Nov. 19, 2010
By Alfred Santasiere III
A yellow sign hangs from the bottom of a narrow staircase. It is mounted on one of many yellow brick walls that support the 80-year-old structure. The message symbolizes the tradition of this institution. It reads: "Play Like A Champion Today."
This is the home locker room at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. a Midwestern city of 100,000 some 90 miles east of Chicago.
That tradition will be on display at Yankee Stadium tonight, when the Fighting Irish renew an old rivalry with the Army Black Knights in the first football game in the Yankees new home.
Notre Dame is built on national championships, and the team has won 11, the first coming in 1924 and the last coming in 1988. Its folklore encompasses 49 members of the College Football Hall of Fame, some of whom have transcended the sport.
"Guys like Knute Rockne, Paul Hornung and Jim Crowley are cultural icons, and that is what distinguishes them from so many other sports heroes," said Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick. "Our players were elevated beyond the game because of their competitive dominance and because of Notre Dame's importance in the Catholic community throughout the nation. Those guys are still larger than life."
Football is celebrated in every corner of the University of Notre Dame campus. From the Irish Green, where nearly 30,000 fans came out for a Friday evening pep rally prior to Notre Dame's Sept. 11 game against the University of Michigan, to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, which holds seven Heisman Trophies and a two-foot bronze statue of the famed Four Horsemen, football is always in the air.
"It's almost like you can hear the echo of Knute Rockne talking to the Gipper when you're there," said former Notre Dame linebacker and Pro Football Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti.
"When you walk around Notre Dame's campus on a fall day, you smell the leaves, you smell the grass and you can feel the people's emotions," said Yankees consultant John Mosley, who played for the Irish from 1980 through 1984, serving as the special teams captain in 1983. "This is what football in America is all about."
Notre Dame's tradition wouldn't be what it is without a fan base that craves every morsel of the football experience. That was never more apparent than in the days leading up to the Michigan game, when Notre Dame head football equipment manager Ryan Grooms opened the University's weekly ritual of repainting the players' gold helmets to the public.
"Each helmet is individually painted," Mosley explained. "There's no assembly line. It's done out of respect, and it's a very special procedure."
Even though fans could only watch the process through iron gates that separated them from the stadium's concourse, they still showed up for hours to watch yet another example of the pride Notre Dame takes in every detail of its football existence. They snapped photos as the helmets were bathed in a concoction that includes actual gold flakes and makes the helmets look new every time the team takes the field.
"The thing that separates Notre Dame from the rest of the teams in college and professional sports is their fans," said Father Theodore Hesburgh, who served as the University's president for 35 years and who was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. "Notre Dame fans are with their team through good seasons and bad seasons. Our fans are never going to give up on Notre Dame."
The Fighting Irish have won 307 games at Notre Dame Stadium, yet the old Yankee Stadium was the site of its fair share of Notre Dame's greatest moments.
In 1925, one year removed from its first national championship, the Notre Dame football squad took on Army at Yankee Stadium. The Fighting Irish were shut out, 27-0, but the exposure that was gained by playing the Cadets in a part of the country that was unfamiliar with their program paid long-lasting dividends.
"Our tradition really began in Yankee Stadium," Hesburgh said. "We took a train from South Bend to play there. We only had 16 players on our team. We were this small team that came to New York to play a perennial powerhouse. That's how we got to be called the `Fighting Irish.' That game catapulted Notre Dame into national prominence."
Notre Dame avenged the loss the next season, defeating Army, 7-0, behind Knute Rockne's hard-nosed team.
On Nov. 10, 1928, Rockne orchestrated his defining moment from the bowels of a chilly Yankee Stadium. Notre Dame and Army were locked in a scoreless tie at halftime when Rockne delivered his "Win One for the Gipper" speech.
George Gipp rushed for 2,341 yards and passed for 1,769 yards at Notre Dame before passing away in 1920 at the age of 25. In perfect sync with the drama of the day, Rockne told his players that, while on his deathbed, Gipp requested that Notre Dame rally for a big win in his memory.
"The last thing he said to me was, `Rock, when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper,'" the coach told his team.
While historians dispute whether Gipp actually uttered those words to Rockne, the speech worked. The underdog Fighting Irish beat Army, 12-6.
"It's a phrase that has stood the test of time," said Brian Kelly, Notre Dame's present-day coach. "It represents playing for each other and for the family, the Notre Dame family."
"That speech came during a game that was extraordinary in terms of national attention," Swarbrick added. "It is a special moment in our history. When you think of Knute Rockne and all of the great things he did, that moment stands out."
Notre Dame's good fortune at Yankee Stadium continued into the mid-1940s as the Irish defeated Army in 11 out of the next 14 contests. But Army turned the tide in 1944, defeating Notre Dame, 59-0, behind the running attack of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. Army trounced Notre Dame again in 1945 -- this time by a score of 48-0 -- en route to capturing its second consecutive national championship.
"Those games were the Super Bowl of that era," said Joe Steffy, who played guard for Army in the 1940s and who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987. "There was no bigger rivalry in sports at that time."
On Nov. 9, 1946, with Army riding a 25-game winning streak, the Cadets took on an undefeated Notre Dame team at Yankee Stadium in what was dubbed the "Game of the Century." Tickets for the game, which were priced at $1, were being scalped for as much as $250 apiece on gameday.
The Fighting Irish came into the game with a disadvantage.
