Talk about your party poopers. Here were all these revelers fixing to whoop it up, when a gang of intruders from Pittsburgh crashed the Notre Dame homecoming game and threatened to turn it into their celebration. Brushing aside the Irish bouncers, Pitt's gate-crashers had bullied their way into the fourth quarter and held a 17-7 lead. The party could not have been more somber if someone had spiked the punch with novocaine.
Was there no respect for tradition? For all the dramatic comeback victories that were preserved in the fuchsia prose of countless ND chroniclers? Had no one read of the old "do-or-die fighting spirit," that "special something that separates Notre Dame football from the rest"? What was at stake here was not losing a hard-fought battle to a superior foe. That was just a venial sin. No, what was being committed was the most grievous, Knute forgive them, of transgressions: the Fighting Irish—weren't fighting.
Or so it seemed to one Old Grad who had returned to the yellow-brick stadium for the first time since his mustering out in 1955. True, he was spó¬ßiled; during his four seasons on campus the Irish lost only five of 40 games. And he was admittedly suffering from alumnesia, a convenient affliction that causes past defeats to fade from memory while the victories flower into the kind of rosy legends that no mortal team could ever live up to.
Still, there was no absolving the 1978 Irish. Just five games into the season the defending national champions had not only slipped out of the Top 20 rankings but also seemed bent on sliding to their third loss. Pitt, undefeated and ranked ninth, was favored, but that only made them an ideal patsy for the expected upset. After all, this was Notre Dame, guardians of all that is sacred in the game, the team ordained to wake up the echoes and shake down the thunder.
October 21, 1979
The Old Grad learned that lesson on his very first day on campus in 1951. They called it freshman orientation, but it was really a festival of fan training films. First, there were flickering newsreel clips of the Four Horsemen. No matter that the fabled four, whose average weight was 162 pounds, looked more like Shetlands. They were bigger than life, the stuff of legends, and if there were any doubters they only had to wait for the feature, Knute Rockne, All-American, and Pat O'Brien delivering the Rock's famous halftime speech: "Go out there and crack 'em! Crack 'em! Crack 'em! Crack 'em! Fight to live! Fight to win! Win! Win! Win!"
Not that even three-months-removed high schoolers had needed the tutoring. The ties to the storied past reached directly into the Old Grad's freshman dorm where, late of a night, his roommate, Chet Wynne Jr., would retell how his father scored the winning touchdown in the Gipper's last game. Sons of the Seven Mules lived down the hall, and there was never any doubt that everyone would graduate summa cum rah rah.
Like Trappists in white bucks, students were governed by stiff rules that required the electrical power in dorm rooms to be shut off at 11 p.m. Cars were forbidden. Dating was a rare luxury, and beer on the breath grounds for expulsion. The 10 p.m. bed check and compulsory attendance at mass were overseen by the jocks, and the Old Grad would forever recall the time he was awakened at dawn by Tackle Frank Varrichione. Looming in the doorway like a hairy avenging angel, he wanted to know why the "playboy" wasn't in the chapel. Within moments, he was.
The drill was simple: study on weekdays, scream on weekends. And scream everyone did, often led by Coach Frank Leahy, who liked to remind the "lads" that the "Lady on the Dome is watching us." When one student met Leahy, the walking legend, on campus, he was too awestruck to speak, so he did the next most natural thing. He genuflected.
The Old Grad, having later matriculated in the school of hard reality with a minor in cynicism, had a different reaction as he arrived in South Bend on the eve of the Pitt game: none of that gushy rah-rah stuff for him. Yet barely had the Old Grad traversed the quadrangle when it was clear that Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again. The Rockne Memorial, the Log Chapel, the Old Firehouse with the room Leahy once stayed in preserved intact—all the monuments of his youth—were just as the Old Grad left them.
In fact, like the historic fire escape that Paul Hornung, doing his Gipp number, used to sneak in after curfew, every landmark linked the past to a present that seemed reassuringly impervious to change.
But wait. Was that a young lady the Old Grad saw dashing into Walsh Hall, his senior dorm? Venturing inside, he peeked into his old room and there on the radiator where he used to dry his sweat socks was the frilly evidence that Notre Dame was indeed fostering a feminine mystique. More startling still, as the Old Grad reeled outside he spotted one of the lads actually holding hands with a coed. Egad, the old monastery had become a Club Med franchise!
