When Notre Dame graduates Dayne Crist, Anthony McDonald and Mike Ragone decided to team together for one more season of college football, they envisioned a scenario that played out much differently than the one the senior transfers have experienced this season at Kansas University.
Back playing for the man who recruited them to Notre Dame, Crist, McDonald and Ragone expected to work hard, play harder and pick up a few victories and fond memories along the way.
The memories were created and the work put in, but the victories never came.
Now, as the twice-highly touted trio prepares to enter its final week of college football, each guy is facing mixed emotions about the disappointing season and the end of their college careers.
“This isn’t what we expected,” said McDonald, who plans to step away from football for good following KU’s Dec. 1 game at West Virginia. “We obviously expected to win some more games, and we could’ve; we were right there with a bunch of teams. But this has been a great experience, so no bad thoughts. I’ve had a great time, regardless of the record. I’ve made great relationships with guys on the team who I just met and we’re good friends and a bunch of us will probably keep in touch for a long while after I’m gone.”
While that sums up the experience for all three Notre Dame transfers, who, along with Nebraska transfer Josh Williams, made a combined 23 starts for the rebuilding Jayhawks this season, the benefits to the program they’re leaving have shown up in more places than the field of play.
From understanding how to play for first-year KU coach Charlie Weis to better habits in the weight room, classroom and dorm room, the four guys who chose to become one-and-done players on the back end of their careers helped KU move past the new lows it experienced during the Turner Gill era.
“I just think we tried to change the attitude,” explained Ragone, who said the personal triumph of proving he still could compete after three ACL tears was a huge source of pride. “I think that’s key. You want to buy in to coach Weis, you want to buy in to winning and how to prepare yourself and compete on a daily basis and how to go to work every day. I see these guys working their butts off every day and it’s tough. When you’re 1-9. ... You see teams out there that are 1-9 and they throw the white flag out there and there’s not a guy on this team that’s done that.”
There are plenty of people who deserve credit for that, from the coaching staff, which raised the program’s expectations and restored accountability, to the players themselves and the dozens of unnamed members of the KU football support staff. But, from where Weis sat, it was his transfers and KU’s more experienced holdovers who played the most important roles in his first season at KU.
“It’s tough to create leadership,” he said. “People are either leaders or they’re not. You can’t fake leadership. People will see right through it.”
Nowhere was leadership more on display than at quarterback, where, just a few months after arriving on campus, Crist was voted a co-captain by his teammates. Although he eventually surrendered his starting job after struggling on the field, Crist never coughed up his leadership role, as he continued to prepare as if he were the starter each week.
“You remember, as a young guy, the guys that helped you out and mentored you and you remember what that does for you and, in turn, you pass it on,” Crist said. “I just hope that I was able to help the guys that wanted help and needed help, and I will continue to do so as long as I’m here.”
At one point in their lives, all four of these guys were highly recruited prospects with a ton of talent and unlimited potential. After battling through plenty of adversity and overcoming a number of physical and psychological obstacles, their paths led them to Kansas, where they were given one final shot to be remembered.
Although the Jayhawks (1-10 overall, 0-8 in Big 12 play) will finish 2012 with a record equal to or worse than what the program stumbled to in 2011, there exist plenty of people — both within and outside of the program — who claim significant progress was made during Weis’ first season in charge.
“The goal was to come in and make as many steps in the right direction as possible, get the program to a level to where it’s competitive in this league and where it’s respected,” Williams said. “We obviously haven’t won as many games as we wanted, but I think we made strides. I think it was a great start.”
The fact that the start was actually the end for these guys was tough for each to swallow.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” Williams said. “But, at the end of the day, it feels good to know you were a part of that start.”
Added McDonald: “It’ll be nice to say that we were the ones who kind of got it going and picking up steam.”
Like his players, Weis, too, hoped for more of a storybook ending for these four guys. But even though it did not pan out that way, Weis is not shedding any tears.
“I think that all four of those guys will always have a warm place in their hearts for this school,” Weis said. “I don’t think any of them regret coming here, and I think all four of them will always look at themselves as, ‘I’m glad that I spent that year there.’”
Sounds like it.
“Yeah, man. I’m gonna be a Jayhawk to the day I die,” Williams said. “I took it to heart.”
Added Ragone: “I’ll never forget this the rest of my life. I did not regret this one bit. It’s awesome. It’s been an honor to be on the same field as these guys.”