"On the Wednesday before the game, we were doing a pass defense drill, and I stepped into a hole and turned my ankle badly," said Johnny Lujack, the team's All-America quarterback and defensive back. "We practiced at Bear Mountain that Friday, and I was still in a lot of pain. I didn't know if I would be able to play in very much of that game."
Not only did Lujack play in the game, but he made the play of the game. With the teams locked in a scoreless third-quarter tie, Blanchard broke free at midfield, and Lujack was the only defender between the halfback and the end zone.
"I was able to make a shoestring tackle," Lujack said. "Doc said that if his ankle had been better, I wouldn't have gotten near him. I say that if my ankle had been better, I would have caught him earlier."
"When I saw Blanchard picking up speed, I never thought Lujack would be able to make that tackle," Hesburgh recalled. "That added to the lore of Notre Dame and Army."
That was the closest either team came to putting points on the board in the game, which featured a Heisman Trophy winner in Blanchard (1945) and three eventual Heisman winners in Davis (1946), Lujack (1947) and Notre Dame's Leon Hart (1949).
"That was the most fiercely fought game I ever played in," Steffy said. "The teams didn't have very many players back then, so we were in the game for almost every play."
After the scoreless tie, both teams held their positions in The Associated Press rankings until the final week of the season, when Army barely beat unranked Navy, who Notre Dame had defeated, 28-0, earlier that year. The Irish defeated 16th-ranked University of Southern California, 26-6, in their final game. That victory propelled Notre Dame (8-0-1) over Army (9-0-1) in the polls and made the Irish national champions.
Scheduling conflicts and other factors moved the Army-Notre Dame rivalry away from Yankee Stadium until 1969, when Notre Dame thrashed Army, 45-0, in the last contest between the two schools in The House That Ruth Built.
Notre Dame edged Army in all-time Yankee Stadium play, capturing 14 wins while only losing on five occasions. The series also yielded three ties.
In 1963, Notre Dame lost to Syracuse in one of only two games that the Irish played at the Stadium against other teams.
Even though that matchup didn't have the luster of Notre Dame's previous Stadium tilts, it was still a proud day for the players who participated in that game.
"I grew up about 15 miles from Yankee Stadium, and my dad used to take me there when I was a young kid," said Tom Longo, who played quarterback for the Irish. "The first time I walked onto the field, I was just thinking about the guys who had played on that same field, like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio."
"There was more motivation and more pressure than there was for other games," said former Notre Dame offensive lineman John Lium.
In the 41 years since Notre Dame and Army last met at Yankee Stadium, both football programs have had a mix of good and bad fortunes.
Notre Dame won national championships in 1973, 1977 and 1988, but has not been a serious title contender in more than a decade.
Army has not recaptured its glory years of the 1940s, but the team has made four bowl game appearances since 1984, including the 1985 Peach Bowl, which it won.
The sprawling West Point campus, which is located 50 miles north of New York City on the west bank of the Hudson River, is also steeped in tradition. West Point's Michie Stadium holds three Heisman Trophies as well as a display that celebrates noteworthy people associated with West Point's athletic program. That wall includes photographs of one-time West Point assistant coaches Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells.
But West Point's greatest legacy is its military tradition. It was established in 1802 and continues to stand as the world's premier leader development institution.
"West Point is an iconic place among our nation's lexicon of service academies," said Tom Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. "It's known and respected throughout the world."
Although the first part of the 21st century has not been kind to either team, it appears that both are on the rise.
Notre Dame recruited Brian Kelly to be its head coach last December following Kelly's three-year tenure at the University of Cincinnati. During his time at Cincinnati, Kelly posted a 34-6 record, led the school to two Bowl Championship Series games and recorded an undefeated regular-season record in 2009.
"Coach Kelly has brought a new atmosphere," said Kyle Rudolph, who is one of the nation's most highly touted tight ends. "He brought intensity to this program, and our players are more focused on winning than they were in the past."
"This is still about winning," Kelly added. "People are excited because of the way our team is playing. We play hard, and we're disciplined."
Army hired Rich Ellerson in December 2008 following Ellerson's eight-year tenure as Cal Poly's head coach. Ellerson led the school to seven winning seasons before taking over the Black Knight's football program.
In 2009, Ellerson guided Army to a 5-7 record, which was the Black Knight's best season since 1996.
"The values that we are trying to use as developmental experiences have not changed," Ellerson said. "We need to prove that we can compete again because we want young men who have the opportunity to play anywhere to want to play here."
For both teams, tonight's contest at Yankee Stadium will be a landmark game.
"The greatest moments in our history at the old Yankee Stadium happened in games against Army," Swarbrick said. "So we really wanted to play them. But it was even more important to me that we were the first team to play at the new Yankee Stadium. There's going to be a lot of football games played there, but I wanted our team to play in the first one."
"Before the game, we'll be talking about the opponent because we really want to beat Notre Dame," Ellerson said. "This is another iconic moment that our players will experience as West Point football players. We are always trying to make the connection between our storied past and who we are today. This will be one of those times in which our players can reflect on the footprints they are walking in."
And while neither team will be taking the same field as the legends of yesterday, the mystique that surrounds today's Yankees team will not be lost on anyone.
"When you're put in that environment, it brings out your very best," Kelly said.
"When you dress in the same locker room as Derek Jeter, it has to motivate you. Our players will feel that energy when they walk into Yankee Stadium."