The Notre Dame mascot carries a flag on the field before an NCAA college football game against Temple Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Photo: Mel Evans
Photo: Mel Evans

Only one college offers intramural tackle football: Notre Dame

He was a 6-foot-8 guy who had hoop dreams of walking on to the Irish's basketball team.

Besides, five years stood between him and his last organized football game, as a freshman in high school.

Then came a knock on his dorm door during his sophomore year that changed everything.

The guy at the door was recruiting players for the dorm's intramural tackle football team. Yes, 11-man, full-contact, full-equipment intramural tackle football, the only such program on a college campus in the country.

"Playing with some of your best buddies in full pads, which you don't get to do in college if you're not playing for the real team, it's a pretty unique thing," Mazza said.

What happened a couple of months after his first season -- "We ended up being not too good," he said -- was unique too.

Mazza's tryout for the intramural team morphed into a tryout for the real football team in January 2013. Mazza said he heard about the opportunity and decided, "Why not?"

Now he wears No. 87 as a 277-pound defensive lineman for the Irish.

"It's kind of crazy," he said. "(Interhall) opened my eyes up to the possibility."

___

Kerry Kemp apologized for the clutter in his office.

He's sorry, too, for the knocks on the door and the buzzing of his phone.

The mid-Tuesday afternoon interruptions are befitting of a behind-the-curtain man. Kemp is Notre Dame's assistant director of intramural l sports, and he is preparing to carry on the intramural tradition born, as far as history reveals, in 1885, two years before the school's better-known football program played its first game.

"Our players are well taken care of," Kemp said. "The most important thing is managing the risk as much as we can."

Intramural football (or as they call it at Notre Dame, "Interhall") consists of 15 teams -- five each in divisions arranged according to dorm size; each team is made up of no more than 24 players from one dorm. Some practice twice a week. Some hire coaches. Games are played on Sundays. There are no kickoffs -- safety concerns -- and the clock on 10-minute quarters doesn't stop, save for the last two minutes of each half.

The championship game, preceded by an eight-team playoff and a four-game regular season, is held each year in Notre Dame Stadium on the Sunday after the real football team's final home game.

On this Tuesday, the interhall football semifinals are five days away. Kemp has to make sure officials, who come from the Indiana High School Athletic Association and are paid $30 per game, are lined up. He has to make sure the fields are ready. He has to make sure of a lot.

The most important thing he has to make sure of, he said, is player safety.

"It's football," Kemp said. "There are injuries. We try to make it as safe of an atmosphere as we can."

Each participant is required to have his own health insurance, Kemp said. Each also signs a waiver and watches an instructional video on proper tackling techniques before the season begins.

EMTs and athletic trainers are on site for each game, just in case.

Mazza remembered a quarterback being carted off the field on a stretcher and to an ambulance.

"They thought possible paralysis of some sort," Mazza said. "It ended up being just a scare and he was OK. It was bad."

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Interhall ball's tradition has woven in its fabric a man named Knute Rockne, who supported the program with hand-me-down uniforms and equipment such as shoulder pads.

That tradition has continued to be handed down from generation to generation.

Morrissey Hall quarterback and captain Declan Zidar, who scored his team's two touchdowns in a 12-7 semifinal victory against Stanford Hall last Sunday, said his father played interhall ball when he was a student at Notre Dame. One of Zidar's best friends, Dillon Hall captain Jack Walsh, said his father played for Dillon.

The two sit next to each other in a Monday marketing class, where the subject often turns to the previous day's games.

"A lot of buddies say, 'Wow, I can't believe my sports career is over,' " Walsh said. "Coming to Notre Dame, the thing I'm most thankful for is I get to play tackle football."

Walsh said he scouts opponents, helps put in the game plans. A childhood friend, Benet graduate Liam Nelligan, calls plays for Dillon.

Zidar, a sophomore accounting major, twice played in Notre Dame Stadium last year -- the first time when a snowstorm pushed the semifinals into the stadium and the second when his team won it all.

"The biggest thing is dorm pride," said Zidar, whose team plays for its second consecutive title Sunday when it faces Keenan Hall. "Walking through that tunnel is unlike anything else."

So, apparently, is limping through the tunnel.

Zidar said he broke his foot before the semifinal last season but couldn't bring himself to yield to the pain.

"You get a chance to play in the stadium," he said, "you're not going to pass that up."

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Winning the title last year meant Zidar's team received first crack at equipment this year, a nice spoil considering there are limited pickings when it comes to sizes and preferences.

Walsh limped off LaBar Field, the football team's practice facility, Sunday, his right hand clenching tight his helmet after his team's 7-6 defeat at the hands of Keenan.

There was no scoreboard to share that final score, no clock besides the ones on the wrists of the officials.

Dillon was one of two wild-cards in this year's playoffs.

In other words, a far cry from the team that finished 14th the previous year. The one that had slim pickings when it came to equipment. That won't be the case next year.

"A bunch of our guys this year were playing with big pants," Walsh said. "The shorter pants go first."

___

Patrick Mazza was about to go to the training table inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex last Sunday, just across the street from where the semifinals were being played.

Mazza and other Irish players are frequent visitors to interhall games. Malik Zaire made an appearance. He also coaches a women's dorm team. Those games are of the flag variety, but the end game is the same: a chance to play in the stadium.

That's an opportunity that so far has eluded Mazza, a scout-teamer who has offered some coaching tips to his old dorm mates. He dresses for home games, but doesn't travel with the team.

"I knew it was going to be tough, but it's always disappointing when you spend hours and hours every day (practicing)," said Mazza, whose parents, sister and grandfather attended Notre Dame. "You're always trying to be the best you can be. You're not trying to be on a team to not play. At the same time, as long as you're doing your job, that's something you can be proud of. It's disappointing but it's not something I'm upset or angry about."

Mazza isn't the first player the Irish have plucked from interhall ball. He likely won't be the last.

David Ruffin was a sophomore in 2008 when he walked on as a kicker. He went on to convert 23 consecutive field goals, a school record.

But Mazza and Ruffin are the exception to the rule in interhall ball. Most players don't have aspirations of suiting up on Saturdays. Most play for the camaraderie, for bragging rights, or to stay in shape.

Mazza, who used to frequent Notre Dame football games four or five times a year when he was a kid, once was one of those players.

Now, thanks to interhall, he's a varsity football player. Basketball came back around during Mazza's junior year. He was offered that walk-on spot on the basketball team he used to want so dearly. By then it was too late.

"They couldn't believe it when I first told them," Mazza said of his family when they found out he earned a spot as a football walk-on. "They were like, 'What? You mean basketball? You're playing basketball?'

"I'm like, 'No, I'm playing football.' They were like, 'How the hell did that happen?' "

The answer?

"I really don't know," Mazza said. "It kind of worked out like that."

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