5:37 PM EST, January 6, 2013
Growing up, Thomas Rayam wanted to be like his older brother, Hardy.
Hardy Rayam was 1,200 miles away in South Bend at the University of Notre Dame, where he was playing defensive end for the Fighting Irish under Dan Devine. It's where he would go on to win a national championship in 1977.
Thomas would roam the hallways of his middle school in Orlando, decked out in his brother's Notre Dame apparel.
"I wore all Notre Dame stuff," Thomas said. "All his socks, all his jackets. I was a Notre Dame fan."
His fascination with his brother and the Fighting Irish grew to such a point that he earned a nickname from his fellow students: Little Hardy. It was a nickname that followed him to Jones High where, like his brother, he would join the football team and play defensive tackle.
However, it was a piece of motherly advice that sent Thomas on a different direction than his older sibling, one that would help him grow up to be his own man.
"My mother was big on go your own way and make your own way," said Thomas, 45, who was highly-recruited coming out of high school, drawing the interest from several schools including Notre Dame.
It was his mother Minnie's words that eventually led Thomas to decide to forgo his childhood dreams of playing at Notre Dame and instead play football at the University of Alabama.
"I wanted to stay in the South," Thomas said about his decision to go to Alabama. "I was grits and gravy so I went to Alabama."
That's not to say that Notre Dame didn't continue to cross his path.
During his freshman and sophomore seasons, Thomas and Crimson Tide played Notre Dame twice, once in Birmingham and the second time in South Bend. It was there that Thomas remembers his big brother Hardy watching him play from the sidelines – the Notre Dame sidelines.
"He was happy to see me play, but he was all for Notre Dame," said Thomas.
Now years removed from the gridiron, the two brothers still support their alma maters with as much passion as they did during their playing days.
It's that passion that has blown into a full-blown sibling rivalry on the eve of Notre Dame and Alabama squaring off in the BCS national championship game in Miami.
"I call him Doubting Thomas right now," the 55-year-old Hardy says with a laugh. "Doubting Thomas believes the game is going to be a wipeout."
The two siblings have been going back-and-forth ever since it became apparent that the two schools could meet here in Florida.
The brothers were back in Orlando a few weeks ago with their respective families and even then, the rivalry was front and center. The two donned football jersey's – Hardy in the familiar blue of Notre Dame and Thomas the crimson of Alabama and posed for a family photo. On the backs were the familiar Rayam name.
Over the weeks, between the phone calls, e-mails and texts, the two brothers have pointed out the reasons why each team will tonight's game.
"I think Notre Dame has one of the best defensive lines in the country," said Hardy, whose daughter goes to Notre Dame. "I was quite impressed with the way they played this year."
He believes Notre Dame hasn't seen an offensive line like the one that Alabama has.
"He [Hardy] wants to say [Manti]Te'o is going to stop our running game," Thomas said. "He hasn't had anyone like [Alabama offensive lineman] Chance Warmack in his face."
While football rivalries may divide them today, one thing that is for certain is that both brothers are on the same page when it comes to giving something back to this world.
It's a lesson they both learned from their parents.
Hardy, a two-time liver transplant recipient, is involved in a mentoring program in Orlando which looks to keep children off of drugs and provide them with positive role models. Thomas and his wife started the Thomas Rayam Football Camp as well as an outreach program called Team Rayam Outreach for Kids.
"My dad used to tell us Rayam Nation is where you live," added Thomas, who lives in Alabaster, Alabama now.
It again goes back to family.
So while the game is going on, both brothers expect to hear from each other with a little good-natured ribbing.
"We will be texting all game long," Thomas said with a laugh.
Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said he thinks his boss, Tide coach Nick Saban, is driven to be one of the greatest coaches in the game.
Saban brushed off the suggestion he wanted to be a titan among college coaches.
"Well, to me it's all about the team," Saban said. "Everything that we've put into this year from the time two days after last year's game to have a team meeting and talk about what that team would be able to accomplish, I think it's really all about trying to get this team in a position to be able to stay focused on the things that
they can control to accomplish and challenge something for themselves."
Different title run
Brian Kelly previously led Grand Valley State to two Division II national championships.
However, Kelly said the path to the BCS National Championship Game was far different than those Division II title runs.
"I think more than anything else, it's the anticipation of the game because there's such a lead-up for this one with all of the media attention, where at Grand Valley State, we were staying at the Best Western," Kelly said. "I don't know that anybody knew where we were. It was just another game. It was the championship game, but it certainly doesn't have the same kind of feel.
"So when you're in a playoff structure like we were at Grand Valley State playing for a national championship, it's the next game. It's the third and fourth game in a row, where this you have such a layoff. So it's a totally different feeling.
"This one you're a little bit more anxious because you want to see your team play again. It's been such a long time. Whereas when you're in a playoff structure, you know what you're going to get from your team because you've been playing week after week."
Luck of the Irish?
With a few close wins this season, some have dubbed Notre Dame a team of destiny.
When Kelly was asked if he thought destiny played a role in the Irish's run to the title game, he responded, "Honestly I don't. I think you get what you deserve. We had some close games this year, but to win those close games versus losing those close games, you have to have more than just luck. You have to have a will, a determination. You have to have a confidence. And I believe that all of those things have to be built. Every one of those words that I just used have to take place within the workings of your program. So if it's destiny, that would be fine with me. I have not built any programs based upon we're going to get good luck or we're a team of destiny."
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