Tom Clements was reluctant. So was Frank Allocco. But, reporting early to the practice field one day last spring, the two Notre Dame quarterbacks were overcome by the same irresistible urge that hit Sir Edmund Hillary when he first encountered the Himalayas. True, Ara Parseghian's brand-new portable coaching tower, a wondrous custom-made contraption that had just been erected, was not snow-capped, but soaring majestically out of the flat Indiana plains that morning it looked to the young adventurers like a mini-Mount Everest that just had to be climbed.
So, giddy as two freshmen sneaking an illicit beer in Farley Hall, Clements led his backup man up the tower.
Their hastily plotted scheme was to wait atop the edifice until Parseghian and the rest of the team appeared and then Allocco would do his imitation of the old man, pacing and pointing and hollering in an Armenian soprano voice such touching epithets as "Move your tails" and "Pursuit, pursuit." However, the crisp April breeze whistling around in their helmets blew away some of the spunk. Allocco, gazing at the Golden Dome and suddenly remembering his deathly fear of heights, bravely ventured, "Nice view, huh?" Clements, peering intently in the direction of his home in McKees Rocks, Pa., said, "Yeah."
"Pretty high up here," said Frank, gripping the guardrail tightly. [Pause.]
September 29, 1974
"Yeah," said Tom. [Long Pause.]
"You wanna get down off this thing?" said Frank. [Longer pause.]
"Yeah," said Tom.
So down they came, Clements going first, muttering encouragement to the terrified Allocco and helping him to place his cleats securely on each step. Then, feet once again planted on the good old Indiana terra firma, the two quarterbacks went back to the serious business of defending Notre Dame's national championship.
The lessons to be drawn from this tale are threefold. First, despite all outward appearances, Tom Clements is capable of at least one whimsical moment, however ill-fated, every spring or so. Second, whether the going is up or down, what though the odds be great or small, Tom Clements is a natural leader. And, third, once he gets there Tom Clements is not particularly enamored of the view from the top.
Nevertheless, there he is, the No. 1 quarterback on the No. 1 college football team, climbing into the South Bend firmament as the No. 1 candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
All of which affects him the same way his routinely stellar performance last week did. He had 182 yards passing and 44 rushing in less than three quarters of play in Notre Dame's 49-3 victory over Northwestern, and some witnesses swear that after the game they detected a faint glow of satisfaction in Clements' eye. Others claim that they actually saw a shrug trying to work itself up into a grin. Or was it a suppressed yawn?
One can never be certain with Clements. He has the same range of emotions and expressions as Rockne—the bronze bust version, that is. And there is no missing the rare occasions when he chooses to say more than "yeah"; everyone around him instinctively leans in at a 45-degree angle in order to hear his ultra-soft utterances.
Close friends like Allocco say, "Tommy is so cool that sometimes he seems cold to people who don't really know him." Yet when pressed for a few examples of the red-hot side of Clements' nature, Guard Gerry DiNardo, his former roommate, thinks long and hard and then says, "Well, I saw him kind of pace the floor once. "Center Mark Brenneman believes that after three seasons the players now know when Clements has worked himself up to a fever pitch in a tight game. "Tommy will come into the huddle," says Brenneman, "and he'll say, 'Let's go.' "
Still, it is worth hiring a lip reader to tune in on Clements when and if he can be goaded into talking. His delivery is like his passing—quick, direct, on the mark.
"I'm not outgoing because it's not me," he says. "It's not my type of personality and I don't believe in forcing things. Besides, there's no such thing as emotion." One of his boyhood heroes, he says, was Walt Frazier (Clements was all-state in basketball as well as football in high school) mainly because "he never changes his expression."
As for "the Heisman thing," as he calls it, Clements says flatly, "I don't want it. I wouldn't feel comfortable about winning it. There are other players who are better than I am that no one ever hears about. I just happen to be playing on a great team and anything but a national championship is irrelevant. I don't like all the publicity. I don't care to be singled out. I'd rather go unnoticed."
The humble routine is as old as the flying wedge but with Clements, perhaps because of his deadly earnest gaze or the fact that his most scandalous pastimes are an addiction to TV's Jeopardy and a few racy hands of Hearts or Crazy Eights, one gets the feeling that he really believes what he says about "just wanting to be part of the team." The Fighting Irish certainly do. This season for the first time in 28 years the Notre Dame players elected their quarterback as their offensive captain.
His impassive nature aside, Thomas Albert Clements may in fact be the foremost of a whole new breed of junior executive quarterbacks. It has lately become fashionable for college athletes to play down the rah-rah and talk about "execution" and "in-depth preparation," the way ad men talk about cost per thousand. But Clements is something special if only because of his icy proficiency and the fact that he is playing for a university that has long led the league in the school spirit, legend and laryngitis divisions.
But times change, even in South Bend. It was not too long ago, for example, that an ND student, faced with a hefty increase in tuition, was put on probation for suggesting that the Golden Dome be replaced by a golden cash register. By contrast, the latest issue of The Scholastic, the campus magazine, offers a sassy multiple choice quiz in which the Golden Dome "A) is International Hdq. for the Ultra Ban 5000 Assoc, B) looks best in the rearview mirror, C) is the Catholic Watergate, D) is Hdq. for the 13th Crusade."
