Nov. 19, 2010
What is the most overshadowed, underrated or overlooked play in Notre Dame football history?
A good answer might be Jack Elder's school-record 100-yard pass interception return for a touchdown in the Nov. 30, 1929, Notre Dame-Army game.
Think about all the factors in that contest where so much was at stake:
1. Last game of the season in front of a capacity crowd of 79,408 fans in New York City's esteemed Yankee Stadium.
2. The opponent was the archrival, the Army Cadets, whose coach, Biff Jones, had announced his departure after the 1929 season. Army was determined to send him out with a victory.
3. For the 8-0 Fighting Irish, who had played every game away from campus while Notre Dame Stadium was under construction, it needed to defeat Army to clinch a consensus national title.
The play by Elder tends to be overshadowed because too many other games in Notre Dame-Army lore seem to supersede it:
In 1913, Notre Dame's 35-13 victory at Army on the strength of quarterback Gus Dorais' passing to end Knute Rockne was a watershed moment in the program's history while grabbing East Coast headlines and putting it on the map.
In 1920, Notre Dame senior halfback George Gipp, the school's first player to earn Walter Camp first-team All-American honors, had his greatest day as a college football player when he rallied the Irish from a 17-14 halftime deficit against Army to a 27-17 triumph. Gipp rushed for 150 yards, completed five of his nine passes for 123 yards, returned a punt 45 yards to set up a score, amassed 332 all-purpose yards, kicked three extra points, averaged 43 yards per punt and recovered a fumble on defense.
In 1924, New York Herald-Tribune sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote his famous "Four Horsemen" piece that immortalized the Notre Dame backfield comprised of halfbacks Jim Crowley and Don Miller, fullback Elmer Layden and quarterback Harry Stuhldreher. It occurred during a 13-7 victory against Army at the Polo Grounds and helped catapult the Irish to their first consensus national title.
The year prior to Notre Dame's showdown with Army in 1929, a reeling Irish team in 1928 was implored to "Win one for the Gipper," by head coach Knute Rockne against the unbeaten Cadets. The "Gipper" was the aforementioned 1917-20 halfback Gipp, who died shortly after his senior campaign in which he led Notre Dame to its second straight unbeaten season. Indeed, in 1928 Notre Dame pulled off a 12-6 upset of an Army team that a year earlier had whipped the Irish, 18-0.
Finally, in 1946, the last meeting between Notre Dame and Army in Yankee Stadium until 1969, the No. 1 Cadets and No. 2 Irish had a scoreless tie. The game's most memorable play was the tackle made in the open field by Notre Dame's John Lujack against Army's Felix "Doc" Blanchard. The most famous tackle in Irish annals helped head coach Frank Leahy's Notre Dame squad capture the national title that season.
Amidst all those famous moments in the Notre Dame-Army series history, Elder's 1929 play tends to get dwarfed in Irish lore. But no single play in the series was more significant in determining the outcome of a national title.
One month prior to the 1929 game, the stock market collapse ushered in the onset of The Great Depression in American history. Nevertheless, the arrival of the unbeaten Notre Dame team for its season finale in New York City against Army was as anticipated as ever. According to Murray Sperber, author of the 1993 book Shake Down The Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football, the New York Herald-Tribune banner-headlined "300,000 SEEK TICKETS TO NOTRE DAME GAME" and noted that "New York has never seen anything like the demand for admissions to the big game."
It was a remarkable comeback campaign after Rockne's worst finish the previous year at 5-4, closing with 27-7 and 27-14 losses to Carnegie Tech and USC, respectively. In 1929, the Irish avenged those setbacks with hard-fought victories at Carnegie Tech (7-0) and at Chicago's Soldier Field versus the Trojans (13-12).
Meanwhile, Rockne was waging his own personal battle with phlebitis, which restricted his movement and access on the practice field and prevented his attendance in most of the games, including the finale at Yankee Stadium against Army.
Part of the reason he was advised by doctors to stay home was because of the inclement weather at that time of the year. The day of the Notre Dame-Army game, the Yankee Stadium field was icy and the wind-chilled temperature was well below zero.
Prohibition was given a respite for those in attendance at the game, according to the Herald-Tribune, which wrote: "The New York policemen, apparently from humanitarian motives, considered the contents of flasks as medicinal."
Notre Dame's final remaining obstacle to the 1929 national title was the annual showdown with Army. The Cadets were eager to avenge their 12-6 "Win one for the Gipper" loss to Notre Dame a year earlier that ended Army's 11-game winning streak.
During the second quarter of the 1929 showdown that had remained scoreless, an Army rush on an Irish punt set up the Cadets at the Notre Dame 13. On a day where opportunities to score were almost non-existent, the Cadets had the game's first chance. On third-and-8 from the 11, star halfback Chris Cagle scrambled with the ball to his right before throwing across the field to intended receiver Carl Carlmark for what had the makings of a touchdown -- until Elder cut in front of him, grabbed the toss and raced past his pursuers with his Olympic-caliber speed for what has been listed as anywhere from 95 to 100 yards (the 2010 Irish record book has it as 100).
Earlier that spring, Elder finished fifth in the 100-yard dash at the NCAA Championships held at Stagg Field in Chicago. The champion, Ohio State's George Simpson, was one of the world's pre-eminent sprint men. Elder's speed served him well on the return when it appeared at least two Army defenders had an angle to catch him along the sideline.
It was a potential 14-point swing with the game -- and national title -- hanging in the balance.
The 7-0 outcome in 1929 wasn't a staggering offensive display like the one in 1913, or the one Gipp put forth in 1920. No Four Horsemen were borne from the outcome, no Gipper speech was given, and it wasn't quite a 1 vs. 2 showdown like in 1946.
But Elder's play and Notre Dame's victory capped an amazing campaign. No other team in major college football has won a national title while playing all of its games away from its campus.
Elder died Dec. 6, 1992 at age 86 while heading to a Notre Dame communion breakfast in Palm Springs, Calif.
"He died wearing his Notre Dame cap with the '29 on it and his Notre Dame tie and all his Notre Dame people around him," said his widow, Kay. "He had a wonderful life."
After graduating from Notre Dame, Elder worked for Sinclair Oil (later Arco Oil) until his retirement and helped run the athletic program of the Catholic Youth Organization at the request of the local bishop in southern California. In 1954, Elder, the father of 10 children, was the president of Notre Dame's National Monogram Club, and in 1987, he received Notre Dame's prestigious Harvey Foster Man of the Year Award for distinguished service to the community and the university.
That didn't even include helping win a national title in football.