfortable outside the spotlight.
"Only the people that count know [when he makes a good play]," Kurt Vollers said. "You aren't going to get the slap on the back from the guy at the bar but the people that matter know."
Kurt Vollers knows. His father knows. And his coach knows.
"Kurt Vollers is a guy that the upside was pretty high because of his body type, his quickness," Davie said. "It doesn't surprise me what he's done. Because he's matured, he's turned into a really good football player."
All Sports Stories for Friday, October 12, 2001