At Notre Dame, the improbable is done on a daily basis. There are student-athletes at Notre Dame and then there is Pat Eilers. Notre Dame did not offer a bio-medical engineering program at the time, so Pat instead graduated with degrees in both Biology (pre-med) (’89) and Mechanical Engineering (’90). On top of that he played both football (a member of the 1988 national championship team) and baseball. He went on to play in the NFL for the Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins, and Chicago Bears after Notre Dame, and then embarked upon a successful career in the private equity industry. Pat currently lives in Chicago with his wife and four children – Elizabeth and Katherine are a junior and a freshman, respectively, at Notre Dame, Clare is a sophomore in high school at Loyola Academy, and Patrick is a fifth grader at Saints Faith Hope & Charity. What does Pat Eilers’ journey look like? Come take a walk with Notre Dame football (strong safety, flanker, and split end) and baseball player Pat Eilers.
Featured image: Split end Pat Eilers (’90) receiving treatment after injuring his hand against the Buffaloes. [Photo: Notre Dame Archives]
Q: What prompted you to make the decision to leave Yale and attend Notre Dame to play football?
A: “I broke my collar-bone halfway through the football season of my senior year in high school at St. Thomas Academy in Minnesota. We went undefeated during the regular season but I played in only five of the nine games, given the injury. In the first game of the playoffs we lost in overtime to our rival, Cretin High School. I was a skilled (well … semi-skilled) position player from Minnesota, which meant I was being heavily recruited by several Ivy League schools and less so by the major Division I schools. I did not receive a scholarship offer from the major Division I schools and decided to attend Yale to play football and baseball, thinking it could be a really good fit for me.”
“During my first year, I played on the freshman football team at Yale (freshmen weren’t allowed to play on the varsity). Our last game of the season was against Harvard, known as — ‘The Game.’ My Dad had come to New Haven to see me play and to go to the varsity game. As we sat watching the varsity play in the Yale Bowl, which was approximately half full, it was hard not to compare it to the times my Dad had taken me to a Notre Dame game once a year where the stadium was always filled to the brim. Sitting there watching the Yale-Harvard varsity game, I told my dad while Yale was a great school and I had great friends, I wanted to consider transferring to Notre Dame in the spring.”
“Before I left New Haven in the spring, I went to the football coach’s office to see my coach, Coach Kelly. I told him I was going to my sister’s graduation at Notre Dame and had also set up a meeting with Coach Holtz. I explained that I intended to transfer to Notre Dame. Coach Kelly told me that he didn’t think it would be a good decision; he thought I had a good football career ahead of me at Yale and I would most likely go to Notre Dame and not play at all. I replied that while that may but true, I’d rather go to Notre Dame and never play than stay at Yale and always wonder what would have happened if I did transfer. So as I drove home to Minnesota, I stopped by Notre Dame for my sister’s graduation and had my meeting with Coach Holtz.”
“I explained to Coach Holtz that I had been accepted as a transfer student and asked him if he would allow me to try out for the team in the fall as a walk-on. He told me I could walk on and further, if I proved I could contribute to the team by vying for a starting position, there would be an opportunity for me to earn a scholarship. I practiced that fall with the scout team as a tailback (I was ineligible to play that fall due to the transfer). In the spring, I was switched to strong safety. Coming out of spring ball, George Streeter and I were competing for the starting job and Coach Holtz true to his word awarded me a scholarship.”
Q: What is your best Notre Dame Football memory?
A: “I have so many great Notre Dame football memories that it is difficult to pick just one. However, two stick out most in my mind, one happened during my first spring practice and the other happened on a Saturday afternoon in 1988.”
“We were in spring practice during my sophomore year, I was playing strong-safety and my good friend Andy Heck (Currently the Offensive Line Coach for the Kansas City Chiefs) was playing tight end. I was lined up against Andy and he held me on a running play where the running back broke contain and ran for fifteen yards. I heard Coach Holtz holler, ‘Eilers, I’m trying to find you a position, son. Maybe you should have kept your ass at Yale.'”
“I responded, ‘Coach, I didn’t transfer from Yale not to play.'”
“Coach Holtz replied, ‘Run the play again.'”
“I lined up across from Andy again– mind you I was 200 pounds and he weighed 300 — I held contain this time, stopping the running back at the line of scrimmage.”
