Michael Stonebreaker never talks football with his father, won't watch films of his father's NFL career, and doesn't think about living up to his father's exploits.
Which is exactly as his father would have it.
"Michael knows he's done things nobody has ever done before," said Steve Stonebreaker, Michael's father and onetime prominent Baltimore Colts linebacker. "He doesn't have to be in anybody's shadow."
The only shadow young Stonebreaker plays under at Notre Dame these days is the one attached to the Golden Dome. The only legends he knows are the ones under display in the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center on the South Bend, Ind., campus.
To Michael, Steve is not an old Colt or a football guru, but quite simply his loving father.
"Our relationship is different than most fathers and sons," said Michael, who was raised by his father after his parents were divorced when he was 12. "It's different because there are different circumstances. For example, if we're out to dinner, both of us will take dates. [But] he's still a disciplinarian and positive influence for me."
Now 23, Stonebreaker is putting the final touches on a college career that has covered both ends of the emotional spectrum. He has known the ecstasy of winning a national championship, and the heartbreak of off-the-field tragedy. He has experienced the joy of gaining All-America status, and the humiliation of being suspended from the team.
When second-ranked Notre Dame faces Navy in the Meadowlands Saturday, the fifth-year senior linebacker can appreciate his lot in college life better than most.
"I've seen the highs and lows," he said. "My career is sort of like a roller coaster. But I didn't let things set me back. The [bad] things that happened were my fault."
At the height of an extraordinary junior year at Notre Dame in 1988, Stonebreaker was a lightning rod for success. He was everybody's All-American. He was second on the team in tackles. He was third in the Butkus Award balloting for top linebacker in the nation. He was destined to be a sure-fire first-round pick in the NFL draft.
And then it rained on Stonebreaker's parade. Hard.
It was, in fact, a deluge of bad luck and poor decisions. In the early morning hours of Feb. 25, 1989 -- just two months after Notre Dame won the national title -- he demolished a Jeep Cherokee when he fell asleep at the wheel, nearly killing himself and his date. Later, he would be charged with driving under the influence of alcohol.
Stonebreaker suffered a broken kneecap and a dislocated hip when he ran into a large signpost at 40 mph. His date suffered internal injuries and wound up in intensive care. Fortunately, she recovered.
He faced several months of rehabilitation and 80 hours of community service under the terms of his court sentence. But the problems didn't stop there. Not long after, a campus security guard caught him driving a car on campus when his driving privileges had been suspended because of the previous incident.
The upshot was that Stonebreaker was kicked off the team for the 1989 season, and no amount of appeals would change that fact.
Steve Stonebreaker had tried to prepare his youngest son for a lot of things in life, but couldn't have imagined such a troublesome series of events as this. Michael agonized over the injuries suffered by his date, and by the uncertain future of his career.
"Michael as a young kid was lily white," the elder Stonebreaker said. "He never had any setbacks. He was an outstanding athlete. He was polite. He never had any problems. And this was a major negative for him. I didn't think Michael was prepared to handle something of this magnitude."
In the end, the way Michael handled his crisis was what buoyed his father the most.
"As you look over the last four years, the athletic accomplishments, the unanimous All-America honor and the dTC national championship are all nice medals in the athletic world," Steve said. "But the thing I'm most thankful for is seeing him develop as a man as he went through the tragedy and disappointments. The way he handled all of that will serve him well in life."
Ironically, 1989 was the second time in three years that Stonebreaker was forced to sit out the football season. In 1987 as a sophomore, he was ruled academically ineligible when he flunked a statistics course in summer school. Although he was still eligible by NCAA standards, it was Notre Dame's more stringent guidelines that put him on the sidelines.
And yet, Stonebreaker graduated last May, on time in four years, with a degree in psychology. In his fifth year at Notre Dame, he is doing graduate work while he closes out another excellent football campaign. Going into Saturday, he leads the team in tackles with 58, and has two sacks and two interceptions. His fourth-quarter fumble recovery secured a big 29-20 win over Miami two weeks ago.
Why did he come back this year?
"I wanted to help the team win the national championship and finish my career on a positive note," Stonebreaker said, mindful that he needed to prove to the NFL that he is healthy again.
"I was there on the top of the ladder. Then bam, I was right down at the bottom. Getting back to the top would feel pretty good."