Mike Rosenthal has faced the rigors of the Notre Dame football program, the nerve-wracking anticipation of the NFL draft and the thrill of playing in the Super Bowl. Now he is taking on one of his biggest challenges to date: Becoming a high school teacher and football coach.
Rosenthal, who is in his second year as the varsity offensive line coach and head coach of the freshman team at Austin High School, grew up in Granger, Ind., and caught football fever in middle school.
“Initially, my mom didn’t even want me to play football,” he said.
His older brothers had shown no interest in the sport, but with a little persistence, he was able to get permission to sign up.
In high school, Rosenthal quickly distinguished himself as a talented player, taking the field as a lineman on both sides of the line of scrimmage. He was named a USA Today All-American and a Circle of Champions Player of the Year by Gatorade among other accolades.
In high school, Rosenthal also met the first of many coaches that would influence him, not only as a player, but also as a person. Chuck Wegner was the offensive line coach at Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind., the same position Rosenthal now holds, and has served as a life-long mentor.
“He’s been a tremendous mentor for me,” Rosenthal said. “He’s been with me the whole way.”
The summer before his junior year in high school, college scouts at a football camp in Wisconsin noticed the 6-foot-7-inch, 300-pound Rosenthal. Soon, he was getting recruiting calls from schools all over the Midwest. Ultimately though, he didn’t want to go far for college. He focused on the University of Michigan and Notre Dame University.
“I looked really hard at both schools,” he said. “I just had a gut feeling that I would do better at Notre Dame. I really liked the coach. I ended up picking Notre Dame at the last second.”
Notre Dame was an eye-opening experience, Rosenthal said. On the football field, he was pushed beyond anything he knew before. Academically, he was forced to adapt quickly.
“What Notre Dame teaches you is to immediately become organized,” he said. “A week into school, you feel like a new person because they put so much pressure on you to get better.”
He started three games during his freshman season, at right and left offensive tackle, and flourished under the direction of Lou Holtz, the head coach, and Joe Moore, the offensive line coach.
“Joe Moore was the reason I went to Notre Dame,” Rosenthal said. “He taught me that what I thought was my ceiling wasn’t even close to my ceiling. I thrived on that.”
Off the field, Rosenthal struggled to find his place academically, bouncing from business to communications and finally landing in the psychology department.
“Ironically, my wife and I own a business, and neither of us have a business degree,” he said.
He earned a full-time starting position his sophomore year, but two devastating injuries made that a challenging year for Rosenthal and would give him his first taste of football mortality. While playing the Air Force Academy, an opposing player tackled Rosenthal at the legs, breaking his ankle.
“It was a cheap shot,” he said.
He sat out three games and came back for the last game of the season against the University of Southern California. This time, a punishing hit dislocated his shoulder.
“It felt like my left arm had been ripped off my body,” he said.
Rosenthal had always prided himself on never letting anyone else carry him off the field, “so I just picked up my arm with my other arm and walked off the field.”
After shoulder surgery in the off-season, Rosenthal returned during his junior year and started every game. But a new coach had replaced Holtz, and the team was fractured and suffered some close defeats.
“We were pretty divided that year,” he said. “We weren’t together as a squad. The toughness and foundation of the program was splintered a little that year.”
During his senior year, the team had one of its best seasons, going 9-3. Helping bring the team back on track was one of the highlights of his college career, he said.
Rosenthal began to consider a career in the NFL during his sophomore year. Following his successful senior campaign, he entered the meat grinder of the NFL draft. Suddenly, he was no longer a member of a team, but a lone entity, trying to sell himself to potential teams. The draft was the best and worst weekend of his life.
“I hated it because it’s such a negative process,” he said. “All the teams are going to do is pick at your faults and find holes in your game. The process doesn’t take into account how good a player you are, it looks at how big you are. It doesn’t measure your heart or your work ethic.”
He ended up going in the fifth round of the draft and signed with the New York Giants. He loved the team, but the small-town boy from Indiana hated the city. Used to seeing trees and rolling fields, he never felt comfortable in the Big Apple.
After four years with the Giants, including an unsuccessful run at the Super Bowl, Rosenthal was itching for a change. He became a free agent and signed with the Minnesota Vikings.
“It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal defines his career in the NFL as one of ups and downs. Every year, he said, he was on the verge of being cut. He held on, not because he was the biggest or the toughest player on the field, but because he was one of the smartest.
“I was able to play nine years because I was able to outwork and out-study people,” he said. “There were bigger, faster, stronger people out there, but I was able to take the playbook and that helped me. I understood it and was able to grasp it quickly. When they put me in the game, the coaches knew I wasn’t going to screw it up.”
He was always at practice early, studying films of other teams at lunch and staying late after practice. It was that dedication that allowed him to hang on.
However, injuries eventually took him out of the game. Following his ninth season in the NFL, a doctor told him that due to previous head and neck injuries, he was one hard hit from a serious injury. With three small children at home, he decided to retire before a blind-side tackle left him unable to hold them.
He and his wife, Lindsay, a graduate of Austin High School, traded in the hectic schedule of the NFL for the hectic schedule of raising four young children. It’s also how they stay in shape.
“We have four kids under the age of 8, so there is always someone talking, fighting, singing, dancing, or scheming,” Lindsay said. “The day starts off early, and in a rush, we go 100 miles an hour all day, and collapse at the end of the day.”
After moving back to Austin, Lindsay focused on the family business, 1379 Sports, a family sports shop in Tarrytown. The name is a combination of their college jersey numbers. Hers was 13 and his was 79. Lindsay, a sports powerhouse in her own right, was a team captain for the Notre Dame volleyball team.
Meanwhile, Rosenthal heard about an opportunity to coach football at Austin High. He scrambled to get his teaching certificate in just a few weeks and began teaching physical education and coaching the football team a year ago.
It’s been one of his biggest challenges yet.
“I never realized what it took to become a teacher and be a teacher,” he said. “I don’t think anyone does until you become a teacher.”
As a coach, he teaches his players that preparation is key, something he learned from Coach Holtz at Notre Dame.
“Whenever my kids have a question. I want to have the answer for them,” he said. “I never want to go in unprepared. I tell them, ‘The reason you get nervous is when you know you haven’t done everything you need to be successful.’ ”
And he’s learning, too, everyday, new schemes, new plays, new approaches and new ways to reach kids.
“What I love about coaching is when you lay out the techniques, and the kids are skeptical at first, but then they realize that it’s going to help,” he said. “You can tell when they get it.”
Even when he was under the bright lights in the NFL, this is where he wanted to be.
“I wanted to coach since I was in college,” he said. “I just took a little detour to play in the NFL.”
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