It was the call Connor Cavalaris had been waiting for his entire life.
The 6-foot-1, 187-pound Lake Forest High School safety believed he had earned the call. His senior season, he reached heights on the football field never thought possible.
All-Conference, All-Area, 50 tackles, four interceptions.
He also blossomed into a leader, captain of a Scouts team that won its first playoff game in six seasons. He loved the game and wanted to take his talents to a college program.
He knew the program he wanted to play for. They wanted him. All he was waiting for was the call. And in March, it came.
Only he almost never knew it came.
It was Oct. 17, 2010. Lake Forest was 5-2, traveling to Vernon Hills to face the undefeated Cougars. It was a game with playoff implications for both teams.
It also promised to feature a matchup that would define the outcome: the Scouts defense against Vernon Hills star quarterback Davaris Daniels. The 6-3, 190-pound Daniels had received offers from multiple Division 1 schools. The Cougars also featured wide receiver Evan Spencer, who, like Daniels, was a surefire Division 1 recruit.
On the bus to the stadium, the Scouts were silent, mentally preparing for the enormity of the task ahead.
“There was a lot of pride on the line in that game,” said Cavalaris. “You have a chip on your shoulder as you know you are going against them and they are getting offers.”
Although Daniels (who committed to Notre Dame) finished the game with 101 yards rushing, it was the Scouts who shined: a 21-0 shutout against a Cougars team that had outscored their previous seven opponents 310-0.
The game exposed Vernon Hills as overrated. It also exposed Cavalaris as underrated. The instinctive safety made five tackles, including a sack of Daniels. It’s one thing to make plays against underwhelming opponents. To do so against players bound for BCS colleges, that’s another story. He had his highlight reel.
Since his junior season, Cavalaris had been sowing the seeds for a college football career. He had started the entire year at safety and had seen time on punt and kickoff return. He had watched two teammates that year, Tommy Rees (Notre Dame) and Connor Moutvic (Wisconsin) attract offers from big-time schools.
“After junior year, I started taking it seriously,” said Cavalaris. “I sat down with my parents and told them I wanted to play.”
His parents, John and Sheila, recommended he look at colleges on the East Coast, as they offered a combination of strong academics and good football. He also talked to his coach, Chuck Spagnoli and family friend Bill Rees, who just happened to be Northwestern’s coordinator of player personnel and the father of Tommy Rees.
The early reviews were thumbs up.
“His film was good. He’s very competitive on the field,” said Rees, who looked at Cavalaris for Northwestern. “He has all the right stuff.”
Said Spagnoli: “Against (Vernon Hills) it wasn’t necessarily what he did between the whites. He basically willed our kids to play well. He’s as good a leader as we’ve had here.”
It was the summer of 2010 when Cavalaris began to establish his college footprint. He went to a few camps: Virginia, William and Mary. The feedback was positive, as much for his 4.42 GPA as his 4.53 time in the 40-yard dash.
Princeton, Cornell, Miami of Ohio were all in touch. Then, in October, he was invited to visit Notre Dame, where his old teammate Rees was playing quarterback. He remembers meeting with new head coach Brian Kelly, who talked about how he was going to bring the Irish back to glory. He sat listening intently, thinking how cool it would be to be a part of the revival.
But it was a conversation with David Peloquin, Notre Dame’s director of football development, that grounded him from his dreamy state of mind. The Irish knew who Cavalaris was. And they were interested. But with a catch.
“He (Peloquin) said they were looking at one safety and they had me on their radar,” said Cavalaris. “He gave me a whole list of things to do.”
Which started with the basics like filling out the college application. They also wanted more film. Two weeks later, the Scouts shut out Vernon Hills and Cavalaris shut down Irish recruit Daniels. It was all on tape for the coaches to see.
“It was head-to-head competition. That night he played very well,” said Rees, now a scout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
When the Scouts season ended, Cavalaris continued dialogue with Princeton, Cornell and Miami of Ohio. He knew he needed options. He knew how leverage in recruiting was as valuable as an extra half step in the open field.
Then in mid-March, he got a call from Peloquin. He told him Kelly was about to meet with the Notre Dame admissions staff. He had a pressing question for the recruit. “He said ‘We are looking for you to commit right now if we get you into school,’” said Cavalaris. “I said yes on the spot. I knew it was the place I wanted to go.”
Although Cavalaris had pledged verbally his allegiance to Notre Dame during that mid-March phone call, the Irish could not fully reciprocate.
- One, Cavalaris still had to get into school.
- Second, if accepted, he would be coming in as a walk-on (nonscholarship).
But the potential upside – being on the roster for a major Division 1 program – was worth the risk. He told all the other schools in the mix he had made his choice.
The work had been done. All he had to do was wait for one more call, that he had been accepted into the university. High school was out for spring break, so he went on a trip with his family.
“I was starting to lose it as I hadn’t heard anything,” said Cavalaris.
A few days into the trip, his father, John, checked his cell phone. There was a message. Was this the call? It was from Peloquin. He said he had been trying to get in touch with Connor. Where was he? Please call back.
Because he was on spring break, Connor hadn’t been diligent about listening to his messages – of all the times not to be. What would Peloquin say? His dad called back and handed him the phone.
“Peloquin said, ‘It’s hard to reach you,’ ” said Cavalaris. “I said ‘I’m sorry. I’m on spring break.’ ”
Peloquin had good news to report: he had been accepted at Notre Dame. He would be on the football roster in 2011.
“My mom was crying. My dad was proud. It was a good moment,” said Cavalaris.
A moment that almost never happened. But if you know the story of Connor Cavalaris, you know he had been preparing for it his entire life.