“Coach Holtz came up and tapped me on the helmet and said, ‘I think you’re going to be okay son.'”
“That was a seminal moment for me that spring. I was either going to be written off by coach or be a part of his plans. At that moment, I felt as though I was going to get a shot to contribute and play.”
“Andy Heck ultimately switched from tight end to tackle – where he went on to become a first round draft pick for the Seattle Seahawks. Andy was probably the highest paid guy coming out of Notre Dame, I was a free agent.”
“My other favorite moment occurred during the 1988 Notre Dame-Miami game. Miami’s quarterback was Steve Walsh, who also was the quarterback of my high school rival, Cretin. In my senior year of high school, we beat Cretin during the regular season where I had intercepted Steve twice but they beat us in the first playoff game. (Walsh and I also played together when we were both with the Chicago Bears.)”
“Now we were playing against each other on a much bigger stage. A lot of people from St. Paul came to see both of us play. Steve played really well but thankfully we won.”
“Coach Holtz called my number close to the Miami goal-line and I scored the first touchdown of my career. It was a thrill to score a touchdown in the south end zone and look up and see Touchdown Jesus over the top of the north-end of the stadium. Beating Miami is something I will never forget; they came into the game ranked number one and hadn’t lost in a couple of years. Our 1988 Notre Dame team went onto an undefeated season and won the National Championship.”
Q: Your fellow teammate Tony Rice asked me to ask you how you got the nickname Robo Cop.
A: “(laughing …) well, for starters, the only All-American award/recognition I attained in college was being named an All-American in strength and conditioning. I wasn’t nearly as fast as Rocket or Ricky Watters but I was I fast enough, and had the strength of a lineman. There was a character named Robo Cop in the Terminator movies and they thought I looked/moved like him. I was less fluid and more robotic than other skilled position players and that is how I believe I got the nickname Robo Cop, from Tony and my receivers Coach Pete Cordelli.”
Q: What was it like playing for Coach Holtz?
A: “Coach Holtz did a great job of identifying where each players attributes could most benefit the team. I went from a running back as a transfer sophomore, to a strong safety in the spring and following fall, to a flanker/split end for the remaining part of my career at Notre Dame. Coach Holtz and his staff should be complimented for finding the roles in which each player could utilize their God-given ability best. He developed an attitude amongst the team where everyone was respected, regardless of their role; players put the team first. To have that many personalities and egos, put their own personal goals and ambitions behind that of the team and University-oriented goals … that’s a pretty unique accomplishment for a Coach and his staff.”
“He also never let complacency enter the equation. I’ll use the ‘88 team as an example. We were 12-0 on Saturday, but we were 0-12 on Sunday. What I mean is that after each win we would go to watch film on Sunday, and despite there being plenty of positive reinforcement, the staff always identified numerous ways we could improve. Each Monday, Coach Holtz would tell us that it was going to be really, really difficult to beat whoever we were playing the following Saturday. On Tuesday, Coach would tell us if we bought into the game plan that we might actually have a chance. By Wednesday he would tell us that he could see the light at the end of the tunnel. On Thursday he was feeling really good about our chances, and on Friday it was almost a foregone conclusion that we would prevail on Saturday with another victory. Each Friday night, he’d have us lay on the floor at Loftus and have us visualize doing our jobs, making big plays and the team winning the game. By Saturday pre-game, he’d tell us there was no way we could lose, and sure enough we won. Then on Sunday, we’d start the whole process all over again. As a college freshman or sophomore you didn’t realize what was happening to you each week, but you eventually understood as a junior and senior that striving for excellence requires the team to be frightened of becoming complacent. Practices under Coach Holtz were incredibly more difficult than game day ever was. If you could survive practice, then chances were you’d be very successful during the game.”
Q: What was it like being a student-athlete at Notre Dame? How did being a student-athlete at Notre Dame prepare you for life after college?
A: “For me, one of the most important benefits of attending Notre Dame was learning to balance both work in the classroom and on the field. The Notre Dame Faculty and coaches taught us how to be successful at both academics and athletics.”
“There was a time at Yale in the 80’s and before when its football teams were competing for the National Title, but the Ivy League made a decision to not continue investing at a level so its football programs could compete for National Titles. In my mind, they sacrificed their football programs ability to compete for National Titles.”
