Notre Dame’s Sam Mustipher on avoiding pre-snap penalties and dealing with the noise at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va.
SOUTH BEND – Sam Mustipher’s ability to think on his feet and calculate angles showed up early on. All it took was a trip to Candyland at the Farmers Market in rural Oakland, Md.
Notre Dame’s starting center, now a graduate senior captain for the nation’s fifth-ranked team, was barely out of kindergarten when he and his younger brother PJ, now a freshman defensive tackle at Penn State, first started joining their maternal grandparents for weeklong visits in the western part of the state, close to the West Virginia border.
Often those included trips to the movies or a local lake for leisurely swims. Sometimes Joe and Linda Heatherman would take their grandsons up to Idlewild or Kennywood, amusement parks in Pennsylvania.
On the drive back, they might stop at Candyland.
“My mom would say, ‘You get 10 pieces of candy,’” Patricia Mustipher recalled in a phone interview. “Samuel’s little brother, of course, the first thing he saw he would put it in the bag. Samuel looked for the biggest pieces of candy to put in his bag.”
Purchases were charged by weight, not quantity, but Linda Heatherman never made young Sam put anything back. Instead, she would smile to herself, pay for the mountain of candy and later call her daughter to share the story.
“Samuel would walk out with this huge bag of candy,” his mother said. “I think he thought his grandmother never knew, but she would always call me and tell me he picked the biggest things he could find in the store to put in his bag.”
Mornings at the Heathermans meant waffles for breakfast. Mounds and mounds of waffles whenever the boys would visit.
“Food was huge,” said Patricia Mustipher, who oversees school social workers for Baltimore County Public Schools. “The big thing they liked to do was food. Samuel, I think, ate anything his grandmother made.”
These weren’t just any waffles, mind you. Linda Heatherman would mix up a concoction of oatmeal, walnuts, raisins and bananas and load that into her trusty waffle maker.
From there, the boys were free to improvise.
“She’d put anything on the waffles,” Patricia said. “If they wanted ice cream, they could have ice cream on it. This is first thing in the morning. If they wanted syrup and loads of it, have at it. As much as you want. Anything they wanted.”
For good measure, Grandma Heatherman would put a can of whipped cream on the table and chuckle at the way the boys would empty that thing in one sitting.
“She always made them waffles every morning,” Patricia said. “When it’s made with love, and you know where that love comes from, it makes it even better.”
Final, precious moments
The diagnosis came on Feb. 20. Linda Heatherman had Stage 4 liver cancer.
Six months later, she was gone.
In those final six months, however, she had plenty of opportunities to reflect on the 70 years she was blessed to enjoy. Thirty-one of those years were spent as a social worker in Maryland’s Garrett County, not counting the part-time work she did after her official retirement, work that carried right up to the stunning news she received in February.
On trips back and forth to Atlanta for cancer treatment, she thought back to all the times she had watched her grandsons compete in football, wrestling and basketball. Nothing, however, outranked the two trips she made each fall to watch Sam play for the Irish.
That included a trip west for the Stanford game, where she and Joe, her husband of 48 years, checked out Alcatraz Island, Muir Woods and plenty else the Bay Area has to offer. When the game arrived, they wore their custom blue Notre Dame jerseys with Mustipher’s No. 53 and “Grandad” and “Grandma” stitched on the back.
“She’s been to a lot of my games,” Sam Mustipher said shortly before she passed. “We’ve always had a great relationship growing up. She wants me to focus on football and be the best that I can be.”
Shortly after he graduated in May with a degree in computer science, Mustipher returned home to suburban Baltimore and made the four-hour drive out to western Maryland for a quick visit with his grandparents. He moved furniture, chopped firewood and did other odd jobs around the house.
In the evening, he plopped down on the couch and stayed up until 11 or so, watching television and talking.
“I saw her before she got into really heavy treatment, so it was a great time for both of us,” Mustipher said. “I love going out there because there’s no cell reception or anything. It’s just us three. It was awesome.”
That would be the last time he would see his grandmother.
“I had to drive back that next morning, so I could get back to working out,” he said. “She understood that, and that’s why I love her.”
Thrust into a bigger role
Despite the Irish being undefeated through the first six games of Sam’s senior year, this has admittedly been a bittersweet fall for the Mustipher family and the eldest of their two sons.
