Sept. 20, 2013
By Craig Chval, Sr.
They came from places like Ohio and New York and Virginia and Texas and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Oregon and Oklahoma. Forty years later, they're scattered to the four corners of the United States, and beyond.
In 1973, these young men were champions of the college football world, capping an 11-0 season with a heart-pounding 24-23 victory over number-one Alabama in the 1973 Sugar Bowl.
Today, they're doctors and dentists and business leaders and actors and lawyers and state supreme court justices. They were together physically for but a small fraction of the six decades each has spent on earth. But in pursuit of a common goal, they shared an experience that continues to echo to this day.
When those players reflect on their national championship season, talk rarely turns to highlight plays or even epic victories. Instead, they talk about their teammates, their coaches. They talk about the things they learned to do to be successful at football. And they talk about how those things that they learned so well allowed them to be successful at life.
"Notre Dame didn't take people with bad grades, who didn't want to go to class," says Casper, one of only five Notre Dame players to be enshrined in both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame. "It was an environment created by the selection process; they were already good people when they came to Notre Dame."
Turning those good people into national championship caliber players was the responsibility of Parseghian and his staff. Parseghian's Notre Dame resume already included the 1966 national championship and near-misses in 1964 and 1970. But the 1972 season closed with lopsided losses to USC and Nebraska, leaving the Irish with three losses - the most in Parseghian's 11 seasons at Notre Dame.
It also left the Irish with more questions than usual heading into the 1973 season. Notre Dame lost a lot of talent from the '72 squad, as Parseghian and his staff wound up replacing 13 starters from that team, not counting Casper who started at offensive tackle in '72 and was the starting tight end in '73, and Mike Townsend, who started at cornerback in '72 before starting at safety in '73.
Casper was elected by his teammates as one of three captains, along with Townsend and offensive guard Frank Pomarico. He recalls an off-season weight room conversation with assistant coach Mike Stock, in which Stock implored Casper to use his role as captain to encourage his teammates to work hard and stay out of trouble. "'Mike, these are good people,'" Casper remembers telling Stock. "'If you leave them alone, they'll be fine.'
"No one expected us to win a national championship, but we didn't have a problem on the team," says Casper. "The only problem we had was whether we'd be good enough."
Nobody claimed to have an answer to that question during the off-season. Parseghian was concerned about several spots in his revamped lineup, but when fall camp rolled around, in walked perhaps the greatest class of freshman football players Notre Dame has ever seen in the post-World War II era. In a time when there was no such thing as January enrollees, or even summer school and conditioning for incoming freshmen, newcomers Ross Browner, Luther Bradley, Willie Fry and Al Hunter played indispensable roles in Notre Dame's championship. Browner (defensive end) and Bradley (cornerback) were starters from the season opener, while Fry and Hunter made major contributions as reserves, including Hunter's 93-yard kickoff return touchdown in the Sugar Bowl victory.
"We didn't have a lot of great players in the senior class," claims Casper. "We had a few, but not a lot. We had a lot of great players in the junior class and in the freshman class. We just happened to have a pretty good bunch of guys. Our approach to football was show up, suit up and shut up." Doing that allowed those players to absorb the leadership and teaching of one of the greatest coaches in college football history, along with a talented coaching staff - the majority of which was with Parseghian for over a decade.
"Ara was always so well-prepared," says Pomarico. "He would try to find out everything he possibly could, to give us the best chance of winning, whether that was a new offense or a new conditioning approach.
"And that carried over into the rest of my life," Pomarico continues. "In business, I would always research the opposition so I would be able to demonstrate how I would be able to offer a better product or service."
Bob Thomas kicked three field goals and two extra points in Notre Dame's 23-14 victory over USC and then booted the winning field goal in the Sugar Bowl with 4:19 left in the game. In reflecting on Parseghian's coaching brilliance, Thomas saw a coach who was both a master tactician and a great motivator.
"He was the most detail-oriented person I've ever come across," says Thomas, who earned his law degree while kicking for the Chicago Bears and went on to serve as chief justice of the Illinois supreme court. "And he instilled a belief in us that somehow, we were always going to win."
That confidence existed alongside genuine humility, which might seem like a paradox in today's society.
"He conveyed a work ethic and a confidence and a humility," says Thomas. "He taught that when you're not the focal point and you're not the center of attention, you're more successful in life." Townsend recalls a 28-0 victory over Rice in which the players were disappointed in their performance after Parseghian had challenged all 11 defensive players to be in on every single tackle.
"We didn't fulfill his request," explains Townsend, who still holds the single-season interception record. "He had a way of generating that kind of enthusiasm, passion, pride.
"And at the same time, he had a sense of calm no matter what, which is something I've gotten from him and tried to use throughout my life." For his part, Parseghian says he was simply doing what he was hired to do - win football games and uphold Notre Dame's values - not necessarily teach life lessons. "I wasn't thinking in those terms," Townsend says. "I was thinking in terms of what was right and what was wrong and the sacrifices we had to make. I didn't think I was contributing that much."
Brian Doherty saw it differently. A senior punter on the '73 team, Doherty's father passed away during his junior year at Notre Dame. Along with his younger brother, a wide receiver on the team, the Portland, Ore. , native was a long way from home.
"He really became our surrogate father," recalls Doherty, who was the third Notre Dame player taken in the NFL draft following the '73 season. "He was both a football coach and a father figure for us.
"He taught me that when you make a mistake, you have a consequence, to get on without, to step up and deal with it and learn from it and move on," says Doherty. "Ara taught us to be accountable, to him, to our academics and to our families. I've never forgotten that, and those are things I've talked about with my own kids." Pomarico had idolized Brooklyn neighborhood legend Larry DiNardo, who became an All-American offensive guard for Parseghian in 1971. Unable to get scholarship offers from Villanova or Rhode Island as a 6-1, 200-pound lineman at the start of his senior year of high school, it wasn't until May of his senior year that Pomarico received an offer from Notre Dame. He claims that he got the 41st and last scholarship Notre Dame awarded that year.
"I wanted this more than anything in the world," says Pomarico of the chance to play for Parseghian. "We became a group of hungry guys who would do anything for their leader."
That willingness to do anything for Parseghian didn't end when the players graduated. Over the years, they've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation, dedicated to finding a cure for Niemann-Pick Type C Disease, the rare affliction that claimed the lives of three of Parseghian's grandchildren.
Members of the '73 team are back on campus this weekend, and many were on hand last spring when players from all of Parseghian's Notre Dame teams gathered to commemorate his 90th birthday. That occasion gave Parseghian another opportunity to reflect on the impact he's had on his players.
"I guess some of that stuff like work ethic and attention to detail and sacrifice did permeate," he allows. "When you hear from former players that when they run into a rough spot, they ask themselves, `What would Ara do in this situation?' that's pretty humbling.
"You talk about honored - how much more honored could you be than that?"