Blue and Gold Illustrated

Sept. 25, 2017

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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18 SEPT. 25, 2017 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY TODD BURLAGE A ustin Webster had no idea that such an important and life- changing personal decision could turn into such a conten- tious one publicly. Coming out of little Windward School near Los Angeles, this for- mer Irish walk-on, turned current senior team captain, turned schol- arship wide receiver, turned special teams starter, was full of pride when he made the difficult choice in 2014 to attend the University Notre Dame instead of Stanford University. Some of his Windward classmates didn't necessarily share the joy. "Austin was super happy about his decision," recalled Austin's father, Keith Webster. "But then the next two or three weeks at school, he took a lot of heat from kids saying, 'How can you turn Stanford down?' People here die to go to Stanford." Windward School features a close- knit, academic-rich environment. Peer pressure is intense and word spreads fast in a school with fewer than 400 students total in the four high school grades. A chance to attend Stanford is con- sidered so sacred within the Wind- ward community that Austin was the first graduate of the school since it opened in 1971 to even apply to Notre Dame, let alone to be accepted. "Out here for high academic kids, Stanford is the place to go," the el- der Webster added of the pressure his son felt upon his college choice. "The ridicule became so bad, Austin started having second guesses about his decision." Austin called his college choice the toughest decision he ever made. A somewhat revamped Stanford staff led by head coach David Shaw came onto the scene late for Austin during that recruiting cycle, but Keith said it ar- rived with "a full-court press" to keep the standout wide receiver in state and join the Cardinal as a preferred walk- on with the chance to someday earn playing time and a scholarship. "That all threw a monkey wrench into the decision process, because Stanford had been my dream school for a long time," Austin said. "I had it narrowed down to Notre Dame and Stanford, and I'd have to say at the time it could've gone either way." In fact, Stanford offensive co- ordinator Mike Bloomgren stayed in constant contact with the Web- sters through the decision process and even hosted Austin and Keith for a day at his home in Northern California. But for Austin, the two visits he had already made to Notre Dame provided the necessary nudge to buck the local naysayers and leave the West Coast for the Midwest. "I'm not saying Stanford isn't an amazing school," Austin said. "There is just something different and spe- cial that I felt at Notre Dame." Austin said the pull came from the Notre Dame people and players. Even as an incoming freshman walk- on, "Webby" said he was made to feel welcome and wanted, even by the veteran scholarship team members. "I kept asking myself one ques- tion," Austin said. "If everything else doesn't work out, worst-case scenario, if I injure myself and never play a down, can I see myself still enjoying the experience in terms of having great teammates around me? "The answer was a definite yes." FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS For a school with so few students, Windward has still become a hotbed for producing top football talent — against all odds in many respects. During Austin's freshman and sophomore high school seasons in 2010-11, Windward had so few play- ers on its team, the Wildcats played in an eight-on-eight league and dom- inated, winning back-to-back South- ern California championships those two years. From those Windward teams, a handful of Division I athletes were developed, including linebacker Breland Brandt and cornerback Charles Dawson now at UCLA, and beefy 315-pound USC offensive guard Roy Hemsley. But carrying his dream of big-time college ball, Webster grew restless playing eight-on-eight and consid- ered a transfer to a more prominent college feeder school such as nearby Loyola High School or Oaks Chris- tian School (the high school home of former Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen). Pass-happy eight-man football — a common game in states such as Cali- fornia and Texas that have more than 1,000 high schools — eliminates two lineman and a skill position player on offense and is therefore played differently than the traditional 11- man game. "We loved everything about Wind- ward from an academic, cultural and coaching standpoint," Austin said. "But for the sake of building a stron- ger recruiting profile to attract the kind of colleges I wanted to play for, our family strongly considered a transfer." Fortunately for the Websters and for Windward, just about the time Austin was out the door, the school made the switch from eight-man to 11-man football for his last two sea- sons there. "We were able to build our num- bers up. That was a relief," said Aus- tin, adding that his junior and senior teams at Windward took some lumps during the transition. "We finished about .500. It's definitely a different game." WELCOME TO NOTRE DAME Keith Webster insists that his son is the most organized person he knows. Every goal has a plan. Every plan has a goal. "Austin has a high E.Q. — an emo- tional quotient," said Keith, who played basketball at Harvard and UNLIKELY PATH Senior wide receiver Austin Webster has gone from walk-on to team captain Last December, Webster became the first Irish walk-on in program history to be named a cap- tain. He then earned a scholarship prior to the start of the 2017 season and was tabbed as a special teams regular. PHOTO BY ANGELA DRISKELL

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