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Sunday, June 16, 2024
The Observer


Jaden Mickey's interception return counted for so much more than six points

Senior safety Ramon Henderson celebrates as sophomore cornerback Jaden Mickey runs back a pick-six during Notre Dame's 58-7 win over Pitt at Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 28.

Last Saturday, about 2,000 miles from Notre Dame Stadium, Nilka Mickey pressed send at 5:52 p.m ET.

There is no prouder moment for a parent than watching their child succeed, especially when they overcome roadblocks to do so. “Proud moment!” her Tweet read, garnering over 2,000 likes and even more good feelings. The sophomore cornerback's pick-six of Pitt's Christian Veilleux erased any faint hopes of a Panthers comeback in what turned out to be a 58-7 Irish rout, solidifying that Notre Dame is back on the right path following midseason heartbreakers against Ohio State and Louisville.

Mickey's journey to this moment wasn't linear, simple or easy. But that made the 43-yard sprint down the right hash marks even sweeter.

Mickey arrived on campus two summers ago with high expectations and bubbling pressure. The Irish secondary was a concern heading into the 2022 season. Mickey, arriving in South Bend from Eastvale, California, was Notre Dame's highest-rated recruit at defensive back. He racked up countless accolades at Centennial High School. And even though he was a defender, Mickey was no stranger to scoring. Two of his six interceptions as a sophomore were pick-sixes. In his senior year, he took a pair of kick-offs to the house.

Sure enough, a freshman cornerback grabbed headlines during the 2022 season for his incredible play, culminating with a two-interception game against No. 3 Clemson that included a 96-yard pick-six. But those accomplishments belonged to Benjamin Morrison, a fellow four-star recruit who rapidly rose on Notre Dame's depth chart in a way few first-years do. Mickey, meanwhile, had a more typical year-one experience. He played quite a bit for a freshman with some good and some bad mixed in.

His most notable moment, though, was being left on the island C.J. Stroud exploited on the ill-fated double-safety blitz that led to the game-winning touchdown in Notre Dame's 2022 Week 1 loss to Ohio State. It was not fair or indicative of Mickey's performance for that to be the defining moment of his Irish career before last Saturday. He had been close to making big plays before, but they remained just out of his grasp.

“One play, one life,” Mickey said when asked about those near-misses. “You know, come back with the same mentality. This week, we watched the clip of Marshawn Lynch — over and over and over and over and over, and over again, and over again. So that was the mentality every time I stepped up on the field, every play, and it finally happened.”

The opportunity was there for him against Pitt. Injuries to Morrison and senior cornerback Cam Hart opened the door for Mickey to make his second collegiate start. It would have been easy for frustration and resentment to build in Mickey as the spotlight shined on them and others during the early stages of his Irish career. But their relationship goes beyond points and playing time.

“It's always fun competing with [Morrison and Hart] at practice,” said Mickey. “Me and [freshman cornerback] Christian [Gray], we're ready, because any play can happen. But you know, praying for Cam and Ben to get back out there, but you know, I think me and Christian did a good job at trying to hold it down today, and, it was good, it was fun.”

The play that did happen that Mickey will remember most came early in the third corner. The Irish brought pressure on a third and four from the Pitt 41, forcing Veilleux to rush his through. Mickey dropped back towards the sideline at first, making the sophomore quarterback think he would stay on Daejon Reynolds. Instead, he crept forward, accelerating as Veilleux's pass drifted behind the back shoulder of Konata Mumpfield.

Before that play, the only stat category Mickey had filled in his first 19 collegiate games was the tackle department. He added a one underneath the interception column as he caught the pass in stride, then tacked on six points six seconds later when he crossed the goal-line untouched.

“He's a great example of one play, one life,” Freeman said. “So if you look at the first — what game is this? Nine. You look at the first eight games, and he didn't know how much he's going to play. He's rotating in there. Take advantage of that play. Today he's in a starting role. Take advantage of those opportunities, which he did.”

Mickey had always envisioned this moment for reasons far beyond himself. His mother, Nilka, is battling cancer. Tyler James of Inside ND Sports reported that she has decided to end chemotherapy and has entered hospice care. Mickey's work on and off the field has been focused on helping his mom and making her proud. His pinned Tweet shows a book he published in March entitled “The Win Isn't Always On the Scoreboard.” All of the profits from the book go to help his mother. As he raced into the end zone for his collegiate touchdown, she and his father Lamar were the only things on his mind.

“That's all I was thinking about. I was just picturing my mom and my dad yelling in the living room,” Mickey said. “My mom got it, my mom got to see this, so, happy it happened today.”

The start to Mickey's college career may not have been the dream straightforward path to stardom. But he arrived in full force on Saturday, also registering two tackles and a pass breakup. It may have taken some time. But it was always coming, and now it's here for all to enjoy.

“I'm really pleased with how he performed, how he [has been] practicing, how unselfish he is,” Freeman said. “I love Jaden Mickey, man, he's a great player and doing great things for us.”

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