Even Badin Hall, the Animal House of the 1950s, was sporting lace curtains. While visiting the top floor the Old Grad met roommates Fran Coughlan and Adrienne Marshall and grandly informed them that in 1953 he resided in the very next room. Encouraged by their awed expressions, he told them how the devilish Badinites of old climbed to the roof to store their contraband beer in the snow-filled gutters, how they fired rockets out the windows and....
"Wow!" Fran interrupted, "1953. We weren't even born then."
Abruptly silent, the somewhat older Old Grad skulked off, stopping at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, where, as always, the faithful were lighting candles to ensure that the Irish would work yet another miracle victory-Spirits uplifted, the Old Grad then joined the throng following the Notre Dame band on its traditional roundup tour for the big pep rally in Stepan Center. Coach Dan Devine, not one for fiery speeches, was a no-show. But Digger Phelps, the funeral director's son turned basketball coach, was a suitably wild-eyed sub, directing cheers and shouting into the mike, "They say that Notre Dame is dead. Well, The Undertaker is here to tell you that we are alive and well!"
Perhaps it was because of the cheerleader who looked like June Allyson, or maybe it was the fireworks blossoming in the night sky, but the pregame delirium was such that the Old Grad felt like an extra in one of those idealized campus pigskin movies of the '50s. Indeed, the scenes—the glee club belting out Hike, Notre Dame; the crackly voice of Rockne booming from a dorm stereo ("Fight to live!"); the student barbecue stands; the strolling bagpipers; the dorm bands—might well have been staged by Cecil B. O'Mille.
But then the game began, and as the delirium gave way to the doldrums of the fourth quarter, it was sadly apparent that this was a flick in dire need of a socko finish, some kind of deus ex machismo that would fire up the Irish. For one awful moment the Old Grad considered sneaking out the exit.
Then it happened. During a pileup, Guard Tim Huffman suffered a neck injury and had to be helped from the field by his older brother, Dave, the All-America center. Risking a delay of game penalty, Dave refused to leave his brother's side, saying, "We've got more centers than I've got brothers." To which Tim replied (chroniclers take note): "Get your ass onto that field and play football!"
Back in the huddle, Dave Huffman spoke emotionally of brotherly love. "If this doesn't get us stirred up," he concluded, "nothing will." Blocking with a vengeance, Huffman helped clear the way for Jerome Heavens, who broke Gipp's career Irish rushing record of 2,341 yards as he ran for 21 yards on four successive plays. Then Joe Montana, en route to completing seven of seven passes for 110 yards in the final 14 minutes, capped an electric 86-yard scoring drive with a toss to Kris Haines. Pitt 17, ND 13.
Yelling as of yore, the Old Grad fancied that Cecil B. had revved up the Hike, Notre Dame sound track and was splicing in the sound effects and quick cuts of the ND heroes in action.
Whap! Dean Masztak grabs a 22-yard pass. Pop! Montana plunges in from one yard out. Ooofff! Case recovers a Pitt fumble. Zip! Ferguson snares a quickie pass in the end zone. Zap! Waymer picks off an interception. Bang! Final score: ND 26, Pitt 17.
The rest was all beery reverie, beginning with the post-game party for the Class of '55 in the athletic center. Amid the raucous back-clapping my classmate Dave Metz stood strangely mute, rolling his eyes and gesturing feebly as if senility were hard upon him. Cupping his hands around the Old Grad's ear, Metz said in a halting whisper, "I've...yelled...myself...hoarse." Don't worry, someone told him, Varrichione would stop by his motel room for the 10 p.m. bed check and teach him how to scream again.
Then, like refugees from Happy Days, the Old Grad and several classmates and their wives made the rounds of the tailgate and camper parties. Next came the alumni ball, and after many puffing two-step turns and racy dips, the party moved on to the Whistlestop restaurant.
Jim O'Shea, raising his fine Irish tenor to the rafters, almost literally broke up the joint with a rousing Macnamara's Band that had everyone in the restaurant beating on the crockery to make the drums go bang and the cymbals clang. At one point, somewhere between the first and 38th toast to the loyal sons of Notre Dame, the Old Grad pondered, if this isn't what homecomings are supposed to be all about, then why did he feel like a sophomore again?
At Mass in Sacred Heart Church the next morning, the sermon helped put everything into perspective. The theme was perseverance, hanging in there though the odds be great or small. To despair in the face of adversity, the priest said from the pulpit, was "like walking out before the fourth quarter was over." From the pew where the duly penitent Old Grad sat came a muttered "Amen."