While Notre Dame has always been national in its recruiting efforts, 12th-year Fighting Irish assistant Mike Elston has expanded the outreach.
For the second time in three years, Elston’s defensive line has received a verbal pledge from a prospect whose football experience has mainly come abroad. While officially listed from Georgia, 6-6, 228-pound defensive end/tight end Darren Agu was born in Ireland and reared in London, England before matriculating to the United States last August to attend Rabun-Gap (Ga.) Nacoochee, a boarding school in North Georgia with many other international recruits.
In the 2020 recruiting class, Elston reeled in rangy 6-7 defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger from Dusseldorf, Germany.
And while the staff hasn’t specially recruited in the continent of Africa, over the last 11 years it has landed the progeny of first-generation immigrants such as Prince Shembo (Democratic Republic of Congo), Nigeria’s Romeo and Julian Okwara (Romeo was in the sixth grade when he moved here), plus defensive ends Ade Ogundeji and Ovie Oghoufo, whose parents likewise were born in Nigeria.
This winter, Elston added the recruiting coordinator title for the second time at Notre Dame. He also held it from 2015-17, when the Fighting Irish landed Abbotsford, British Columbia wideout Chase Claypool, who was named the 2019 Team MVP. The 2020 second-round draft pick had a sensational rookie campaign with the Pittsburgh Steelers, snaring 62 passes with nine scores, and tallying two other times on running plays.
Prior to Claypool, the best-known Canadian in the program was defensive lineman Michael Wadsworth. Notre Dame’s athletics director during much upheaval from 1995 and into the spring of 2000. The multi-faceted Wadsworth, from Toronto, Ontario, was a backup lineman on the 1963-65 teams, including the top reserve to future All-American and first-round selection Kevin Hardy at defensive tackle on the 1964 unit that resurrected the program under first-year head coach Ara Parseghian.
In fact, another backup tackle, behind Tom Regner, was Mike Webster from Vancouver, British Columbia.
Although Wadsworth had some injury issues at Notre Dame, he played for the CFL’s hometown Toronto Argonauts from 1966-70, was named the top rookie in the East, earned All-Star honors in 1968 and served as president of the CFL players’ union.
Unofficially, the first Canadian player to suit up for the Irish was Nick Doyle (Ontario) in 1906. The only one on a consensus national title team was reserve defensive back Pete Lamantia (Toronto) in 1966.
In 1994, Notre Dame landed linebacker Bill Mitoulas from Toronto, Ontario — the first Canadian since Lamantia and the Wadsworth/Webster duo from 30 years earlier. Although he had no career starts on defense, Mitoulas earned a monogram all four years on special teams and recorded 23 tackles.
Per the football supplement published by Notre Dame on every player who appeared in a Fighting Irish game, Notre Dame has had a total of eight players from Canada appear in varsity action, and one came from Mexico: Janero Davila, who played in 1895.
We didn’t include 2000-04 Notre Dame tight end Billy Palmer, who grew up in Canada before playing his high school football in Florida. His older brother Jesse Palmer, now a top college football commentator, played in Canada before starting at quarterback for Steve Spurrier at the University of Florida.
However, thanks to exhaustive research by 1966 Notre Dame graduate and historian Cappy Gagnon, he noted several other Canadians — either born there or descendants of parent — who played at his alma mater in the 19th century and prior to the Knute Rockne era that began in 1918. Among them were Anson Brooks Bennett and Joseph Aloysius “Allan” Dwan, who became one of the top motion picture directors in history.
Canada has been wonderful to Notre Dame’s hockey program, with most of the top goal scorers in school history hailing from Canadian provinces. The women’s basketball team also benefited tremendously with 2010-14 center Natalie Achonwa, who played for the Canadian National Team at the 2012 Summer Olympics and helped the Irish to four consecutive Final Four appearance. For men’s basketball from 2016-21 was Nik Djogo.
Football is a different animal. More and more Canadian football players are coming to American summer camps to showcase their skills, and Claypool especially took advantage of it.
Per Gagnon, Mexico also contributed Alfredo Edward Morales, who made the border crossing in 1915 and would score a touchdown versus Case Tech on a punt he blocked in 1916.
Interestingly, Notre Dame’s 1971 freshman team, led by quarterback Tom Clements, played a game in Mexico City and won 80-0 against a woefully outmanned team from that country. The game was featured in the Nov. 1, 1971 edition of Sports Illustrated.
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