Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

#WOPU Wednesday Spotlight | WR Matt Salerno

September 9, 2020
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Matt Salerno has the highest of goals and the walk-on wide receiver at Notre Dame doesn’t seem to care if anybody thinks they’re unrealistic.

That makes sense considering the junior from California’s mere presence on the Irish roster was probably unrealistic at one point.

That’s not to say Salerno made it to Notre Dame by accident, even if the initial email reaching out to the Irish football program as a high-schooler was sent by mistake.

But it’s certainly been a circuitous route and one that has already taken him to the field inside Notre Dame Stadium during a game.

Salerno grew up within an athletic family in Valencia, Calif. His father, Mike, played high school football and basketball before going on to play football at the University of Idaho. His mother, Whitney, played high school softball. His older brother Michael and younger brother Christopher both played football, soccer and lacrosse at Crespi Carmelite High School just as Matt did.

Soccer was the main sport growing up as the Salerno parents weren’t crazy about the idea of playing tackle football before high school.

“That’s how my dad raised me and my brother,” Mike Salerno says. “Their bones aren’t mature enough yet and I figured if it’s something they really like when they get to high school, they can go ahead and pursue it.”

They did.

Despite not playing football before high school and not playing lacrosse until he was a junior, Matt was named All-League in all three sports as a senior.

But football was always the passion.

Michael Salerno began playing football as a freshman at Crespi Carmelite High School and Matt was able to stand on the sidelines as a ballboy and immediately fell in love with the sport.

Having not even played organized flag or touch football before, Matt needed a year or two to get completely accustomed to the contact and to understand how to properly tackle, but he showed plenty of promise from the start.

Enough promise that he started thinking about the possibility of playing at Notre Dame one day, however slim that possibility may have been.

His grandfather, Frank, spent a brief period on the Notre Dame Football roster back in the 1950s, but a family source says, “he didn’t think he needed to go to class, so they asked him politely to leave.”

“He came home and married my mom, so it did work out in the long run,” Mike says. “He had a great time while he was there, but it was short-lived.”

And the entire Salerno family became lifelong Notre Dame fans.

Much like the famous scene in the movie “Rudy,” if the Irish were playing, that was the only game on in the Salerno house.

“They’d have their soccer games on Saturdays and we’d rush home to watch Notre Dame play,” Mike says.

As a 9-year-old, Salerno got his first chance to experience Notre Dame for the Irish’s 2009 opener vs. Nevada.

Matt always dreamed of wearing that gold helmet and suiting up for the Irish and once he started playing football for real, it seemed possible even if unlikely.

Prior to the start of his senior year at Crespi, Matt attended an elite soccer camp at Notre Dame with the idea that maybe he’d end up playing that sport for the Irish if he never got the chance to play football…provided he got in the school at all.

“He got more awards in soccer than he did in football,” says Mike.

Still, football was the first choice.

The family even tried to see if they could drop off some information on Matt at the Gug while on campus for the soccer camp, but with nobody in the building on Fourth of July weekend, they had to slide the information through an opening at the welcome desk.

“I don’t know if anybody ever got it,” says Mike.

By the beginning of a senior season when he would earn First Team All-Mission League honors, Salerno hadn’t received much interest from colleges for football. Still with a 4.67 grade-point average on his way to being named Salutatorian and CIF Southern Section Scholar Athlete of the Year, he knew he'd have an opportunity to attend a high-academic college somewhere as a student.


He started thinking about playing football in the Ivy League, but before concentrating on that route, he decided to send an email to the Notre Dame Football program on the “one in a million” chance he’d be given an opportunity to walk on.

He crafted an email explaining who he was, where he was from and his long affection for Notre Dame. He included his film and academic transcripts along with the message that he wanted to attend the University regardless of whether or not he could play football, but if given the chance, he’d love the opportunity to try out for the Irish.

While they were at the airport getting ready to go see a game at SMU, where Michael was a freshman walk-on for the Mustangs’ football team, Matt and his father were proofreading the draft on his iPhone. His mother was teasing them by reaching over and pretending to hit the Send button before they were ready and somehow the email actually sent.

Matt was pretty upset, but his mother summed up the reality of the situation by saying “Sorry, but we can’t do anything about it now.”

Fortunately, the email was well-received even if the response still left one major part of the equation up in the air.

The message in return was pretty much, “Get back to us once you get into school.”

Harvard’s response to a similar email was the same, although Salerno had been hoping the Crimson Football program would be a little more invested in actually working to help him get into school.

