- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Troy Niklas had just returned from a week-long senior retreat at Servite (Calif.) High. Family and friends awaited back at the chapel to greet the teenagers. Niklas was among those who spoke upon the group's arrival, and he had his mother, father, sister and sister's boyfriend in the audience.
As he finished his speech, he looked at each in a moment of gratitude.
"Hey Mom," he said, "love ya."
"Hey Dad," he continued, "love ya."
"Hey Tara," he said to his sister, "love ya."
"Hey Shawn," he waved to Tara's boyfriend (and now-husband).
A interminable moment of silence set in, laughter filled up the room and Niklas had, again, captured a crowd with his unmistakable wit.
Three years later, not much has changed for the now-6-foot-6½, 270-pound Notre Dame junior. Niklas has been among the Irish's biggest surprises this season, the latest in line at a place that has churned out pro tight ends like few others in recent years. His 20 catches for 328 yards are both third-best on the Irish, and his five touchdown grabs are one fewer than team-leader TJ Jones.
He has opened things up for Notre Dame on the field while keeping the vibe loose off it, be it with his attire or his one-liners, remarks that often relax the sometimes-awkward scene of dozens of reporters huddled around a player nearly twice their size, in search of any bit of information.
"He kind of gets it from his father," quipped Troy's father, Don. "I think a compassionate person is part of it, and that's a huge part of his personality, in terms of he wants people to feel comfortable. I think that is one of the driving forces behind being able to be fun-loving and communicative to a point where he wants other people to feel comfortable."
Niklas has made himself at home all over the field. His high school career featured time as an offensive guard, and he was recruited by Notre Dame as a defensive end. He started one game as a freshman for the Irish at outside linebacker and switched to the other side of the ball before last season, when he bided his time behind eventual first-round pick Tyler Eifert.
"All the other times Troy's just a nice guy, he's a very funny guy, he's always very popular at school and on our team," said Troy Thomas, Niklas' coach at Servite. "But once he got on the field he's just a different guy, he turned it on. He was that way at practice, and he's that way in the games. You just buckle up the chin-strap. He's still going to have fun out on that field, but he's definitely got a different mode to him."
Nicknamed "Hercules" for his physique, Niklas' motor became the source of viral attention this summer when video of him tossing a blocking sled circulated across the internet -- this in the days after the social-media world had become in awe of South Carolina end Jadeveon Clowney flipping one with the help of a teammate.
Niklas' feats of strength extend outside campus, with the Fullerton, Calif., native recently spear-heading a team effort for a service project at the South Bend Center for the Homeless, single-handedly raising nearly $3,500. As a senior at Servite, an all-boys Catholic school, he became a prior in the school's Priory program. In charge of roughly 80 kids, Niklas initiated a distribution idea, helping make about 800 goodie bags of toothpaste, toothbrushes, candy bars, first-aid items and pamphlets with religious cartoons to be handed out to homeless people students would pass by on the road.
That same year, Niklas lifted Servite to a 14-1 record and a second straight division title, a run that featured a memorable midseason touchdown off an interception from Mater Dei and future USC quarterback Max Wittek.
A score so memorable that, when prompted about the pick three days before this year's USC game, Niklas livened up an otherwise tight rivalry-week interview session with a much-needed infusion of dramatic color.
"I did," he said of the pick. "And ran it for a touchdown."
"In front of 30,000 fans, too," he added in an overstatement, just warming up.
"And it was on TV," he continued.
"And it was a big rival game."
"Oh, oh, oh, and by the way, we did win that game. But what do I know?"
This dalliance with the media lacked the farcical mustache he had grown out for a brief period of time a year earlier. And though fully clothed -- unlike the pre-Michigan pep rally last year, in which he ripped off his shirt and declared his love for pain -- Niklas' top did not say, "Beef: It's what's for breakfast," the phrase plastered on a shirt he wore to an interview one month earlier.
After the USC game, in which he had four catches for 58 yards and a score, Niklas emerged from the locker room in a flannel button-up, standing out among peers mostly decked in team-issued polos. He joked about having bragging rights over his mom, uncle and many other USC alums in his family.
In closing another exchange with a reporter who had a Spanish accent, Niklas caught everyone off-guard by saying, "Yo soy fiesta," a phrase popularized by New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, seemingly the life of every party.
"It comes very natural for him," Don Niklas said. "He doesn't try to be funny, it's just the way our minds work."
14dEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf