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January 7, 2013

A legend in the making

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Ty Atkism met Stephon Tuitt on a football field almost six years ago. Then the coaching staff of Monroe Area’s freshman team told him to block the new kid who’d just moved to the small Georgia town from outside Miami.

Atkism got beat. And beat. And beat. Then he got beat again.

“Coach, I can’t do anything,” Atkism pleaded. “He’s just that good.”

The legend of Stephon Tuitt may be built around that well-documented 12-mile walk he made before that season, his attendance mandatory at a weight lifting session if he wanted to play.

That Tuitt defied his disciplinarian mother Tamara Bartlett, a sheriff’s deputy in Gwinnett County, to walk the country roads of rural Georgia spoke to his passion to play.

That Tuitt never made that walk again spoke to the community’s passion for Notre Dame’s All-American defensive end, who will step onto the biggest stage of his life tonight against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. Tuitt had a ride to every Monroe practice for the rest of his career.

“We took turns by the week,” said Matt Fligg, Monroe’s varsity football coach “He was really out of the way. We’d do that for any of our kids. Around here, that’s just part of it.”

Tuitt and Atkism became close friends after that first practice. They remain that way. Tuitt would go out to dinner with Atkism’s family and politely suggest an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet. Atkism produced one of Tuitt’s first highlight tapes. When Tuitt flipped commitments from Notre Dame to Georgia Tech for barely 24 hours, Atkism was among the first to know.

Like a few hundred people back in Monroe, Atkism will watch tonight wearing a navy blue t-shirt with “Do It 2 It” on the front and No. 7 on the back. Parties are set up around town, big screens devoted to one of Monroe’s biggest exports.

“The sad thing about it is we have school the next day,” Fligg said. “I’m going to take the day off. That’s a planned sick day for me.”

Monroe’s collective affection for Tuitt touches reasons deeper than what he did for its football team. The Hurricanes didn’t win a game during his sophomore season. They didn’t win a game during his junior season either. Tuitt quietly played through a calf injury that fall, not telling his coaches.

As a senior, he led Monroe to an 11-2 record and into the playoffs.

“I know what that experience is,” Tuitt said. “I know how to overcome that.”

The five-star recruit was elected prom king. He helped lead community service projects, cleaning up roads, planting trees or renovating local parks. The summer before his senior year Tuitt helped organize team lifting at a local gym for about 30 players, getting teammates to double down on off-season conditioning after losing 20 straight games.

“He ran the school for a couple years,” Fligg said.

Before Tuitt captured the imagination of Notre Dame with his 77-yard fumble return against Navy or his 12 sacks - trailing only Justin Tuck for the single-season standard - he made the audacious common around Monroe.

Ask former teammates about their favorite Tuitt moment and they’re torn between 50-yard quarterback rundowns against Chestatee and Oconee County. Or the time he shattered a backboard in basketball practice. Or when he dunked over two defenders at once against West Hall. Or the time he went into the weight room and benched two 10th graders that sat on opposite ends of the bar.

“He has the city behind him,” said Demond Smith, former Monroe quarterback and now a sophomore defensive back at Georgia Tech. “Everyone.”

The sentiment applies at Notre Dame too where Tuitt could be the most talented NFL prospect on a roster that includes Manti Te’o. Defensive line coach Mike Elston called Tuitt the most impressive physical talent he’s ever coached. Strength and conditioning coordinator Paul Longo sees a sophomore just scratching the surface of his potential.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement there, which is exciting,” Longo said. “I’ve had a few over the years (like him), not many, but a few.”

Last summer Tuitt did agility drills with Notre Dame’s receivers, running ladders side-by-side with TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels. Then he opened the season with back-to-back two-sacks games, plus that 77-yard fumble return when he out-ran Navy’s quarterback and running back.

After a freshman season paused by a one-game suspension for cutting class then ultimately derailed by mono, Tuitt is now comfortable in the University’s culture and a first-team All-American on the field. Notre Dame now gives Tuitt the same embrace Monroe did after he walked those 12 miles six years ago.

“This year was a learning year for me,” Tuitt said. “Every time I take this game to another step, I’m learning more.”

The education of Stephon Tuitt will continue tonight against Alabama.

Back home in Monroe the legend of this 6-foot-6, 303-pound genetic outlier is already secure.

“He was humble in everything that he did and he never bragged,” Atkism said. “And he always worked 10 times as hard as anybody else would.”


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