ND matchup a special one for Downing
When it was announced that Ohio State would play Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, T.J. Downing knew the game would be special.
Sure, the matchup in Tempe will mark just the fifth meeting between the storied powerhouses separated by some 250 miles, and it comes in a BCS game, but there's another reason it means so much to the OSU offensive lineman.
Downing's parents divorced when he was in middle school, and he moved from the two-stoplight town of Malvern, Ohio, up to Canton to live with his mother. His first friend in the city wasn't a classmate but rather his retired next door neighbor.
Ray Souliere was a die-hard Notre Dame fan who would make the trip to South Bend to attend every Fighting Irish home game. When Notre Dame clinched the national title with a win over West Virginia in the 1988 Fiesta Bowl, he was there.
Souliere was also there when Downing needed someone to talk to. They became fast friends after Downing moved in next door, hanging out in the backyard after Souliere returned from his daily walk in the park. They talked about football. They talked about Notre Dame. They just talked.
"He was kind of like a second father to me when my parents were going through the divorce," Downing said. "And I really kind of started to just be around (football) and all the Notre Dame paraphernalia."
Downing's father, Walter, was an All-American at Michigan and played for the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XVI, but Downing had not taken much to football until meeting Souliere, who loved the game and coached kids at a catholic grade-school for years.
"It was tough at my age, because I was getting ready to jump into high school and I was still kind of trying to find myself," Downing said. "I had never played football or anything. I wouldn't call myself a really tough kid."
A few years later, Downing started to gain some acclaim as a junior at GlenOak High school, drawing attention from major college programs. Souliere attended his games, just as he had when Downing started playing at Taft Middle School. They talked about Downing playing at Notre Dame one day.
Souliere died five years ago on Dec. 15, not long after Downing wrapped up his junior season. The Notre Dame Fight Song was played on trumpet at the funeral.
"That was tough," Downing said. "I've never really had a death in my family before and when I saw him die, it was really tough on me. Obviously that's life; it happens. But when it really hits home is when it's hard."
He ended up in Columbus, but with OSU taking on Souliere's beloved Fighting Irish, Downing is dedicating the game to his friend. He didn't think he would have an opportunity to pay such a tribute, knowing Notre Dame wasn't on OSU's schedule during the time he would play.
"I never thought this game would be possible -- except in a bowl game," Downing said. "And for it to now be happening is really special for me, just knowing what a great fan and supporter of Notre Dame he was and such a great supporter of me. It's really going to be special."
Souliere's son, Joel, might make the trip out to Tempe for the game. He's certain his father would have gone.
"He'd still be a Notre Dame fan, but he'd be for T.J., too," Joel Souliere said.
Downing was in a three-way race for the right tackle spot at the beginning of last season. He didn't win the job but emerged late in the season at left guard, starting at Michigan State and then in impressive offensive showings against Michigan and Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl.
Just when it appeared Downing had arrived for good, a knee injury in the off-season set him back.
"It was one of the toughest things I've ever had to go through in my life," Downing said. "I came off of spring ball playing good and was riding high at the end of the season last year, and for my body to do something like that -- and I thought I was in great shape -- you're back to square one. You've got to start all over again, just rebuilding."
Downing did, starting every game this season. His friend would be proud.