Losing left guard Alex Bars, his close friend and fellow captain, to a season-ending knee injury against Stanford only increased the leadership burden on Mustipher, whose 31 career starts are nearly double the combined 18 made by his fellow first-teamers on the offensive line.
“Senior statesman, if you will,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Not extremely vocal, but when he does speak, people listen. He is taking much more of a vocal leadership role in the last week or so since Alex Bars has gone down. It’s his best season thus far since he’s been here. It’s really fun to see him playing at such a high level.”
It’s also been nice to see Mustipher come out of his shell.
“His personality is one where he’s not very vocal,” Kelly said, “but his presence and the way he comes to work every day is one that rubs off on everybody else. He’s so professional. He’s so squared away in everything he does. His attention to detail, his focus. When it’s business time, he’s a pretty locked-in guy.”
Mustipher, who graduated with a 3.6 grade point average, could see himself working at a software company, perhaps in cybersecurity.
“It’s really just being able to problem solve and applying technology to everyday things,” he said. “People can access your home, if you have a smart home, through something as simple as a refrigerator or a toaster. The ability to work those things is what gets me going.”
First, however, he is using this year to devote himself to football and his conditioning and seeing how far it takes him. Playing in the NFL has only been a dream of his since attending his first Miami Dolphins preseason game at age 4.
That was on a family visit to his paternal grandmother, Lillie Mustipher, in Miami.
“He and PJ, I think they saw how excited I was being at an NFL game,” says Sam Sr., who played nose guard at West Virginia in the early ‘90s. “I’ve probably been to a hundred Dolphins games in my life. Once the game was over and we were riding home, Sam was talking about, ‘One day, Dad, you’ll be in the stands being able to watch me play.’ Being a dad, I smiled.”
The chatter continued.
“His brother chimed in and was repeating a similar message,” says Sam Sr., an executive director for Baltimore County Public Schools. “You never know at that age what your kids are going to do when they get older. It was just a nice day. It was just me and the boys.”
Notre Dame is 6-0 and has a reasonable chance of going undefeated.
Scott Horner, email@example.com
Fresh in their minds
Each spring and summer, Patricia and Sam Sr. sit down and map out their game schedules for the fall. It’s a complicated process, but they always make sure at least one of them is in attendance for every game Sam and PJ play.
This time, however, things stayed undecided until the last minute. For the longest time it was unclear who would be at Notre Dame Stadium for the season opener against Michigan, which took place 11 days after Linda Heatherman’s death.
“When my mom was sick, we all had talked about that game,” Patricia says. “My dad had said, ‘I’d really like to go to that game.’ My mom said, ‘Well, you need to go to that game.’”
Joe demurred, as did Patricia, but an ailing Linda wouldn’t hear of it. She said the two of them should go and one of her other daughters could stay back to care for her.
“My mom was always big on paying it forward,” Patricia said. “This comes, I think, from being a social worker, but she believed that you do the right thing. When opportunity prevails to give to someone else, to mentor someone else, to do something good for somebody else, you need to do that.”
In the end, days after Linda’s No. 53 Grandma jersey was displayed next to her casket at the wake, Joe and Patricia and one of her sisters made that trip for the Michigan game.
“In honor of her, we loaded up, we put our jerseys on and we all went to the game and supported Samuel,” Patricia says of that 24-17 Notre Dame win. “It was really nice. I know she was looking down.”
Joe and Patricia were back on the road last weekend in Blacksburg, Va. After making the long trek to the upper deck for another Irish runaway, father and daughter looked at each other and remembered how much Linda despised heights.
“We talk about her,” Patricia says, “because she was such an integral part of everybody and everything we do.”
Halfway through his senior season, the one he hoped to use to lift the spirits of his ailing grandmother, Sam Mustipher can still feel her memory pushing him ever closer to his goal.
“I know she’s watching down over me,” he said. “I do my best to make her proud in everything that I do. That means just really being selfless and being other-people centered. She did that in her daily life, and that’s what she wanted me to do.”
Follow IndyStar and USA TODAY Sports Notre Dame Insider Mike Berardino on Twitter at @MikeBerardino.
NO. 5 NOTRE DAME VS. PITTSBURGH
Kickoff: 2:30 p.m., Saturday, Notre Dame Stadium.
TV/Radio: WTHR/WXNT-1430 AM.