“Some SEC schools, on the other hand, would appear to sacrifice their academic focus, witnessed by their anemic graduation rates, to ensure their teams excel athletically.”
“Stanford has done an excellent job in all their athletic endeavors, witnessed by their perennial first place finishes in the Sears Directors Cup while excelling academically.”
“While, I feel at Notre Dame, we strive for excellence in both academics and athletics, but also in the student-athletes’ spiritual development.”
“Father John Jenkins says, ‘We strive to be the pre-eminent Catholic, faith-based research institution in the world,’ and that means a lot to me. Not only have some schools sacrificed their football programs along the way, but they also lost their religious focus.”
“Being a student-athlete at Notre Dame meant I didn’t have to sacrifice my pursuit of excellence in academics, athletics, or developing spiritually. That was the big appeal to me.”
“Notre Dame didn’t have a bio-medical engineering program so I pursued degrees in mechanical engineering and biology (pre-med). I graduated after my fourth year of college with a biology degree and given my transfer I had a fifth year of eligibility to play football. I stayed and utilized my athletic eligibility and finished my mechanical engineering degree. I contemplated going to medical school, but I was able to play in the NFL while working in private equity during the offseason. I decided against going back to medical school after I finished my football career given my age and the number of year’s medical school and specialization would have taken.”
“Like everyone in college, you definitely had to sacrifice; in particular I sacrificed a lot of sleep. There is an American Studies professor at Notre Dame, Professor Pierce who spoke at my freshman daughter’s athletic orientation. He gave what I call his ‘improbable speech.’ His speech went something like this: ‘you are told in today’s society that you can’t strive to be excellent in both academics and athletics. If your pursuit is academics, then you certainly can’t excel in athletics and if your pursuit is athletics, then you certainly can’t excel in academics. But at Notre Dame we pursue excellence in both, so we pursue the improbable. Professor Pierce then states, when you get hurt and you have to play … press on. When you are in the classroom and get an unsatisfactory grade … press on. When you get home from training table and you still have a 10-page paper to write that evening … press on.'”
“I played both baseball and football, and as long as we didn’t have a baseball game, I’d be at spring football practice. It was grueling balancing the rigorous academics while playing two sports, but it is a big reason for why I am who I am today.”
Q: How do you remember your NFL draft?
A: “I received several phone calls in the later rounds of the NFL draft but was not selected. After the draft was over, I received offers from four NFL teams. The Bears and Saints were looking at me as a receiver while the Giants and Vikings were interested in me as a safety. I felt safety was my more natural position. At Notre Dame, we ran more of a run/option-style offense which is why I was able to play flanker. However, I wasn’t an NFL-style receiver so I knew my chances to make a team were much better at the safety position. And seeing that I was from Minnesota, and my wife (who I met between my junior and senior years in college) was already living in the Twin Cities, it made sense to take the offer from the Vikings. And so that’s what I did.”
Q: What was it like playing in the NFL?
A: “During my rookie year in the NFL in 1990, only two free agents made it (with the Vikings), me and John Randall. Signing with Minnesota and making the team my rookie season was a real thrill; I was playing for my hometown team, in effect a dream come true. I played predominantly special teams, and at safety on third down, short yardage, and goal-line situations. During the last game of my first preseason just before final cuts, I was told by our Head Coach, Jerry Burns, ‘Pat, in order to make the team you need to make every tackle on kick-off.’ On the first kickoff you’re thinking, not only are you competing against the other team but now you’re competing with your own teammates, too. I made the first tackle and came off of the field and Coach Burns told me, ‘One down, but you need to make a few more!'”
“I made the team, and ended up playing in the NFL for 6 years.”
“After two years with the Vikings I was a free agent and Coach Green came in as the new head coach. The Vikings did not choose to protect me and I received three other free agent offers in addition to an offer from the Vikings, they came from the Arizona Cardinals, the Buffalo Bills, and the Washington Redskins. The Cardinals offered me the best contract with the largest signing bonus, so that’s where I decided to go. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. My wife moved to Arizona on a Friday, my car got shipped from Minnesota to Arizona on Saturday, and I was cut on Monday, it was extremely disappointing. (Ironically, another Notre Dame Player, Dave Duerson, ended up being the last safety to make the team). That was the low point of my professional football career.”
“We drove back to Minnesota and I resumed my full-time off-season job as a venture capitalist and worked there while flying around and working out for the NFL teams who were interested in signing me.”
