Notre Dame Linebacker Michael Stonebreaker is quiet and painfully shy, and that makes him a satisfying target for pranks and gags. In late September, his teammate Frank Stams answered a phone in the Notre Dame athletic office and informed the caller that the upcoming game against Stanford had been canceled. Stams explained that both teams had decided to devote the weekend to studying.
"Who is this?" the indignant caller inquired.
"Michael Stonebreaker," replied Stams.
Then there was the time Stams sneaked into the office of defensive tackles coach John Palermo and wolfed down some hoagies he found in a bag on the desk. He left a thank-you note written on a napkin and signed it with Stonebreaker's name.
Stonebreaker does not always turn the other cheek. When reprimanded for the hoagie incident, he turned Stams in. And recently he presented Stams with an early Christmas present: a gift-wrapped fetal pig from the biology lab.
With Notre Dame's Fiesta Bowl showdown against West Virginia for the national championship approaching, Stams and his fun-loving sidekick, linebacker Wes Pritchett, recently decided to let up on Stonebreaker. Knowing how tongue-tied Stoney gets during interviews, they chose to do him a favor by telling the country everything there is to know about their friend.
"Not too many people know about this, but Stoney likes to play badminton," Stams revealed. "He stands in front of his dorm and goes through a whole box of birds in an afternoon. He doesn't even use a net. Sometimes I feel sorry for him and hit the birds back."
Pritchett picked up the thread. "Stoney really loves Jarts, you know, those big darts you play with out in the yard," he said. "He often plays in his dorm room, using a special Velcro set. He saves his tournament set, which he acquired from a Japanese Jart player, for his travels to competitions around the country."
When Stonebreaker hears these tales, he shakes his head and rolls his eyes. Stams and Pritchett? Who needs friends like these?
Although he is a man of few words, Stonebreaker, a 6'1", 226-pound junior from River Ridge, La., can really be a presence. A consensus All-America, he finished third in this year's voting for the Dick Butkus Award (behind Derrick Thomas of Alabama and Broderick Thomas of Nebraska), which is given annually to the nation's top college linebacker. He led the Irish in solo tackles with 71, broke up five passes and returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown against Michigan State on Sept. 17.
"Michael simply plays the game the way it should be played—clean, hard, intelligently and within a total team concept," says Irish coach Lou Holtz.
Stonebreaker, Pritchett and Stams are the core of a Notre Dame defense that ranked third in the nation in scoring defense (12.3 points allowed per game) and 10th in stopping the run (112.4 yards per game). Stams, a senior defensive, end, collects Three Stooges videos, does impressions of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson and, without much encouragement, will re-create entire scenes from old movies. Pritchett, also a senior, likes to pretend he's a highly paid model or a famous Hollywood actor. At team meetings, he occasionally recites Shakespeare. On the flight back to South Bend after Notre Dame's victory over Southern Cal on Nov. 26, Pritchett belted out his own rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas: "Ten coaches screaming, nine senior starters, eight national championships, seven Heisman winners...three points from [placekicker Reggie] Ho...and a national championship ring!"
"There's great chemistry between the players and coaches," Stonebreaker says. "Each week, we've been under tremendous pressure, but nobody has felt it. Having a sense of humor helps keep football in perspective."
It also keeps players from being overwhelmed when they first set eyes on Notre Dame's defensive playbook. The black three-ring binder weighs about five pounds and is stuffed with 350 typed pages, but it's well-organized and easy to understand. Chapter 2, entitled "Food for Thought," contains inspirational quotes from Sophocles, Emerson, Molière, Goethe, Virgil, Disraeli, Thoreau, de Gaulle and Theodore Roosevelt. Chapter 4, "The Winning Edge," explains some of the nuances of football that often turn a game around, such as how to milk the clock and what to do when the other team fumbles on either goal line. There's also a chapter defining the terms used in the Notre Dame defensive scheme: Oskie is an interception; Eagle and Mike designate the inside linebackers—Mike (Pritchett) lines up on the strong, or tight end, side of the field, and Eagle (Stonebreaker) lines up on the weak side.
The middle section of the play-book is devoted to diagrams of the 200 or so defensive formations. Under every diagram is a corresponding chart that analyzes how each defender should react during a play. Some of the names of the defensive sets sound dauntingly complex: Split Directions Jets 23 Star, Rambo to the Field Weak Zero, ND Mad Dog Cross, Rock 'n' Roll and Tite Olè 23.
In fact, these are merely variations of the Irish's six basic fronts—alignments of defensive linemen and linebackers—known as ND, Split, Tite, Nickel, Goal Line and Backer. Each lineman is responsible for closing a specific hole, or gap, in the offensive line, depending on the flow of the ball. Linebackers have a choice of two gaps to fill, except for Stonebreaker, who is usually free to follow his instincts.
"Michael can sense how an offense is attacking us very early in the game," says defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez. "That's invaluable for a coach. I can't see schemes and blocking from the sidelines, and even for the coaches upstairs, it's hard. But because Michael sees the whole picture, we can make adjustments quickly on the sidelines."
That Stonebreaker is a natural at linebacker should not be surprising. His father, Steve, played the position from 1962 through '68 for the Minnesota Vikings, Baltimore Colts and New Orleans Saints. Now 50 and a retired business executive in New Orleans, Steve has attended all of Michael's Notre Dame games. Once a week he phones Alvarez to check on his son's progress. Thus far, Steve has noticed only one similarity between his and Michael's styles of play—aggressiveness.
"I marvel at how fundamentally sound he is," says Steve. "I wasn't blessed with his innate skills. He's so much quicker and stronger."
