To many, Drue Tranquill is perfection personified.
At Notre Dame, he was a two-time team captain. He majored in Mechanical Engineering and graduated with a 3.73 GPA. He was a finalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, casually known as the “Academic Heisman,” and a winner of the Wuerffel Trophy, an annual award given to the college football player “who best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement.” His physique is carved from granite, he abhors junk food, and his most indulgent hobby is watching sunsets. He’s married to his high school sweetheart and has a baby boy on the way. Most recently, he crushed the NFL Combine, posting the most Bench Press reps of any linebacker (31) while jumping a 37.5-inch vertical and blazing a 4.57 40-Yard Dash. He’s now shooting up draft boards across the league.
At 23 years old, Tranquill seemingly has life figured out. Julian Love, a former Notre Dame cornerback who’s also expected to be selected in this year’s NFL Draft, describes him as “the whole package” and “the perfect person.” Although this type of praise has become the norm for Tranquill, few know the struggles he faced along his path to the pros—a path that at one point, looked very much to be heading for a dead end.
About 13 years ago, Tranquill began experiencing debilitating anxiety. It’s something he still grapples with to this day. A member of a religious family, he found comfort in the word of God. Already a standout athlete by age 12, he remembers praying for an opportunity to help and influence others.
“I actually wrote it down when I was 12 years old,” Tranquill says. “I was just on my floor and faith had been a huge part of my life. I just wrote, after reading Jeremiah 29:11, ‘Lord, you know the plans you have for me, if you give me the platform to reach people, I promise I’ll give it all back to you in full.’ And that’s hung above my bed for the past 10, 11 years of my life.”
For a long time, that platform looked like it was going to be baseball. Tranquill was a standout centerfielder at Carroll High School (Fort Wayne, Indiana) with dreams of going to the MLB. But there was something about the passion and energy in football he couldn’t walk away from. “The blood, sweat, and tears—everything went into it. (Football) was the ultimate team game for me,” Tranquill says. “Then you have all these extra things like the energy and passion from the community, it just breaks across any division line and really brings people together.”
When Tranquill switched his intention to play football in college instead of baseball, he found no shortage of suitors. The spring and summer prior to his senior year were a whirlwind of camps and recruiting visits, and Tranquill’s athleticism and D1-ready build were an enticing package. He put up epic numbers on both sides of the ball his senior season, totaling 1,420 rushing yards as a running back and 75 tackles (including 16 for loss) as a linebacker-safety chess piece. The Irish came calling, and Tranquill signed to South Bend.
While the transition was smooth on the field, Tranquill’s anxiety spiked being away from home. He missed his four younger siblings back in Fort Wayne, and the rigors of his mechanical engineering major were increasing exponentially. He didn’t realize that his athletic scholarship included on-campus meals until almost the end of his first semester, so he was often paying for food out of his own savings account. Amidst it all, Tranquill still appeared in Notre Dame’s first 11 games, mostly on special teams and as a sub-package safety, registering 33 tackles. Then, during the first half of a game against Louisville, he went down clutching his left knee. Team doctors performed a physical test to see if he’d torn his ACL, and Tranquill passed. He then went out in the second half and notched his first career interception.
But when he arrived at the team facility sporting a softball-sized knee the following day, the training staff realized something was amiss. An MRI revealed that he did, in fact, tear his ACL. “That’s how strong he is—hamstring and quad area is so strong that he passed his ACL test,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly told reporters. “Then he comes in on Sunday and he’s swollen…We get an MRI, he has a (torn) ACL.”
For Tranquill, who readily admits he had experienced little-to-no adversity in his athletic endeavors up to that point, it was a shock. But once the initial devastation dulled, he decided he would attack rehab like it was a receiver coming across the middle.
“All I had been programmed to do was just attack and see what kind of standard I could set. (About) two years prior to me tearing my ACL, Adrian Peterson had come off an ACL and had a record-setting season and recovered in like six months. For me, it was ‘How fast can I come back from this? How fast can I make any belief that I’ll never be the same player again, (how fast) can I make that disappear? Can I shock people?’ That was the mentality I attacked every single day with,” Tranquill says. “’How fast can I get back walking? How fast can I get back squatting? How fast can I get back in there squatting more than every guy on my team?’ These were the things that went through my head and pushed me. I came back from that ACL in four or five months and was ready to play.”
