Stonehill Skyhawks Athletics

BOSTON GLOBE: "After years of preparation, Chris Bury finally got his chance"

By Brad Almquis
Boston Globe Correspondent

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This was all new to Chris Bury.

He had never experienced the roar of 20,147 rabid college football fans until Notre Dame's Blue-Gold Game April 22. On this brisk, sunny afternoon in South Bend, Ind., Bury sported the white jersey and iconic gold helmet for the first time in a game setting.

This was only a scrimmage, a prelude to the season opener Sept. 2, when 80,000-plus will flood Notre Dame Stadium. But between the hard hits, postgame alma mater serenade, and autograph signings, it all felt surreal to the walk-on.

"It was so loud compared to what I was used to," Bury said. "I was like, I can't even imagine what it's like when this place is filled."

Back in the fall of 2012, the prospect of playing college football — at any level — was in doubt as he lay in bed, ice packs wrapped around his left shoulder. The tight end had torn his labrum and rotator cuff Sept. 1 in Bishop Guertin's second game. He then played with the injuries the rest of his senior season at the Nashua, N.H., school.

He underwent left shoulder surgery on the very day he was named to the Division 1 All-New Hampshire team. The surgery deterred many of the college programs that had initially recruited Bury from offering him a scholarship. While he had never heard of Stonehill, a Division 2 program in Easton, its coaching staff was loyal and supportive.

Stonehill offered him a roster spot March 23, 2013. He committed 18 days later. Bury had found a lifeline.

"Even though Chris got injured, there was no reason to give up on someone who wouldn't give up on himself," said Stonehill coach Eli Gardner, who was the defensive coordinator when Bury played for the Skyhawks.

Bury long aspired to play college football and major in engineering. Attending Stonehill would check both boxes.

Rooted in this opportunity was something much greater. Stonehill's dual-degree engineering program allows students to earn a science degree after completing three years, then transfer to Notre Dame for two years to earn a bachelor's degree in engineering.

Early freshman year, Bury devised his game plan: He would use the program as a conduit to play football for Notre Dame. No Stonehill player had ever done so.

John Croteau was Bishop Guertin's freshman coach during Bury's freshman year, then the JV coach Bury's sophomore year, and varsity coach Bury's final two seasons. Shortly after Bury committed to Stonehill, Croteau half-jokingly asked if he planned to walk on to Notre Dame through the dual-degree program. Bury's affirmative response surprised him.

"Leave it to Chris," Croteau said. "I said to myself, 'This kid has some grit and determination. I am not going to dissuade him.' "

Bury only told Croteau and his parents about his goal. It hardly seemed feasible, especially after he sustained a meniscus tear and tendinitis in his right knee at Stonehill, playing only six career games after redshirting his freshman season. The circumstances were frustrating, but Bury remained upbeat, even encouraging the coaches to play the other tight ends who were healthier and more mobile.

"[Notre Dame] was what pushed me my junior year," Bury said. "No one was really seeing me play on Saturdays, but I wanted to make sure I was making the most of that time."

Most days, he studied for his engineering classes until 1 a.m. before waking up at 5 a.m. to work out. He rarely went out on the weekends.

Bury earned his computer science degree, completing the first step in his plan. In April 2016, he contacted Dave Peloquin, Notre Dame football's director of player personnel. A few weeks later, Bury met with Peloquin for about 45 minutes to introduce himself.

"I think I got the point across that I wasn't just a kid who was dreaming of doing this, but I was putting in the necessary work," Bury said.

When asked about Bury's personality, his parents and coaches first identify his work ethic. For a player with limited game experience at the Division 2 level, Bury's only option was to outwork everyone.

At Notre Dame, Bury squeezed in 90-minute workouts between classes. When days were more open, he trained for as many as three hours at a time.

Everything in Bury's routine — from workout plans to homemade ice baths — was self-constructed. He even ran imaginary routes on unoccupied courts at the Knute Rockne Memorial Gymnasium.

"Everyone is playing basketball, and they are like, 'What are you doing?' " Bury said. "People think you are crazy and ask why you are doing it. I am thinking, if [Peloquin] e-mails me tomorrow or in six months, I want to be ready for it."

There weren't any roster spots open in 2016, but two opened after the season. In February, Peloquin notified Bury about a 90-minute tryout in 10 days. He said he was ready to go that night.

Bury was one of 45 hopefuls at the tryout, which primarily consisted of agility drills. One week later, the tryout complete, Bury was cautiously confident that he had performed well.

At 10 a.m. the following morning, Peloquin told Bury to report to the medical center for a physical. It was a preliminary, big-program way of saying, "Welcome to the team."

Bury, who hardly had time to process the achievement, promptly reported and passed all tests. He was officially introduced as a member of the Notre Dame football team March 7.

He says he wasn't surprised because his hard work prepared him for a spot on the squad. But the night he was told to report for a physical, the emotions hit.

"Mom, this feels like a dream," Bury texted his mother Cathy. "I can't believe this is actually happening to me."

"It wasn't a surprise to me, but knowing Notre Dame football, I just thought, good grief, that was a huge challenge," Cathy said. "I was trying not to get in his face too much about anything. If he didn't make it, I wasn't sure what the next step would be for him."

This story may sound familiar. Any Notre Dame walk-on draws parallels to Rudy Ruettiger, whose real-life underdog story was dramatized in the 1993 movie, "Rudy."

Bury dismisses the "Rudy" comparisons, quickly pointing out the differences between their paths. Bury previously played college football, unlike Ruettiger, and his 6-foot-2-inch, 240-pound build towers over Ruettiger's 5-6, 165-pound frame.

But Croteau can't help but compare the intangibles.

"It's a Rudy story," Croteau said. "There's just a little different twist to it. [Bury] is just a hard-working kid."

Since his first practice March 22, Bury has trained and watched film almost every day with the tight ends. Notre Dame is known for its excellence at the position, just another reason Bury feels he is living a dream.

He will dress for all seven home games in the 2017 season, but he's waiting to hear whether he will travel with the team. He also hasn't been told whether he has one or two years of eligibility left, which may hinge on his decision to attend graduate school at Notre Dame.

More than four years ago, after Bury solemnly told Croteau he wanted to walk on at Notre Dame, the coach made Bury a promise. If he made the team, Croteau would travel to South Bend for a game. He will keep his end of the bargain Nov. 4 for the Wake Forest game.

Bury's parents and his sister, Julia, will travel to South Bend for the season opener, where Bury, wearing No. 47, will run out of the tunnel for the first time before a real game.

Despite his meandering path, Bury will stand alongside top recruits and future NFL players as their peer.

"I don't think a lot of people realize how tough it was," Bury said. "I was one of those guys who was willing to work to be one of those good players. Being able to say I was able to do that is really cool."