Over their four-year careers at Notre Dame, Sam Kayser and Grant Sparks have been critical to the Titans’ success on the gridiron, hardwood, and diamond.
So it’s no surprise that the three-sport athletes are getting an opportunity to perform at the college level — especially considering how dedicated they were in each discipline.
In fact, Kayser and Sparks will get a golden opportunity — as gold as the helmets that they donned in high school — with the Wittenberg University football program. The duo each signed on to play for Mike Fincham’s NCAA Division III club for the 2017 campaign on forward.
For both players, the chance to take their talents to the next level — in what is the favorite sport for each player — was a no-brainier.
“Football’s always been my favorite, but to go on and play a sport after I played football, basketball, and baseball in high school means a lot,” Sparks said. “I am still keeping the dream alive of what I always wanted to do, and that is to play college football.”
“It was great,” Kayser said. “I know that Wittenberg is a good school and has an excellent football program. I’m looking forward to their style of play and the expectation of winning conference championships.”
In Kayser and Sparks, Wittenberg will be receiving two players that have accomplished a great deal — both on and off of the fields of play.
In football, Kayser racked up over 1,800 yards rushing and 30 touchdowns en route to obtaining First-Team All-Southeast District and First-Team All-Ohio honors, with the First-Team Southeast District accolade being Kayser’s second in a row.
However, the senior wasn’t a one-trick pony by any means. His averages of 9.1 points, four rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 2.4 steals per contest on 50 percent shooting, along with his performance as a leadoff hitter for a Notre Dame club that reached the Division IV, Southeast I District Finals, allowed Kayser to take home All-Southeast District Special Mention honors in basketball and Second-Team West Division accolades in baseball, respectively.
“I loved playing three sports,” Kayser said. “It was a lot of work throughout all four years of my high school career, but I loved every sport that I played. I just loved football the most, and I was better at it, so that’s why I chose it.”
Sparks, however, also served as an excellent dual-threat athlete. The senior used his 6-4, 185-pound frame to obtain First-Team All-Southeast District honors as well as All-Ohio Special Mention accolades in 2016, and after averaging a solid 6.9 points and four rebounds per contest on the basketball side, served as a key sparkplug to Notre Dame’s district final run with his play at the hot corner (third base) and as the team’s No. 6-hole hitter.
But beyond those accolades, the 6-4 standout’s biggest accomplishment has been his efforts as an Eagle Scout — the highest scouting honor one can receive. Sparks even organized and — with the help of volunteers — planted a rosary garden that consists of stepping stones, various plantings, benches refurbished for prayer, and a statue of Mary.
“It was great,” Sparks said of his experience at Notre Dame. “I really wouldn’t want to play anywhere else, because it’s such a small community, and you’re playing for such a dedicated base of alumni here. Everyone’s a friend. I loved playing for my school, and I’m going to miss it a lot.”
With the pair’s success both on and off of the field of play, it’s no surprise to see the pair sharing a common bond off of the field, as well. Both players are planning to room together as the pair look to navigate through a grueling summer camp. Fortunately, they’ll have somewhat of a security blanket in Sam’s older brother, Jack, who placed third on the entire Wittenberg unit with 103 tackles and a team-high three picks on a Tigers’ unit that went 10-2 in 2016.
“We’re going up there to be roommates,” Sparks said. “It’s going to be tough going through camp and everything, but I believe that having Sam up there will help me get through that tough time.”
“It’s really nice,” Kayser said about playing alongside his older brother and fellow teammate. “I’ve been on a few visits up to Wittenberg, and I’ve met a couple of (Jack’s) friends, so it’s going to be nice to be able to play alongside a few familiar faces and take the field with my brother for one final season.”
By signing with Wittenberg, the pair will get to play for one of the most successful coaches in all of Division III football in Joe Fincham. The 1988 Ohio University graduate — who has been coaching at Wittenberg since 1996 — holds an astounding 191-43 overall record, has won 12 North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) Championships, and has obtained a dozen additional NCAA Division III Tournament appearances for the Tigers.
Kayser’s and Sparks’ draw to Fincham, you ask? The 21-year vet’s dedication, intensity and toughness.
“I just saw (Mike) Fincham as a tough coach,” Sparks said. “I wanted a coach that was going to be different and who was going to stay at one school for a while. I was really impressed by his program at Wittenberg. To me, he’s the Nick Saban of Division III football. He’s a tough guy, but I like that about him.”
“I love how determined (Mike) Fincham is to win,” Kayser said. “He hates to lose. Jack tells me that he gets pretty scary when Wittenberg loses.”
However, being a part of a winning environment is an expectation for Kayser and Sparks — thanks to the splendid experience that the pair had at Notre Dame.
“I was blessed to have fun with my closest friends,” Sparks said. “Now that I’ve graduated, I see that I played for more than just myself. I played for my school and for the pride and tradition that we have in place at Notre Dame. The foundation that Notre Dame gave me was huge because they allowed me to be social with everyone else at the school and get that connection to love doing what I was doing there.”
“It was very special,” Kayser said. “Going to such a small school and doing such big things the past four years, it’s awesome, especially being a Catholic and growing up in a Catholic community. It’s awesome to see the passion that everyone has to succeed and to be the best they can be.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7