There are a few obvious indications of how this new irreverence is expressed on the football field. Last Saturday for example, while the Northwestern players were engaging in the usual jumping, shouting pregame histrionics, the Irish limbered up as casually as a bunch of beachcombers. Though Clements & Co. may be guilty of trying to emulate the pros a bit too much, one thing seems certain: the old gung-ho days when Frank Leahy's lads charged down the field screaming like banshees on every opening kickoff are long gone, at least until their present spiritual leader, Tom Clements, hangs up his low profile.
The Fighting Irish are still capable of whipping themselves into a fine frenzy, as they demonstrated in their 24-23 upset victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last season. For the moment, though, graced with a quarterback who has so far led the team to 21 wins in 24 starts, Parseghian seems wisely content to let the Irish play it cool in the Clements manner just as long as the talk doesn't get in the way of the triumphs.
Rare as they are, hear Clements' words on a few stock subjects.
Success: "Winning is knowing what you can do, preparing yourself to do it and then going out and doing it."
Tradition: "I wasn't concerned with tradition when I decided to go to Notre Dame. I just wanted to come and play and win."
Enthusiasm: "Calmness helps me more than jumping up and down. For one thing, it saves a lot of wear and tear on your body."
Leadership: "I'm pleased that I was elected captain but I don't place any great importance on it."
Pressure: "Pressure is self-inflicted."
The hurt Clements puts on opponents is strictly outer-directed. For all his guru ways, he can be one of the most flat-out exciting players to watch in the college game. "I wouldn't consider Clements a super passer or an outstanding runner," says Bear Bryant, "but he makes the right play at the right time, and that makes a winner."
Bryant should know. It was against his Alabama team that Clements made the big play of 1973, a 35-yard completion from his own end zone in the waning moments of the Sugar Bowl that clinched the national title for Notre Dame. "When I gave him that play," recalls Parseghian, "he just kind of smiled. At least I think it was a smile. He's almost a stoic, you know. Without a doubt, he's the best performer under difficult circumstances I've ever seen."
An agile 6', 185 pounds, Clements perfectly complements an attack that is geared around the quarterback as the fourth runner. Quick and jumpy as a jackrabbit, he doesn't exactly roll out. Nor does he scramble. Clements roams. In Notre Dame's opening 31-7 victory over Georgia Tech, for example, he was seemingly trapped on the sidelines at one point by three tacklers. First a sidestep, then a glancing spin to the left, a twirl to the right and he turned a minor disaster into a major gain.
With a notably stronger passing arm this season, Clements is even more of a threat as a flinger on the run. One of his favorite maneuvers is to roll to the left and throw to the right, a contortionist's move that, as it did last week against Northwestern, often has him throwing with one or both feet off the ground. "Tommy's such a squirmy guy," says Pete Demmerle, the team's leading pass receiver, "that he's almost always able to clear the lane so that I can follow the ball better rather than see it fly out of a crowd."
For ultimate comparisons, ND Athletic Director Moose Krause flips back through his vast memory to other golden Irish quarterbacks he has known—Frank Carideo, Angelo Bertelli, Ralph Guglielmi, Paul Hornung, Daryle Lamonica, John Huarte, Terry Hanratty, Joe Theismann—and finally decides, "Lujack; like Johnny Lujack, Clements thinks he can do anything—and he can."
Coach Ray DiLallo realized that the very first day Clements, without any previous experience at the position, tried out for quarterback at Canevin High School. Within a few games Clements was starting for the varsity as a freshman. "Funny thing about Tommy," recalls DiLallo. "He was the whole team but yet he wasn't happy unless I yelled at him. There was no reason to, of course, but I used to do it because I think it made him feel like one of the crowd. He just didn't want to be lonely."
No one ever got lonely at the Clements' six-bedroom home in McKees Rocks. Like the father, one of Tom's older brothers is a doctor, and another is an engineer. One of his sisters is an anthropologist and another brother and sister are lawyers. "I wake up every morning feeling inferior," says the youngest in the family.
On Easter night 1971 Clements came home to a full-fledged family tribunal at the kitchen table. In turn each member of the Clements clan told him that he should not go to North Carolina to play basketball but to Notre Dame to play football, a sport that offered him more potential for development. Actually, the deal was all but clinched when ND Assistant Coach Tom Pagna came to town a few weeks earlier and ran straight into the piercing glare of the elder Dr. Clements. "You're looking at me just like my father used to," said Pagna. "Wait a minute. Clements? What kind of name is that? I'll bet it was Clementi in the old country. Right?"
Right he was and later, over a spread of eggplant parmigiana, the two paisanos discussed why God and Ara needed young Tom at Notre Dame. Reminded that his quarterback is Irish on his mother's side, Pagna says, "We've overcome that. The part that thinks and throws is Italian."
But even Pagna, who spends most of his waking hours with the team's offense, admits that he does not have the foggiest notion what is going on inside Clements' mind. For instance, does the fact that Clements chooses to bed down in the subterranean chambers of Sorin Hall, the ancient ruin of a dorm where many old football notables like Knute himself once lived, mean that perhaps Tom Clements is a little bit impressed with the legendary sons of Notre Dame?
No one knows and Clements as usual isn't saying. "The only time I ever saw Tommy open up," says Pagna, a dabbler in ESP, karma and all manner of things mystical, "is when I once started talking about reincarnation. I know I used to be Caesar, but I don't know who Tom might have been." Confucius, probably.