“Charlie Casserly, the General Manager of the Washington Redskins, and Joe Gibbs had been talking to me. Charlie kept telling me that they were going to sign me. Finally, I flew out to DC and went in to see Mr. Casserly. I introduced myself to the receptionist, BJ, and said ‘I’m here to see Mr. Casserly.’ Casserly came out and said, ‘Pat, what is this all about?’ I replied, ‘You’ve talked to me repeatedly about bringing me in to sign me and I decided it was time to figure out whether you are going to get this done or not. I either need to do this or put this behind me?’ He asked me if I could wait and went back into his meeting. After three hours, he came back and asked me if I could stay overnight and workout the following day. After my workout the next day, the Redskins signed me.”
“Playing for Joe Gibbs was a tremendous experience; Coach Gibbs stays in contact with all his former players to this day. That was a real high point in my NFL career. I ended up playing for the Redskins for three years. My last NFL stop, after playing for the Redskins, was playing for the Chicago Bears under Dave Wanstedt in 1995.”
“During my six NFL off-seasons, I initially worked at IAI Venture Capital for Steven Rothmeier in Minneapolis and then at Jordan Industries for Jay Jordan and Tom Quinn.”
“What I learned from the whole Cardinals/Redskins experience was this: I chose to play with the Cardinals because they had offered me the largest signing bonus and biggest contract, and I ignored where my heart was, given the organizational fit and my comfort with the coaches and teammates. This ended up being a great learning experience. When the Redskins, an organization and group of people that I believed in (I really admired and respected what Coach Gibbs stood for), decided to sign me, things end up working out for the best. I learned an important life lesson, which is making decisions based solely for monetary reasons should not be the sole factor in making the best decisions.”
Q: Where did life take you after football?
A: “After I was done playing in the NFL, I continued to work for Jay Jordan and Tom Quinn at Jordan Industries. Then, I decided to go back to business school and get a MBA at the Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business. After receiving my MBA, I was hired by Madison Dearborn Partners (“MDP”), a private equity firm in Chicago (on the corner of Madison and Dearborn).”
“Madison Dearborn’s Chairman, John Canning, told me he decided to call it Madison Dearborn because it’s about the organization and the organizations legacy. MDP manages eighteen billion dollars and our current fund is a 4 billion dollar buyout and growth equity fund. Our limited partners (our investors) include endowments such as Notre Dame, Yale, Stanford, and Harvard, and our investors also include public and private pension funds.”
Q: What advice would you give current student-athletes?
A: :”If you are a student-athlete at Notre Dame, remember that college is about developing yourself academically, athletically, and spiritually. You can’t let any one of these endeavors jeopardize your development in one of the others. You have to try and develop all three and to do this; you will likely end up sacrificing sleep and some social activities in college. Just like Professor Pierce at Notre Dame said, you try to accomplish the improbable on a daily basis. You need to ignore the conventional wisdom that you cannot pursue excellence in both academics as well as athletics.”
“Chuck Forman, the all-pro running back from Minnesota told me, ‘Pat, make sure when you look back on your football career you can say you used football and that football didn’t use you.’ He told me there were a lot of people who wanted to be around him while he was playing football, but disappeared when he was done. It took him two years to realize that he had to get up and start another career post-football (selling copiers). He said, ‘You should work during the offseason to develop a second career.’ The average duration of a career in the NFL is 2.8 years, that’s why they say it stands for ‘Not for Long’ — 2.8 years is hardly what you would call a career.”
“A lot of kids are respected because they are able to produce on the field, but everyone who contributes to the team, including the team managers, as an example, are just as important as the superstar on the team. Remember to remain humble about the whole experience — that is paramount.”
“The person you deem successful is only successful because they have failed and lost more than anyone else, but they never gave up.”
“One time I was at an event with Coach Holtz and he said, ‘Pat, you look around the room and there are a lot of successful people here, but if you are not careful, success breeds complacency.”
I’d like to thank Pat Eilers for graciously taking some time out of his busy schedule to stop by the blog. We all greatly appreciate it! Stay tuned for many more great stories in the “Where are they now?” series! If you enjoy this series, you can also read more stories in my new book, “Echoes From the End Zone: The Men We Became” now available for purchase.
Cheers & Go Irish!