A Son Remembers His Father’s Love of Notre Dame Football

Shortly after 8 p.m. in Atlanta, Georgia on September 2, another season of Notre Dame football began.

This is a milestone season, at least for me. This is Notre Dame’s 20th season since my dad passed away on February 3, 1987. My dad did not attend Notre Dame, never even stepped foot on the campus. But like the tens of thousands of “Subway Alumni” who root for the team, he loved the Irish, loved everything about them.

I never asked my dad why he became a Notre Dame fan because we didn’t talk about many things, but it’s not hard to figure out. After all, when you grow up Irish and Catholic, you learn at a young age to worship at the altar of the Touchdown Jesus. Who else are you going to root for but Notre Dame? He passed on his love of Notre Dame to his eldest son.

My dad was born in 1924, the same year Grantland Rice penned perhaps the most famous lead in the history of sports writing. On October 19, 1924, he wrote the following words in the New York Herald:

“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out on the green plain below.”

Ah, they don’t write like that anymore. I get chills every time I read those words, the same way I get misty-eyed during the scene in the movie “Rudy”, when Rudy’s father walks into Notre Dame Stadium for the first time, takes his seat in the end zone section and proclaims, “this is the most beautiful site these eyes have ever seen.”

Like Babe Ruth’s Yankees, Notre Dame achieved an almost larger-than-life persona in the 1920s, 30s and into the 40s. That certainly isn’t the case anymore, with the Irish having gone 18 years since their last national championship. I suspect a lot of people my dad’s age become Notre Dame fans because of all the winning when they were kids.

Recently, I saw a T-shirt with the following words written on the back – “If you could bottle the Notre Dame spirit, you could light up the universe.”

Might that be considered a bit arrogant, a little over the top? Without question. Notre Dame is not without its critics, who believe the Irish are
holier than thou, preaching from their pulpit about ethics and morality. The school’s image took a hit when coach Tyrone Willingham was fired iin 2004 after just three seasons. Notre Dame fans have been known to be obnoxious. Well, once in awhile.

But my dad believed in that so-called Notre Dame spirit, believed in the mythology, believed that Notre Dame was capable of performing super-human deeds. He also believed Notre Dame should win every game by at least four touchdowns. The Irish would be overpowering some hapless opponent, 35-3, midway through the third quarter and he’d shake his head. “Gotta put some more points on the board,” he’d say.

On the flip side, my dad could convince himself that Notre Dame would be worthy of a bowl game even if it went 2-9. “They’d still get good ratings,” he’d argue. I think he actually believed it too.

My dad never missed a Notre Dame game, and I mean never. Today, every Notre Dame contest is on television somewhere. The school even has its own network (NBC). But that wasn’t the case back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Irish would be on TV maybe two, three
a season. On most Saturdays, my dad listened to the Irish on radio.

There were two coaches my dad disliked. One was USC coach John McKay and the other was Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. I could understand why he would not like McKay. USC always was – and still is – Notre Dame’s biggest rival. From 1964-1976, the Notre Dame-USC game was the country’s preminent intersectional rivalry and often had national championship implications. Mother Theresa could have been the USC coach and my dad wasn’t going to like her. From a Notre Dame perspective, McKay was easy to dislike. He was the face of the USC program during that era.

However, I couldn’t quite figure out why my dad disliked the “Bear”. I think he thought southern football in general was overrated. Whenever
Bryant’s name came up, he would get this mischievous look in his eyes. “How many times did Bryant beat Notre Dame,” he would ask anyone who would listen.

Any Irish fan worth his weight knows that Bryant never beat Notre Dame. He was 0-4 against the Irish, including the memorable 1973 Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Eve. As I think of the hundreds of Notre Dame games my dad watched and listened to, my mind flashes back to that night at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans.

My parents never did much entertaining but they did have a party that evening to celebrate the new year. My dad played the role of the gracious host but he also had to keep focused on the Notre Dame game. The Irish were nursing a 24-23 lead when an Alabama punt pinned them back at their 2-yard line with three minutes remaining.

Two running plays netted no yards and Notre Dame was facing a third-and-long. Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian could have played it safe. He could have called a running play, punt and then hope the Irish defense could prevent Alabama from getting into position to kick a game-winning field goal. Instead, Parseghian threw caution to the wind and Notre Dame clinched the victory with one of the most famous plays in school history.

Quarterback Tom Clements completed a 36-yard pass to wide receiver Robin Weber with 2:12 remaining that moved the Irish out from their shadow of their own end zone and they were able to run out the clock. The Irish had upset the top-ranked Crimson Tide and climbed from fourth in the Associated Press poll to to win their second national championship under Parseghian.

To this day, I remember the look on my dad’s face. He was beaming with pride. Not only had the Irish won but they did it in swashbuckling fashion. That, after all, was the Notre Dame way.

The pass to Weber was vindication for Parseghian, who came under intense criticism seven years earlier when he elected to run out the clock in the famous 10-10 tie against Michigan State. The tie was enough to give Notre Dame the national championship, since it was ranked first going into that “Game of the Century” and did not lose. But many pundits scoffed at Parseghian’s strategy, suggesting that he tied one for the Gipper. He was called a coward. Of course, my dad thought Parseghian was 100 percent correct. After the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, he decided Parseghian could walk across Lake Michigan and cure cancer.

My dad continued to follow Notre Dame players in the NFL and his two favorites were Joe Theisman and Joe Montana.

In the 1960s, my dad and his neighbor would rent a hotel room up the line in Connecticut to watch the New York Giants games, which were blacked out in New York. Yet he rooted against the Giants during their first Super Bowl season when they beat up on Montana’s San Francisco 49ers and Theisman’s Washington Redskins in the NFC playoffs. I actually was a little upset with him.

I told him, “You’ve followed the Giants for years and now that they have a chance to end more than 20 years of futility, you’re going against them?”

But he wouldn’t budge.

“I have to root for the Notre Dame players,” said.

That was my dad. Nine days after the Giants defeated the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI, he was gone.

Twenty years ago, Lou Holtz was beginning his first season as Notre Dame coach. It would be my dad’s last. Fittingly, his final game was the dramatic season-ending 38-37 victory over USC, when the Irish rallied from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Two years later, Holtz
coached Notre Dame to its last national championship. My dad did not live to see the return to glory.

So as Notre Dame begins this season of high expectations, a season in which some observers actually believe the Irish have a shot at ending the national championship drought, I think of my dad. Every year during the week of the first game, I visit his grave. It’s my little ritual, my way of kicking off the season.

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