SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- There were one or two times, around sixth or seventh grade, when Ronnie Stanley would get into the cockpit with Dad and think, This would be really cool to do some day.
Ron Sr. was a pilot for American Airlines. Ronnie had yet to grow into his 6-foot-5.5, 318-pound frame.
"He was going to all these nice places in the world, and just him going there was so surreal," Stanley said, "and it just looked real fun."
Son continued to grow, and Father told him he could only be so big while flying a plane. Son still continued to grow, and that size became part of the reason he would eventually find himself so far away from home.
Stanley, a Las Vegas native, is now in his second year at Notre Dame, his first as a starting right tackle. The Irish were not lacking at that position entering camp, but coach Brian Kelly abided by his declaration that the best five offensive linemen would get on the field. Stanley forced his way there, with returning starter Christian Lombard sliding over to right guard.
His handling of the early transition has raised eyebrows at both Notre Dame and nearly 2,000 miles away back home, where he spurned a handful of closer programs for the Midwest. In the last four years alone, his high school, Bishop Gorman, has sent players to USC, Stanford, Cal, Arizona, Colorado State, UNLV and Fresno State, where younger brother Robert is currently a freshman linebacker.
"I was kind of worried because he went on his official visit and he had never been to a game before at Notre Dame, but we were invited to the banquet," his mother, Juli, said. "I mean, it was so cold that the fields were covered with ice. So personally, I was concerned when he first made his decision. We all thought he'd end up at SC or somewhere back home, but he had made up his mind."
Homesickness never arrived. Calls back West came fewer and further between than the family had initially anticipated. Adversity struck in the form of a preseason ankle sprain and, eventually, elbow surgery, which sidelined Stanley after two early-season appearances, prompting a medical redshirt and a rehab process that his mother described him as "religious" with.
Pain was nothing new. In the 15th game of his senior year at Gorman, Stanley dislocated his left elbow and left for the hospital. He made it back to the home field in time to watch his team clinch the regional title. Two weeks later, he had convinced the staff that he could handle the pain of playing a few snaps in the state title game, which resulted in his Gaels' third straight crown.
"I really can't even describe it," Stanley said of the pain. "One of your arms feels real helpless, like you're playing with one arm. And if your hurt arm gets hit, it's like a whole bunch of needles poking your elbow."
Such toughness serves him well at Notre Dame, where he faces preseason All-America behemoths Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt on a daily basis.
He communicates regularly with Lombard, seeking whatever nuance he can in order to prepare for a specific opponent.
"He's a really good athlete," Lombard said. "That helps a lot if he were to get into a bad position; fundamentally, it's his God-given athletic ability just to get out it in some cases. But obviously he's a good football player and he has good fundamentals."
Basketball was his first love, and he did not leave the game until college. His father, who played football at Tuskegee, helped shift Ronnie's focus from the hardwood (and the cockpit) to the gridiron.
Stanley has called his new locale "pretty much the total opposite" of his hometown. Never was that more evident than this past winter, when the Midwest transplant finally, sort of, cracked.
"I did get a phone call, and the only thing he wanted was a pair of snow boots," his mother said. "So he has not yet complained, 'I wanna come home' kind of thing. So he's in a good place, really. He's happy there and he's a kid that comes from the West Coast — heat and all the lights in Vegas — and Ronnie is fishing on his free time and doing this outdoor stuff, which is really great to see him kind of come into his own."