By midway of his third game back, Tranquill had vanquished any doubts of his fitness or ability. In front of a raucous home crowd against 14th-ranked Georgia Tech, he totaled four tackles, two tackles for loss and a crucial pass break-up in the first half. After that break-up, which ensured an Irish lead heading into halftime, he leapt to celebrate with a teammate. When he came down, he felt a pop in his right knee. In an instant, a moment of triumph became a nightmare. Two torn ACLs in under 10 months.
“I was like, ‘Lord, what’s going on? Why? Again? Seriously?’” Tranquill says.
The world felt impossibly cruel, and the nature of how Tranquill’s injury occurred drew national headlines—along with a wave of criticism. He’d gone from a promising young talent to the kid who couldn’t stay healthy. Tranquill says he was in a “dark place” after the injury, but soon accepted that while freak accidents were beyond his control, his mindset and attitude were not.
“I realized that there’s certain things in life you can’t control. We talk about them as the uncontrollable. We talk about controlling what you can control. What I could control in that moment was not my physical body, the shape of my knee—my ACL was torn. I could control my attitude, my mindset, how fast I flipped the switch. I truly believe I never would’ve taken that next step forward had I not flipped my mindset,” Tranquill says. “If I’d just been sulking and (saying) ‘why me?’, that just elongates the process. That doesn’t give my body the best response to healing, it doesn’t give myself the best edge to move forward. For me, it was really coming to awareness of just ‘Dude, control the controllables, and you’ll be just fine.’”
Like Tranquill is wont to do, he soon took the idea of controlling his mindset to intense lengths. Frigid showers every morning became part of his routine, as he believed training himself to brave that intense shock made life’s more trivial troubles easier to hurdle.
“(A habit) I had was taking cold showers. People were like, why would you take cold showers? For me, it was just this moment of like—when you hop in a cold shower, it’s very, very stressful. Your body gets shocked, your mind wants to go in a thousand different ways. For me, if I could breathe through that, if I could take a minute or two and breathe through that sharp pain of cold water beating on my body, I can handle any stress the day threw at me. That was a way I just got my mind right in the morning. It was a way that I forged a little mental toughness. Almost just this ability to breathe through, handle situations that weren’t necessarily favorable, and I really think that helped me in a lot of ways,” Tranquill says.
But for as much as his training routine made him seem like a modern day Ivan Drago, incapable of pain or emotion, Tranquill says a crucial step in learning to live with his anxiety was not taking himself so seriously. He learned to handle missteps in stride and accepted the fact that no one, including himself, is perfect.
“For me, one of the biggest things that allowed me to take a step forward in my understanding of (my anxiety) was to not take myself so seriously,” he says. “People can look at that and say, ‘Well, you need to be hard on yourself, you need to do all these things.’ Well, trust me, I am. To learn to laugh at myself more and just not take myself so seriously was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. When you do that, you don’t allow what other people have to say about you to creep in…If you allow people’s criticism or what other people think to infiltrate your mind, you’re going to get stuck. You have to fill yourself with truth, you have to fill yourself with belief. You’re going to have your haters. Everyone is going to have their opinion on you. Fall back to the truth, fall back to what you know about yourself, learn to laugh at yourself. If you make a mistake, learn from it. It’s failure, everybody goes through it. “
Tranquill clawed his way back to the top of the depth chart the next season, starting all 12 games at safety for the Irish and finishing second on the team with 79 total tackles. Ahead of his redshirt junior season, he transitioned to Rover—essentially a linebacker-safety hybrid. For a guy who always loved the most physical aspects of football, it was a fruitful move.
“Coming into Notre Dame, I came in a safety. I was a big safety, like 230 pounds. Eventually, we kinda knew that the style of my game, the way I love to be physical and put my hands on people and attack, I was probably more of a linebacker,” Tranquill says. That season, Tranquill, a team captain, racked up 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 3 passes defensed and an interception.
