Nov. 19, 2016
By Craig Chval Sr.
For generations of University of Notre Dame football fans, there were no sweeter words.
Those were the words that accompanied Tim Brown’s scintillating kick returns on his way to the 1987 Heisman Trophy.
They heralded Tony Rice breaking the backs of the undefeated USC Trojans with a 65-yard touchdown run to pave the way to Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship.
They told the world that it was indeed a mistake to kick the ball to Rocket Ismail not once, but twice.
For 26 seasons, Tony Roberts was the radio voice of Notre Dame football, and “Touchdown Irish!!” was how he let millions of Notre Dame fans around the world know that the Irish had reached pay dirt, almost always on the way to a Notre Dame victory.
Today Roberts is back at Notre Dame to be honored in light of his latest professional honor, his induction Thursday into the National Radio Hall of Fame. Among Roberts’ many other honors is the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame’s Chris Schenkel Award, as one of just 22 recipients.
While Roberts is certainly best -known as the voice of Notre Dame Football, his 49-year career included a remarkable variety of headline assignments, ranging from the Olympics to the British Open to the National Football League Game of the Week, as well as stints as play-by-play broadcaster for the Washington Senators, the Washington Bullets and Indiana University and U.S. Naval Academy football.
In short, Roberts lived his dream.
“I wanted to be wherever the game of the week was,” says Roberts, who grew up in the Roseland neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.
Roberts idolized Bill Stern, the longtime NBC sportscaster, who broadcast the first televised sporting event, a baseball game between Princeton and Columbia, and also the first televised college football game.
“My mother thought that because I could add, subtract, multiply and divide, I had to go to work for the Pullman Bank in my hometown of Roseland, Illinois,” Roberts with a laugh. “But I wanted to do radio, and Bill Stern was my hero.”
After graduating with a journalism degree from Columbia College, Roberts set off in pursuit of his dream. He started in Clinton, Iowa, and worked in Macomb, Illinois; Decatur, Illinois; Springfield, Illinois; Gary, Indiana; and Valparaiso, Indiana, before landing a job with WWDC in Washington, D.C., to broadcast the Senators (now the Texas Rangers) and pro basketball’s Baltimore Bullets (now the Washington Wizards).
Roberts credits his years in smaller markets with much of his incredible success.
“I wanted to do it all, and I was doing what I wanted to do.
“You get to do a lot of things, baseball, football, Little League baseball--and Little League baseball is very difficult to do because there is no material, no statistics,” he says, adding that as the broadcaster, he had to approach a Little League game like the whole world was listening.
“It’s like this is the Cubs and the Cleveland Indians and they’re playing in the World Series. When you’re doing a high school football game, you tell yourself that it’s a Notre Dame-Army game or a Notre Dame-Michigan game … you treat every game like a big game.
“Otherwise, you’re just going through the motions, and you can’t do that.”
Nobody ever accused Roberts of going through the motions, as his baritone voice and crisp cadence made for a perfect fit for the electricity of football.
And while “Touchdown, Irish!!” became his signature call, the second game Roberts called for the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium was decided by one of the most famous field goals in Notre Dame history on the game’s final play.
Notre Dame trailed Michigan 27-26 as the clock wound down. The Irish could get no closer than the Michigan 34-yard line with four seconds to play, when Harry Oliver, whose longest career field goal had been 35 yards, trotted onto the field, while Roberts set the scene.
“Left-footed soccer-style kicker … the ball to be spotted down by Koegel at the 41, a 51-yard boot … this is the ballgame …
“The kick is up … it is … good! Good! He made it! A 51-yard kick by Harry Oliver and Notre Dame has won it, 29 to 27!”
Although Roberts did some television work, radio always was his true love.
“I loved radio--it was the theater of the mind,” he says.
“I just didn’t like people talking in my ear--it was disconcerting to me,” he says in reference to television broadcasts. “Sometimes, those guys talking in your ear know less than you do.
“I always did my broadcast the way that I would like to hear it if I was sitting in my rocker, listening to Bill Stern doing Oklahoma-Texas,” says Roberts. “I wanted to do it the way he did it--exciting.”
Roberts and Notre Dame football provided lots of excitement over the years, but a few games stand out in the Hall of Famer’s mind, starting with Notre Dame’s 38-37 comeback win over USC in the Los Angeles Coliseum in the 1986 season finale.
“Timmy Brown was sensational that day, and it really launched his bid for the Heisman Trophy the next year. It was a one-man wrecking crew,” says Roberts of Brown’s performance, which included 212 yards of combined receiving, kickoff return and punt return yardage, as the Irish overcame an 18-point second-half deficit.
“He was like an antelope because he was so sure-footed in the mud,” he says.
Brown’s heroics set up a 19-yard game-winning field goal on the final play of the contest, but CBS had cut away to a commercial.
“Unless you were listening to Mutual Radio, you didn’t know what happened until the game was over,” says Roberts.
Roberts’ other two favorite games were the gargantuan Notre Dame victories over number-one Miami in 1988 and number-one Florida State in 1993, both in Notre Dame Stadium.
“Miami of Florida, that was electric,” he says.
When asked to share his favorite call from a Notre Dame game, Roberts has a ready answer:
“The two favorite calls came from the same game--Rocket running two kickoffs back against Michigan,” says Roberts, of Wolverine coach Bo Schembechler’s ill-fated decision to kick to Irish All-American Raghib “Rocket” Ismail in 1989. “Nobody believed that Bo was going to kick to the Rocket a second time, but he did.”
The disbelief is almost palpable in Roberts’ voice on the call of Rocket’s second touchdown.
“He’s at the 9 to the 10, gets to the 15, the 20, 25 … out of the pack … 30, 35 …
Goodbye, baby! At the 50, the 40, the 30, the 20, the 10 … Bye, bye Rocket! … Touchdown,
Roberts’ broadcasts booths were always business-like, but there was an unmistakable sense of camaraderie.
“You surround yourself with great people,” Roberts says. “There was never a number one or number two in my booth. We were equal--we all depended on each other.”
Two of the people Roberts depended upon most during Notre Dame broadcasts were statistician Buck Jersey--“one of the best ever”--and analyst Tom Pagna, Ara Parseghian’s longtime coaching sidekick who worked hundreds of Notre Dame and NFL games with Roberts.
“Tom was my Google,” says Roberts. “There wasn’t anything I could ask him about football that he didn’t have the answer.”
Over the years, Roberts watched dozens of dignitaries and other people honored on the turf of Notre Dame Stadium. Now, it’s his turn, a fitting exclamation point after a remarkable career that extended far beyond Notre Dame football.
“Notre Dame was the one that really opened up everything for me … it was the crown jewel. We wouldn’t be talking about this (hall of fame induction) without Notre Dame football.
“It’s a tremendous, tremendous honor,” says Roberts. “I would often wonder how those people who were being honored were feeling, what they were thinking.
“It’s humbling … it really is humbling,” he says. “It’s just special … it’s really special.”
And just maybe, for the first time, you think you hear a little catch in that golden voice.
“It means a lot. I love Notre Dame. I really love Notre Dame, and I love the lady on the dome.”
Craig Chval is a former student assistant in the Notre Dame sports information department. A 1981 Notre Dame graduate, he now lives in Columbia, Missouri, and works as associate general counsel at Veterans United Home Loans (www.veteransunited.com).