Drue Tranquill went down to one knee and tried to gather his thoughts and emotions on the AT&T Stadium surface before trudging back to the Notre Dame locker room following Clemson’s 30-3 beat-down in the Cotton Bowl.
There were a flood of emotions, a litany of ups and downs for Tranquill – the two-time captain of the Fighting Irish – to consider.
He gave them 52 games, 292 tackles, 25 tackles for loss and one enormous, Notre Dame-loving heart.
“I am forever grateful to the gold and blue, for all the fans, and the coaching staff that believed in me,” Tranquill said “All the players that have put so much into this. Notre Dame will always be family. It will always be in my heart.”
Few have exemplified the Fighting Irish spirit better than Tranquill, the 6-foot-2, 235-pounder out of Fort Wayne, Ind. who chose Notre Dame over Purdue as a safety prospect turned Rover turned Buck linebacker.
In typical Tranquill fashion – with grace and humility – he assessed the talents of his opponent while providing an accurate assessment of his own team’s performance.
“Clemson is a great football team,” Tranquill said. “They’re well-coached. They’ve got a lot of great players and a lot of playmakers. I’m looking forward to watching them next Monday.
“Their game plan was pretty simple. They were just trying to spread us out and run RPO, get the ball on the perimeter and then take big shots downfield. Outside of the one long run they had, they didn’t really get anything done in the run game. They were able to make the big plays they needed to win the game.
“The credit is to them. When we shut down their running attack early, they were able to go to the air and the quarterback put the ball in a nice position for their receivers to make the plays.”
If the 2018 season concluded with the Notre Dame program on solid footing – which it did — it’s due largely to Tranquill.
He set a tone that few of his teammates could attain – two-time captain, academic All-American and winner of the Wuerffel Trophy, which is given annually (since 2005) to the FBS player “who best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement.”
The legacy he leaves is an expansive one. In pure football terms, he was the captain of a pair of Notre Dame football teams that won 22 of 26 games, ranked in the top five in both seasons, and made the school’s first playoff appearance.
He overcame two torn ACLs as a freshman and sophomore and two position changes before playing with a broken hand and/or a badly sprained ankle throughout the final two-thirds of the 2018 season. He offered the blueprint for future Notre Dame players who will try to pick up where Tranquill left off.
“It was a great learning experience for our younger guys in terms of coming back next year,” Tranquill said. “They just need to stay focused on the task at hand. It’s painful not to go out on top, but I’m excited for these guys. I think they’ll do a great job.”
Tranquill’s lingering anguish was apparent. It was difficult for him to shake. He tried to leave as much of his emotion as he could on the football field, but some spilled into the Dallas Cowboys’ home locker room where the Irish team was stationed.
“I’m sure I will some time tonight, tomorrow or in the coming weeks,” said Tranquill of appreciating his and his team’s accomplishments. “I’m just trying to relish this with the guys and it hurts. It hurts when you’re a competitor. It will take me some time to reflect and get over the hurt.
“It’s painful. You want to go out on top and be a champion. You train so long and put so much into it. This will sting for a while, but I’m excited for what the guys have in store for them with what we have coming back.
“You want our legacy to be winning national championships. That certainly was the goal this year and we fell short. Just setting the bar higher each season. They’re going to have a great opportunity next year to get it done.”
If they do get it done, it will be without Tranquill and his uncommon grit. No one exemplified the traits of which Brian Kelly speaks better than the two-time Irish captain.
Calling him a warrior isn’t enough to accurately depict Tranquill’s mind, body and spirit commitment to Notre Dame football.