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Ten players, ten reasons: Stephon Tuitt

Jan 7, 2013, 8:46 AM EDT

Stanford v Notre Dame Getty Images

The ninth in a series on ten below-the-radar players whose performances helped key the Irish’s run to the national title game. Others include Zeke Motta, Danny Spond, TJ Jones, Prince Shembo, Theo Riddick, Kapron Lewis-Moore,  Tommy Rees and Mike Golic Jr.

With Notre Dame fans eager for revenge against Michigan after three straight heart breaking losses, they looked to Stephon Tuitt for help. The six-foot-six, 306-pound sophomore defensive end had exploded on the scene early in 2012, racking up stats at an alarming rate.

His touchdown against Navy looked like something out of a video game, a giant man outrunning players that usually sprint away from defensive linemen. The emerging defender was a terrifying presence on the field for opposing offenses, and Irish fans took to pop culture and superhero movies for a nickname, comparing Tuitt and his intimidating, multi-barred facemask to the antagonist Bain, the menacing hulk that calmly terrorized Gotham City in The Dark Knight Rises.

Tuitt gave the Notre Dame record books a scare this season, nearly toppling Justin Tuck’s single-season sack record for the Irish. And as the one of the key anchors to the stingiest defense in the country, the Georgia native erased any worry about losing classmate Aaron Lynch, who overshadowed Tuitt last season when Tuitt battled a variety of maladies. Clear of mono, past a disappointing benching for sleeping through a morning class, Tuitt took the challenge of the 2012 season as a goal to embrace, and his commitment to dominating his opponents was a key factor in the Irish defense’s leap from good to great.

As Tuitt turned in an All-American campaign, media members took notice of the country-strong giant from Georgia. And thanks to some great reporting, we’ve learned more about a Tuitt, a thoughtful young man whose journey to football is a tremendous story.

Andy Staples of SI.com chronicled Tuitt’s decision to start playing football, and the long, fearful walk he took to join a team he felt compelled to play on. Against his mother’s wishes, and with no other mode of transportation available, Tuitt walked nearly a dozen miles to join his high school football team. After learning the game and growing into his gigantic frame, Tuitt helped turn his team’s fortunes around — a squad that went 0-20 in his sophomore and junior year went 11-2 during his senior season, with Tuitt as its star and leader.

For a football player so large and powerful, there is always a thoughtfulness that comes across when you hear Tuitt speak. It likely comes from the commanding presence of his mother in his life, sheriff’s deputy Tamara Bartlett. Bartlett guided her son’s college search, more focused on graduation rates and a school’s reputation than football program or defensive scheme.

Yet that thoughtfulness might also come from the pains of his journey to football stardom. As Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune revealed, Tuitt played this season grieving the loss of a father he never knew.

“I just wanted to meet him, and use this attention to grab out there to see him,” Tuitt told Hamilton. “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 affect on me in different areas and I still feel it to this day. It’s a lot of hurt. A lot of hurt.”

Tuitt keeps most of that hurt inside, beneath an exterior that reveals a polite and happy young man. In that way, maybe he is similar to one of those larger than life movie characters. A gentle soul, driven by life’s winding journey. But once he puts on that golden shining helmet, and hides behind his menacing face mask, Tuitt unleashes a fury that Irish fans haven’t seen along the defensive line in years.

He’ll have one last chance to put on his cape tonight.

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