SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Stephon Tuitt believed his sophomore season at Notre Dame had promise, for the usual reasons. He was healthy and experienced. He aimed for double-digit sacks. A full year of college football honed his skills and amplified his natural, comprehensive strength to cartoonish levels.
It was August, the month overflowing with optimism because nothing has happened to drain it.
Down in Georgia, Tuitt’s mother, Tamara Bartlett, put in for time off from the Gwinnett County sheriff’s department. She and her other three sons piled into the car and began the drive to South Bend, Ind. She had called ahead to Notre Dame’s coaches, advising them of her visit and the reason for it.
She watched her oldest son practice and then the family retreated to a local hotel.
There, Stephon Tuitt learned that the father he never knew was dead.
At that moment, the one possibility Tuitt clung to tighter than anyone knew, the one he spoke to no one about, went dark. If he had a good season, he would star on a national stage. If he starred on a national stage, a man in New York named Cornelius Williams might notice. If that man noticed, the hole in the middle of a 6-foot-6, 303-pound leviathan might fill up.
“I just wanted to meet him, and use this attention to grab out there to see him,” Tuitt said in a quiet moment outside the Irish locker room. “But it didn’t work out the way I thought it would. I thought I was so close. Yet I’m so far, because he’s gone already.
“It has been hard. It had a lot of effect on me in different areas and I still feel it to this day. It’s a lot of hurt. A lot of hurt.”
A ‘learning’ year
The BCS national championship game takes place Monday and the player who is arguably the most dominant defensive force in it is a country-strong behemoth incubated in the deep South. The only plot bend would be that he plays for Notre Dame rather than Alabama.
Tuitt’s 12 sacks are the most since Justin Tuck set the season school record with 131/2 in 2003, and a year that began with a 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Navy ended with All-America honors and the Irish boasting their own SEC-level defense, in no small way because of a gargantuan defensive end.
“From a tangible traits standpoint, he still has a lot to work on, in terms of being the complete, fundamental player that he’s going to be,” Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “But he’s an impact player in the games. He’s hard to block. Fast, aggressive, plays with a high motor. He has been a huge impact.”
Tuitt, meanwhile, deemed this a learning year. Twelve teams on the 2013 schedule just swallowed hard.
“I started this game my freshman year in high school,” Tuitt said. “I didn’t do a lot of camps, nothing like that. Every year for me is a learning experience.
“Even if that means bending my shoulder, or using my hands more, or coming off the ball quicker. Next year, heading into it, I’m going to be learning how to do more pass-rushing moves, which I’m more dominant at on different sides of the ball.”
After that breakout moment against Navy, Tuitt’s origin story became commonly known: With his mother unable to drive him to Monroe (Ga.) High School for tryouts, Tuitt walked 12 miles to get there, arriving sweat-logged and late but promised a ride from coaches after that.
The genesis of that determination began with the birth of a nine-pound, 7.5-ounce baby who wore 1-year-old clothes after a couple of months. His younger brother eventually was warned not to fuss with him — not because Tuitt was unkind, but because Tuitt didn’t know his own strength.
“He broke every toy that he got in his hands,” Tamara Bartlett said.
An intransigent competitive streak grew as large. Tuitt challenged cousins three or four years older to races, and won. Beat him in Scrabble? Let’s do it again. Win at Twister? Let’s do it again.
But disorganized neighborhood sports were his only athletic outlet. Not until his mother moved the family from Florida to Georgia did he move into football, and moving on to Notre Dame was in ways a product of the same zest for something new.
“People in SEC country stay in the SEC,” Tuitt said. “I came up here because it was more of a comfort for me to know if I could play and practice every day feeling comfortable, I could grow. I feel comfortable and I do stuff every day knowing I’ll be around people I love.”
Said Bartlett: “I’m like, for you to grow, you need to experience life. And you won’t experience life when you’re close to home.”
Tuitt has helped fill the voids in a championship-level defense, the most critical of all Brian Kelly-era advances.
He just can’t escape the feeling of something missing.
Not to be
Cornelius Williams lived in the Bronx. He was 40, Bartlett said, and she guessed they had not been in contact for eight years. She said he never made an effort to meet his son, and her only explanation for the estrangement is the distance between New York and Georgia, and out of sight, out of mind.
But Bartlett’s sister, who still lives in New York, ran across a relative of Williams’ this summer who revealed that he had died of a heart attack. It was not news Bartlett would deliver over the phone. Tuitt had been asking about his father, wanting to create memories that would last. Tuitt needed to know it was impossible face-to-face.
“He was shocked, saddened, and he cried,” Bartlett said. “He took it to heart.”
The plan, the reason he was doing what he was doing at Notre Dame, was destroyed.
“I just wanted to use the attention to try to see him,” Tuitt said. “Just use that exposure that I’m getting, that he could notice, and I could see him, ask him a couple of questions. I just wanted to see who he is, who he was. See what he looked like.”
The team learned of Tuitt’s loss in a meeting, but he didn’t speak of it much. He holds things in, and this was no different, anguish internalized and shielded from daily reality.
“I’d rather you ask him the question, instead of me commenting on it,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said. “Him and I had some candid conversations I’d rather not share.”
Said defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore: “He really kept things to himself. When (a teammate) loses somebody really close, you might offer your condolences, but that’s something I try to give him a little space on.”
So space and time and a gravel-tough mother’s example promoted healing. When Manti Te’o lost his grandmother and girlfriend in September, Tuitt understood and shared that burden.
Irish strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo has deemed Tuitt “as strong as anybody in the country.” So of course he believed he could lift everyone up at once.
“That was the one time I almost fell down a little bit, because it was like, whoa, I wanted to do this to try to see him,” Tuitt said of his father’s death. “I had to find something else to give me that drive. I found it really fast.
“It’s still for my family and also for myself now. I want to be able to do something exciting for myself. I want to be able to move on and be that better guy when I have a little young one.”
Plan A, and Plan B
The plan is this: Stephon Tuitt will graduate from Notre Dame.
The certainty is this: Barring catastrophe and assuming natural improvement, Tuitt will be staring down a first-round NFL draft projection for April 2014. It is not far-fetched to contend that, but for fellow freak Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina, no one would hear his name called before Tuitt does.
“You have to realize: They’re figures,” Bartlett said of the chatter about NFL millions. “You don’t have it yet. You have to still jump through hoops and do everything else. You don’t have to do any of that while you’re still in school. Get your degree first. We’re still maintaining. I work. I don’t need all of that. I don’t care about any of that.”
At the moment, Tuitt smiles and describes himself as “one happy sophomore.”
He already has plans to volunteer on a farm this summer, actually. Tossing bales of hay, he figured, is a way to help while improving his strength. No, Notre Dame has not seen anything like Tuitt in a long time, as a handful of people discovered at a mall in October.
Tuitt left his wallet on a food court table. It was stolen, then returned anonymously to security without the cash inside. Everything else remained. When an officer wanted to confirm the wallet’s rightful owner, Tuitt pointed to his driver’s license.
“I said, that’s me,” Tuitt recalled. “I don’t think nobody else is walking around here like that.”
©2013 Chicago Tribune
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