BELTON — As he walked through the hallowed, white-brick hallway leading out of the Notre Dame locker room, where legendary players like Paul Hornung and Joe Theismann, and coach Knute Rockne once roamed, Durham Smythe felt compelled to touch the famed “Play Like A Champion Today” sign.
A gameday tradition among players and coaches since 1986, the 6-foot-6, 230-pound Belton tight end at first just gently grazed it with his fingertips before flipping his hand around and giving the sign a solid backhanding.
“They say every player touches it a different way, and I came up with that on the spot,” Smythe said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll come up with something different once I’m there.”
That’s because, after verbally committing to Notre Dame on the last day of his official campus visit Sunday, Smythe sees himself as now and forever a member of the Fighting Irish.
“I actually grew up a huge Notre Dame fan
originally, and I was always very interested in the program,” Smythe said. “Timing really threw me off as far as getting out to (South Bend, Ind.,) to see it for myself. But it’s a team on the way up and has had a lot of recent success.”
Smythe, who originally committed to Texas on March 8 but re-opened his recruiting Dec. 12, said he will sign a letter of intent to play football at Notre Dame, which lost to Alabama 42-14 in the National Championship game on Jan. 7 in Miami, during a signing ceremony at the Belton field house on National Signing Day, Feb. 6 at 8 a.m.
After decommitting from Texas, Smythe narrowed his list of suitors to Michigan, Notre Dame and Stanford three weeks ago, setting up official visits for the last several weeks leading up to National Signing Day.
Smythe visited Stanford’s Palo Alto campus last weekend and was leaning toward the Cardinal after originally choosing Texas over Stanford in early March. But after sitting down with Notre Dame tight ends coach Scott Booker during an in-house visit last week, Smythe squeezed in an official visit to South Bend this past weekend and came away as the Fighting Irish’s 23rd commitment.
“It’s hard to describe what pushed it over the edge ... I really liked everything about (Notre Dame), but there’s something that’s hard to describe as far as what exactly (drew me in), but that something just makes it feel right,” Smythe said.
Smythe had planned to make an official visit to Michigan this coming weekend but canceled that after committing Sunday.
Smythe originally received a scholarship offer from Notre Dame the first week in March — two days before he committed to Texas.
“I think Notre Dame’s been the school he’s wanted to go to all along,” Belton coach Rodney Southern said.
Smythe becomes the Irish’s second tight end in the 2013 recruiting class along with early enrollee Mike Heuerman, a 6-4, 220-pound prospect from Naples, Fla. ESPN ranks Smythe as a four-star prospect, while Rivals has him at three stars in its final rankings of the year. Notre Dame is graduating 6-6, 250-pound senior Tyler Eifert, who is expected to be one of the first few tight ends taken in April’s NFL Draft.
Smythe fits the mold of the big and versatile pass catcher in the form of Eifert and current Minnesota Vikings tight end and recent Pro Bowl MVP Kyle Rudolph who have performed well under Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.
“It’s very, very similar to what we’ve run at Belton the last couple of years, and something I’m fairly familiar with, so that part of it, as far as scheme, was attractive in that sense,” Smythe said.
Ranked as the nation’s No. 6 tight end according to ESPN, the District 8-5A first-teamer lived up to his billing despite early season injuries, finishing fifth in 8-5A with 36 catches for 547 yards and six touchdowns.