No worries though as he received word from Notre Dame admissions as he exited soccer practice one day in December.

“All of his soccer friends surrounded behind him as he opened the email and saw that he got in,” Whitney says. “They were all super excited.”

The very next day, the Irish football staff reached out to the recruiting coordinator at Crespi to follow up. Brian Polian made it out in January to see him and a week later, Notre Dame Director of Recruiting Aaryn Kearney informed Matt he had a spot on the Irish football squad as a preferred walk-on during a phone conversation.

“When he hung up the phone, he kind of looked at us like, ‘Did they really just offer me a spot?’” his mother remembers. “We were like, ‘Matt, Yes!’ He was in shock a little bit.”

The best part for the family may have been Matt telling his grandfather the news.

“I think he had tears,” Mike says of his father.

“And he’s a tough grandpa too, so for him to cry was pretty emotional,” Whitney adds.

As a senior, Salerno led the Mission League with 77 receptions.

Mike Salerno has always told his children all they needed was a foot in the door and then they’d have the chance to take full advantage.

“As a dad, you try to teach your boys, it’s not the outcome, it’s the hard work that counts,” Mike says. “You can’t guarantee what the outcome is going to be, but you can guarantee what the effort is going to be.”

Being accepted at Notre Dame as a student and getting an opportunity to be on the team as a walk-on certainly represents that proverbial foot in the door, so it’s not all that surprising to hear that Salerno’s current goals include working his way to the field on a regular basis and helping the Irish win a national championship.

After seeing his brother be awarded a scholarship at SMU a year ago, that’s a goal of Matt’s as well.

And he’ll probably grant you the fact that all that may sound crazy, but so did being where he is right now in the first place.

“In his mind, he didn’t go to Notre Dame just to be on the team,” his father says. “He went to play at Notre Dame and that’s still his goal.”

The trajectory he’s taken so far is certainly encouraging.

As a freshman, he was predictably overwhelmed by the size and speed of high-level FBS players as a member of the offensive scout team. But as the year went on, he began to look more comfortable and confident as he seemed to recognize he could actually compete with guys on that level.

“Attaboys” had to be encouraging, but the ultimate compliment a competitor can receive is trash talk from his opponent.

Matt had a chance to get on the field at the end of last season’s blowout win over New Mexico, which had to be a surreal experience. He could be in position to see more of the field in 2020, especially with the looming presence of COVID-19, which is likely to make depth more valuable than ever before.

The hours are grueling, but Salerno clearly recognizes and appreciates the opportunity he’s been given, especially as somebody who once dreamed of getting the “one in million chance” he currently has.

A source close to many of the walk-ons at Notre Dame says they’ve heard horror stories about how walk-ons are treated at other schools, “It’s pretty bad out there.”

But that doesn’t appear to be the case in South Bend.

“I think Notre Dame, especially the players within the program, do a really good job of not making that really a thing, walk-on or scholarship,” the source says, noting it took one walk-on a month to even figure out exactly who was and wasn’t on scholarship.

L-R: Mike, Whitney, Matt, Michael & Christopher Salerno

The Salernos are “ridiculously proud” of all three boys, according to Whitney.

“We tell each of them, ‘You’re my favorite oldest. You’re my favorite middle. You’re my favorite youngest,’” she laughs.

Whitney is especially proud of how strong Matt has become in his faith, noting that on top of football and his academic workload, he took on a part-time job at the Basilica last year.

“I can text him and say, ‘I have someone you need to pray for,’ and he’ll always make time for that,” she says.

“We often say, ‘They’re not our kids,’” Mike jokes.

“We were not anything like them,” Whitney chimes in.

“Maybe I played some football and basketball, but in terms of academically, we don’t know where they came from,” Mike laughs.

An Aerospace Engineering major, Salerno’s future looks bright whether he pursues a career in that or real estate, which is his minor and the field his father is in, but his immediate future includes a college football season many didn’t believe would happen and a chance to make it a special one for both him and the Irish.

He heads into the season-opener against Duke on Saturday, hoping he can turn some more dreams into realities.

When the Salerno boys went out for football as freshmen at Crespi, some parents would ask what youth football program they had been a part of. After being told they’d never played before, the response was often, “Oh, he’ll never have a chance.”

When Matt applied to Notre Dame, some people said, “Oh, you’ll probably never get in because of how competitive it is.”

When he would say he was preparing to walk on to the Irish Football team, some people told him, “Oh, you probably won’t have a chance.”

Well, Salerno enters the 2020 season with a foot in the door and so far, he's proven that's all the chance he needs.

 

 
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