He could’ve taken a shot at the NFL right then and there. During four years at Notre Dame, he’d endured two torn ACLs, switched positions, and became a lynchpin for one of the best defensive units in the nation. But Tranquill still had a fifth year available due to his injuries, and the coaching staff had an enticing offer for him.
Stay an extra year, be a captain again, and move to Will—a position where he’d line up even closer to the heart of the action, and even occasionally play as an edge defender. For Tranquill, it was an opportunity for growth with a roster returning a ton of talent. He couldn’t pass that up.
But beyond a new set of Xs and Os to master, Tranquill also took the extra year as a chance to reevaluate his leadership style. He’d always believed in setting the bar and simply allowing others to follow. The problem was that the bar was consistently set so high in so many facets, others players had trouble relating. A golden child, a goody two-shoes, whatever you want to call him—the disconnect was real, and it was affecting his influence as a captain. “He almost wasn’t believable, in a sense,” Kelly told reporters in December. “Guys couldn’t identify with (him) because he was this guy they just couldn’t live up to.” Tranquill strived to become more of a relational leader, going out his way to grab meals with teammates of all ages, backgrounds and ability levels.
“Prior to this past season, it was lead by example,” Tranquill says. “Set the standard in everything you do. Be the most in shape, be the best in the classroom, be on time to meetings, never be late, do all these things right and allow others to fall in line. I was realizing that wasn’t the most effective style of leadership. I realized I needed to be more of a relational leader. I truly believe that people don’t care what you have to say if they don’t first know that you care. That kinda hit my heart heavy. It became more of establishing trust with the guys on my team. Grabbing meals. I soon found building relationships with people allows you to be critical, allows you to speak into their lives in some of the hardest times.”
Kelly said he knew 2018 was going to be a special season when Tranquill was able to reach every guy in the locker room. It was special, indeed. The Fighting Irish made their first College Football Playoff appearance and finished with a 21-1 record. Tranquill compiled 86 total tackles, 9 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks while anchoring a stout defensive unit that allowed just 18.2 points per game. After suffering two torn ACLs in less than a year, Tranquill played in 38 consecutive games for the Irish to finish his career.
With his college eligibility exhausted, Tranquill redirected his laser focus toward the National Football League. When STACK met up with him at EXOS in Carlsbad, California ahead of the 2019 NFL Combine, we found an athlete who was very much locked in. Although many prospects struggle with the transition to a stricter diet during the pre-draft process, Tranquill has long been meticulous about what enters his body.
He generally aims for a balance of about 50 percent carbs, 25 percent fat and 25 percent proteins, and avoids sugars, caffeine, fried foods and saturated fats. “If you look at the greats, like Tom Brady and LeBron, these guys who’ve done it for such a long time, (they obsesses over) sleep and nutrition. Things people are like, ‘Well, I’m just talented, I’m not going to worry about that.’ You have to if you want to be elite,” Tranquill says. Tranquill was very much elite at the 2019 NFL Combine, as he was the only linebacker to finish in the top 10 at his position in each of the six major athletic tests.
As if the NFL wasn’t motivation enough, Tranquill has another thing feeding his internal fire—a family. He married his wife Jackie, whom he calls a “special human,” last July, and the two are expecting a baby boy in May. “My top two goals in life (are) to be a God-fearing husband and a God-loving father. And to have that opportunity at such a young age is an honor,” Tranquill says. “I’m not just training for myself anymore. I’m training to provide for a family. I’m training to forge our future.”
While Tranquill’s production in college was prolific, and his Combine numbers magnificent, the mental fortitude required to persevere through two torn anterior cruciate ligaments should not be underestimated. In a league filled with athletic freaks, a resilient mind is often the difference between adulation and unemployment.
“You have to fill yourself with truth. You have to fill yourself with belief. What goes on up here is 90 percent of the battle when you get to where we’re at, this level,” Tranquill says, pointing at his headband-adorned cranium. “Everyone’s good. Everyone’s talented. The people who make it are the guys who believe they’re the best.”
Photo Credit: Chris Williams/Getty Images, Icon Sportswire/Getty Images