SOUTH BEND – Trevor Ruhland has the knee of an 80-year-old.
Ruhland, Notre Dame's fifth-year senior starting right guard, had significant soreness in his knee after last season and decided to get it checked in the offseason. The doctors told him there was essentially no cartilage left and that the joint was arthritic. They recommended he get a knee replacement when he was done playing football. Ruhland had a clinical term for the problem:
“It's completely done,” he said of the knee.
Ruhland already had a degree from Notre Dame. He'd been a key contributor up front on an Irish team that reached the College Football Playoff. There was little left for him to prove. The coaching staff expected Ruhland to take a medical redshirt and finish his Notre Dame career on the sidelines as a de facto assistant coach.
“Trevor is so well-liked by his teammates because he loves Notre Dame,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Trevor Ruhland could have easily taken a pass on this and said 'I'm out.' But he loves his teammates, he loves playing for Notre Dame.
“(The Notre Dame coaching staff) thought there was no way (Ruhland would play) this season. If you ask our training staff, they didn't think he was going to make it through the summer. But he wanted to play his senior year, it was important to him.”
Despite having the knee of a senior citizen, Ruhland decided to suit up for his final season. He survived the summer workouts – on a slightly modified program – and began the season as a jack-of-all-trades on the Irish line. To stay healthy, he says, “I live in the training room.”
By the Cary, Illinois, native's own admission, he is not as explosive as he once was – he can't “run people off the ball” like he used to – but he's a smarter and more mentally tough player.
That mental toughness has been important late in the season as Ruhland has stepped into the starting lineup after starter Tommy Kraemer injured his MCL. He and fellow backup Josh Lugg, who is filling in for right tackle Robert Hainsey, have helped anchor the right side of the Irish line, and their developing chemistry has helped the Irish win four games in a row.
It's all possible because Ruhland decided to play one more season.
“I hope I'm just remembered as someone who cares about the team more than myself,” Ruhland said. “You always need the team more than the team needs you. That's something I've definitely realized as I've reached out to teammates and they've helped me through hard times.
“Someone can always come to me if they have something that's going on with them.”
After this season, Ruhland's Notre Dame career will be over. That doesn't mean he'll be done with football, however. The 6-foot-4, 290-pound lineman has expressed a desire to get into coaching. His teammates, including Lugg, believe he'd be a natural at it.
“I love working with kids,” Ruhland said. “I could see myself being a teacher, too. I think that's always something former players like to do is coach. Their hours are crazy, but I think it'd be so rewarding helping young men get to where they want to go.”
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Stanford Stadium, Stanford, Calif.
Records: No. 15 Notre Dame (9-2), Stanford (4-7)
Radio: 1190 AM, 107.5 FM