September 24th, 2012

Notre Dame Football Back Where It Belongs


Billy Reed

Executive Editor

Notre Dame Football Back Where It Belongs
photo by Tate Hubbuch

Billy Reed chronicles his trip to Notre Dame-Michigan game

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Over the years I’ve covered a lot of Notre Dame football games as either the sports editor of The Courier-Journal or a writer for Sports Illustrated. In fact, much to my delight, one of the first things I saw when I walked into the Notre Dame pressbox Saturday afternoon was a blown-up copy of the 1990 SI cover story I did on Irish quarterback Rick Mirer after he had engineered an upset over Michigan.

But this was the first time I’d ever been credentialed in South Bend as the representative of the Louisville Catholic Sports Network and its subsidiary, For our still-young undertaking, it was another step toward building our credibility with our sponsors and our readers because Notre Dame remains the center of the Catholic sports world.

Going back to the days of Knute Rockne in the 1920s and ‘30s, Notre Dame has enjoyed a national following known as the “Subway Alumni.” These were the millions of people, many of them poor Catholic immigrants and refugees, who had never even visited South Bend, much less studied at Notre Dame, but who adopted the Notre Dame football team as their own.

Just as poor Kentuckians from Appalachia embraced the UK Wildcat basketball program because it was a beacon of success and excellence in an otherwise impoverished region, so did embattled Catholics from the bowery in New York to the grape orchards near Los Angeles rally around Notre Dame football. When the Irish won, it gave pride to all the struggling Catholic families who were trying to grab a slice of the American dream.

Consider this: When Rockne, Frank Leahy, and Ara Parseghian were winning national football championships at Notre Dame in the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, the Ku Klux Klan was persecuting Catholics, along with blacks and Jews, in more than just the Deep South. In fact, the largest Klan rally in history was held in 1923 at Kokomo, Ind., less than 100 miles from the Notre Dame campus.

And yet, throughout the decades, Notre Dame has remained far more than the home of the only football program with a national base. It has been a bastion of academic excellence and a staunch defender of civil rights for all Americans. It has been an institution that pays more than lip service to the ideals of integrity, honor, and justice.

When Notre Dame made its first trip to Louisiana in 1971 to play the LSU Tigers, I covered the game for SI. Naturally, Tiger Stadium was sold out and most of the crowd was fanatically behind the Tigers. Yet throughout Cajun country, home to more Catholic parishes than almost any other state, there was almost a feeling of reverence for the visiting team.

Long before I converted to Catholicism in 2007, I felt at home at Notre Dame. Don’t ask me why. I’m sure part of it was the hospitality extended to me by Roger Valdiserri, the longtime Notre Dame sports information director, and his assistant, John Heisler. After Roger’s retirement some 15 or 20 years ago, John succeeded him and maintained his high standards. In fact, it was John who greeted me when I arrived in the pressbox for Saturday’s night’s game against Michigan.

Now you cynics out there might be thinking that Heisler credentialed because the Irish are among the schools recruiting the stars from Trinity High’s unbeaten and nationally-ranked team, most notably the splendid wide receiver James Quick. But you would be wrong. I doubt seriously if Heisler even knew much about Trinity because he doesn’t concern himself much with players until they actually sign a Notre Dame grant-in-aid.

No, it was imply because the Notre Dame sports information directors, like Kenny Klein at Louisville, are class acts who encourage coverage of their games and work hard to make journalists feel like honored guests instead of unwanted intruders. That’s as much a part of the Notre Dame tradition as the Golden Dome, the leprechaun mascot, and the Friday night pep rally.

And then there’s the Paul Hornung factor.

As a kid in the early 1950s, I read about his exploits at Flaget High. He and Sherrill Sipes were the stars of the 1952 team that generally was always in the argument about who was Kentucky’s greatest high school football team until Trinity 2011 settled that debate for the immediate future.

At his mother’s behest, Hornung turned down Kentucky’s Paul “Bear” Bryant to play for Leahy (and later Terry Brennan) at Notre Dame. In 1956, he became the first – and still the only – Heisman Trophy winner from a losing team. That was a tribute not only to Hornung’s many skills, but also to the power of the Notre Dame publicity machine. (Another great example was when Valdiserri convinced Joe Theismann to change the pronunciation of his last name so it would rhyme with Heisman).

Known as “The Golden Boy” because of his wavy blond hair and movie-star looks, Hornung completed one of the great careers in football history by becoming the emotional leader of Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers dynasty in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Naturally, I followed him at Green Bay as avidly as I had at Flaget and Notre Dame, all of which served me well when Paul asked me to ghost-write his autobiography – named “Golden Boy,” naturally – in 2005.

But there was still something else that made me feel comfortable at Notre Dame, something more elusive and difficult to define. I loved everything about the campus – the huge mural of “Touchdown Jesus,” the grotto, the Basilica. I liked the marriage of sports and spirituality, a proposition that others have tried to emulate but only seems natural at Notre Dame. Who knows? Maybe I was Catholic long before I joined the church.

I’d like to be able to tell you that Notre Dame’s 13-6 win over Michigan Saturday night was partly because the players were excited about having in the pressbox, but not even the most gullible nun would buy that. I can report, however, that I maintained my professional standards and refrained from cheering in the pressbox, even after Michigan’s Denard Robinson, a one-man Irish wrecking crew for three straight years, threw his fifth interception of the evening. 

I will confess, however, that I was completely charmed by the very Notre Dame story of senior linebacker Manti Te’o. He’s a Mormon who went to President Obama’s high school in Hawaii. That alone makes him a good story. But the poor kid was recently devastated by the tragedy of losing both his grandmother and his girl friend within the space of 24 hours. 

At the pep rally on Friday night, students were given leis to wear to the Michigan game to show their love for Te’o and solidarity with him. I’m not sure how many leis were given out, but it seemed as if just about every tailgater in the parking lot was wearing one before the game. 

Amazingly, Te’o responded with the game of his life, intercepting two passes and making eight tackles against the Wolverines. It was the stuff of movies – a sequel to Rudy. Notre Dame is hardly the only place where these stories happen. But it seems they happen at Notre Dame more than any other place. 

After my friend Tate Hubbuch snapped some photos of the post-game celebration, including Te’o being interviewed by NBC’s Alex Flangan, we took off for Louisville. After grabbing a few hours’ sleep in Kokomo – yes, the city where that massive Ku Klux Klan rally was held in 1923 – we got back home in plenty of time for me to catch the 125th anniversary Mass at my home parish, St. Frances of Rome. 

Now comes the Trinity-St. Xavier game Friday night at Louisville Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Like almost every football-playing Catholic high school in America, both schools have modeled their programs after Notre Dame, where schoolwork, sports, and spirituality all have their own special place. 

My pilgrimage to South Bend accomplished, I can now look forward to the rest of the football season. The Irish are 4-0 and, according to the experts, may be headed for one of the top bowl games. In other words, Notre Dame is back where it should be and college football is all the better for it.


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