The youngest of Steve and Carol Stonebreaker's five children, Michael was born in Baltimore and grew up in New Orleans. When he was two, he had a frightening accident. Upon returning home from grocery shopping, Carol was ushering her other children into the house when Michael climbed onto the front seat of the family station wagon. He shifted the car into reverse, and though the engine wasn't running, the vehicle rolled down the driveway. Michael fell out of the car and partially under it, slamming his head on the cement. His oldest sister, Andrea, then nine, yanked Michael to safety, just as the left front wheel was about to roll over his body. Michael suffered a fractured skull, and the hammer bone in his left ear was knocked out of place, leaving him totally deaf in that ear. "It hasn't been any great handicap," he says. "Then again, I've really never known any other way."
The accident certainly didn't put a damper on what was otherwise a normal childhood. Michael spent hours and hours on his thick-tired, motocross bicycle, racing around a dirt track he and his neighborhood pals had built. At home, he engaged in long, thoughtful conversations with his mother. One day, he wondered aloud why he had been named Michael David instead of David Michael. Well, Carol explained, her brother David might like to name one of his own children David.
"But you know, Michael," she said, "one of the best things about being Catholic is that you can pick any name on your confirmation day."
Michael was overjoyed. "Gee, Mom, what should I pick?" he asked.
"Often people choose the name of their favorite saint," Carol said.
"O.K.," Michael bubbled, "I'll pick Archie Manning."
When Michael was 11, Steve and Carol were divorced. "I told each child separately," says Carol, who has since remarried and moved to California. "The three girls were easy, but Steven, our older son, was devastated. When I explained to Michael that his father was going to live by himself for a while, Michael walked over to me, hugged me and gave me a kiss. Then he went out to play, as if to say, life goes on."
The adjustment to living with his mother in a different neighborhood in New Orleans proved harder, and a few months later, Michael moved back in with Steve. But it didn't ease the hurt he had bottled up inside. When Michael was 12, Steve placed him in the John Curtis Christian School. He joined the seventh-grade football team but played halfheartedly. Then, to get attention from his parents, he rebelled.
"I had problems with discipline," Michael says. "I'd go late to school. I even said I didn't want to play football."
Michael repeated the eighth grade, which allowed him to better cope with the divorce and to mature physically. That did the trick; he became a solid student and an outstanding football player.
Coach J.T. Curtis Jr., son of the school's founder, was a strict disciplinarian. His varsity practices lasted at least two hours, followed by 45 minutes of film study and discussion in the school library. With Michael playing linebacker, the Patriots won three consecutive Louisiana state championships. In his senior year, Michael was the defensive MVP in both the state championship game and coaches' all-star game and was named the outstanding defensive player in Louisiana.
LSU, UCLA, Texas A & M and Notre Dame proffered football scholarships, but after a visit to South Bend and a spirited pitch from Holtz, Stonebreaker was sold on the Fighting Irish. He recalls Holtz telling him, "There's no place to hide here, Michael. We're always the biggest game on our opponent's schedule."
Stonebreaker's aggressive play on special teams as a freshman in 1986 earned him a backup spot at linebacker. The following spring, in the final intra-squad scrimmage, he was named defensive MVP after making 10 tackles. Yet, even while Stonebreaker was excelling, he was in pain. He had developed an infection in the mastoid bone of his bad ear and, unbeknownst to his coaches and teammates, he suffered intermittent earaches and headaches. In the classroom, he fell behind and received an F in a science survey course.
At the end of the semester, Stonebreaker underwent 4½ hours of ear surgery at Ochsner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans to remove the infected bone. Ten days later, he was in summer school at Notre Dame, trying to make up for the failing grade. He enrolled in a demanding, upper-division statistics course and wound up with another F, dropping his average to 1.95. Since Notre Dame requires athletes to maintain a 2.0, Stonebreaker was declared ineligible for his sophomore season.
"He was humiliated, labeled a dumb jock," Steve says. "People didn't take into account his poor health and the fact he might have been in a course he wasn't ready for. But he landed on his feet instead of his fanny and now knows life goes on without football."
Last spring, Stonebreaker, an American Studies major, finished the semester with a 3.1 GPA. This fall he took a course in his major field called Black and White in America; an English course that examined Martin Luther King. Willa Cather and Marcus Garvey; The Ethics of Revolution, offered by the economics department; a design course called Brand Advertising; and a Greek and Latin literature course.
As for his free time, well, Stonebreaker isn't as dull as Stams and Pritchett would have us believe. For the past six years he has been scuba diving with his dad, most recently in the Cayman Islands. Let it also be known that Stonebreaker modeled tuxedos in fashion shows while in high school. Won't Pritchett be jealous?
"Did I tell you that years ago Knute Rockne lived in Stoney's dorm room?" asks Stams, warming to his subject once again. "We've held several sèances to get advice. Why else do you think we've been so successful this year?"
Stonebreaker cracks up. What will he do next season without these two wackos? "We're like special magical rocks," Stonebreaker says, joining in the kidding. "Apart, we have no power, but together, we're unstoppable. I guess, I'll just have to leave with them."
The Tite-I-Double Shoot-0 defense (above), which the Irish used often against USC, calls for a seven-man rush: Tite means that the rush end (R: Stams) lines up on the tight end; the I tells the left tackle to line up just inside the opposing tackle; Double Shoot means that the Mike linebacker (M: Pritchett) and the Eagle linebacker (E: Stonebreaker) are to blitz via the indicated gaps. The Split (below) is the most used of Notre Dame's six bask defensive fronts. Mike has two responsibilities, depending on the offensive flow, while Eagle, the faster linebacker, is free to react as he chooses.