SOUTH BEND — Only Drue Tranquill knows how much pain he’s truly in as he runs onto the field every week. The Notre Dame linebacker has felt the wear and tear of a college football season more than most in 2018. It’s been more than just nicks and bruises that the graduate senior has played through.
“I feel probably like how a lot of the guys feel in Week 13 … look at a boxer when he comes off the ropes in Round 11 or 12,” Tranquill said. “Nobody’s 100 percent, but that’s the nature of the game.”
The list of injuries Tranquill has sustained would’ve kept a normal man out for weeks. He’s spent the majority of the second half of the year playing with a broken right hand. Tranquill said the hand has healed, but he still has to play with a cast on it for precautionary reasons.
Then, in the first half against Navy, Tranquill suffered a high ankle sprain. The injury looked a lot worse than it ended up being.
“We all saw the injury … I thought it was a miracle from God. I heard it pop and everything. I thought I had broken my ankle,” Tranquill said three weeks ago. “To go from that low to knowing that I’d be able to come back and help the team was pretty euphoric.”
Tranquill didn’t miss a game from the injury. He was limited in the Nov. 3 game against Northwestern but still managed to record five tackles. He then had seven tackles against Florida State and eight against Syracuse.
There have been a few scary moments in the past two weeks for Tranquill, especially against Syracuse. He went down twice during the game as Irish fans held their collective breath. Both times he was able to walk off under his own power and return to the game.
“Obviously, it’s frustrating to have. But any time it gets rolled-up on or tweaked, it’s just a shot of pain and then it’ll kind of subside after five minutes,” Tranquill said. “I’m not going to try and run off the field and get a substitution error. So I’ll buy the defense a little time, get off the field and get a new guy in.”
Tranquill is no stranger to injuries.
In 2014, he tore his ACL in his right knee in a game against Louisville. The following year, he tore it again celebrating a play against Georgia Tech. He played in 13 games and only recorded 42 total tackles in those two seasons.
He’s come back since then, though, and put together three strong seasons with the Irish. He hasn’t missed a game since 2015, and the stats reflect that. He had 79 tackles in 2016, 85 last season and currently has 66 heading into Notre Dame’s final game against USC on Saturday.
His ability to play through pain has almost become folklore amongst his teammates.
“I’ve been here for three years now, and it’s always been that way. With Drue, it’s always been like, ‘Oh, you broke your hand? That’s crazy. But we know you’re playing,’” junior cornerback Julian Love said. “He’s as tough as they come. I wish I could get into the mind of the young guys because they’re probably like, ‘This guy’s crazy.’”
Being able to play, even while not 100 percent, has verified to Love why Tranquill has been a two-time captain for Notre Dame.
“That’s a leader. He’s leading by example. He’s the whole package in terms of a captain,” Love said. “Drue has the most experience. It seems like he’s been around forever. He’s married. Like, Drue is the perfect person. I was at his wedding and thinking, ‘Jeez, this guy has it all figured out.’ His calmness and confidence about everything … it’s really easy to cling to that and learn from that.”
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has noticed a transformation in Tranquill’s leadership abilities this year. He said Tranquill was almost too hard to follow last year because “the bar for him is so high.” While Tranquill has maintained those high goals for himself, the relationships with his teammates have evolved.
“He’s so close to his teammates because of his believability of who he is on a day-to-day basis. They see the same guy every day. He comes in, he works out, he trains, he fights through injuries. They see a guy who’s so committed to being successful,” Kelly said. “What he’s meant to our team this year, even though his status hasn’t changed in terms of being a captain … he’s impacted our team so much differently.”
Tranquill is expected to make his final regular season start for the Irish on Saturday in Los Angeles. No. 3 Notre Dame is one win away from finishing the season 12-0 and all but guaranteeing a spot in the College Football Playoff.
With so much at stake, the linebacker knows he can’t miss out on this opportunity.
“At the end of the day, ballers got to ball on game day, and you’ve got to go,” Tranquill said. “The guys on teams that don’t, they end up getting to watch in December and January, and the teams that do get to play for something special.”