Life's struggles for 6-year-olds have always included the task of enlisting adults in their games. In the fall of 1945, my friends and I wanted desperately to play football. Our recruiting efforts were seriously impeded by the fact that many fathers had been caught up in a different draft and were off helping some mysterious uncle. Of course that left the mothers, but the thought of chasing or being chased by your mother was, for us, altogether too close to the circumstances of everyday life.
Still, in our desperate quest for some leadership on the gridiron, we knew it would have been sheer foolishness to rule out the entire female population. And so it was that, on Roosevelt Avenue in the north end of Waterville, Maine, we found a woman who was willing and able to play football. It neither mattered nor impressed us that she was 92 years old.
Margaret Ferriter Abbott—we called her Abby—was born in 1853 in County Kerry, Ireland. She had come to the United States at the age of 18. Ulysses S. Grant was President. My friends and I didn't get to know her until about 70 years later. She was, I still recall, a woman of considerable passion—for storytelling, salt water and holy water, for anything Irish and, to our constant delight, the game of football.
We descended upon her with some regularity. To be sure, her molasses cookies were part of the attraction, but even more appealing were the stories that she told in what was to us a curious rolling brogue. We often caught her thumbing through her black wooden rosary beads and would watch in pretended patience as she worked her way to the crucifix. Finally, animated by waves of her hands and gales of laughter, the stories would begin. The best were first-person accounts of events that were, by that time, already in the history books. Even the reruns were terrific. She was a big, handsome woman with broad features and an infectious smile. Blue eyes glistened behind spectacles which sat upon two round cheeks and a generous nose. Her uncommonly large ears were too often the subject of my impolite gaping.
November 11, 1985
Her passion for water came from the Irish connection. It is unlikely that anyone ever made better or more liberal use of holy water. She kept a considerable supply, quite willingly provided by the local priest at nearby Sacred Heart Church. If we didn't feel well, we got a sprinkle. Every scratch or bruise—and there were plenty—got a sacred rubbing. On hot summer days when thunderstorms approached, we would rush to her house, retreat to the dark living room and be suitably protected by Abby's splashes of holy water. There we sat, so many small, damp lightning rods, as she petitioned the Lord to keep us from harm.
Abby's penchant for salt water was satisfied by our proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. My family made frequent trips to nearby Belfast, Maine, and my brother and I would unfailingly smuggle home a pop bottle filled from the tide. Upon receipt of our gift, Abby would solemnly remind us that the contents had "washed the shores of dear old Ireland," and then, to our everlasting astonishment, she would drink it!
Not only did she occasionally taste Ireland, but every once in a while Abby would also take a look at it. This amazing feat required an excursion to a hillside half a mile away. Sometimes she would take me. Her large hand would engulf mine, and we would help each other trudge through the fields, her billowing petticoats and flapping skirt often cutting off my view. When, huffing and puffing, we at last reached the right spot, she would point the tip of her cane directly at an old red barn on the hillside. "Over there," she would say positively, "is Ireland." Geography was not my long suit. On tiptoes, squinting and leaning from side to side, it always took some time before I could see Ireland, too.
Best of all, Abby played football. And she was enthusiastic. She would grab her wooden cane and, with the help of half a dozen of us jumping around her skirts, it usually took the whole crowd an eternity of five minutes to move the 50 feet from the front porch to the playing field on her side lawn.
She actually knew very little about the fine points of the game. We didn't know much either, and that shared shortcoming left us free to make up our own rules. To be frank, when you played football with Abby, some generous concessions were necessary. Considering her age, she was still pretty fast over short distances, and although her knees and feet were bad, she did have good hands, especially when it came to controlling her cane.
Teams were invariably made up of Abby, plus one, against the rest of us. The object was to get past her and the lone roving defender and onto the cement sidewalk in front of the house. She and her teammate of the day played defense. The rest were delighted to be on perpetual offense. It was all rough-and-tumble, play-action stuff, trying to reach the sidewalk without getting tackled by Abby's teammate or whacked by her cane. It wasn't easy. The lawn on which we played was narrow, and Abby had good reach.
She was a kind of Mean Joe Greene—lovable and full of fun, except when it came to the serious business of football. Fumbles—and there were plenty—were sure to trigger a gentle scolding, and the scores, while always something-to-nothing, were never impressive.
Although her actual playing was limited, as a spectator she was unsurpassed. Her football passion focused on two teams—the boys who cavorted on the side lawn and the ones who played for Notre Dame. We understood that her Fighting Irish came first.
Abby had little use for most of the marvels of the modern age. She wouldn't drive and she scorned the telephone. Television and radio, though, she found to be most useful. They brought her Saturday afternoon Notre Dame football games. Her understanding of the fine points of both TV and radio was based on simple, if flawed, logic. If you could see and hear the action in South Bend, then the players could see and hear you in Waterville. It was as much fun watching Abby watch football as it was watching the game itself. She cheered. She scolded. If the Irish won, she was elated. If they lost, she emphatically predicted victory the next week.
Even if her boys at Notre Dame could not hear or see Abby on Saturday afternoons, they were well aware of her loyalty. When she turned 100 in 1953, coach Frank Leahy sent her a personal birthday greeting, considerably more significant in Abby's mind than the letter she received from President Eisenhower. The next year, not to be outdone, new head coach Terry Brennan sent her a ball that had been autographed by the entire Irish squad, including the likes of Dan Shannon, John McMullan and Dick Fitzgerald. Paul Hornung's name was also on the ball, but for the lack of an Irish connection, his name was never included in her recitation. The ball was kept atop the TV for inspiration on fall Saturdays and for year-round bragging.
Abby died on a Sunday morning, Nov. 10, 1957, the same year that most of her Roosevelt Avenue football team was graduating from high school. Her funeral was held on the day she would have been 104. Notre Dame was slated to play Oklahoma the following Saturday. The Sooners were riding two incredible records—47 consecutive wins and 123 consecutive scoring games—and had not lost a game in nearly five seasons. The Irish were the clear underdogs, having lost the two previous games to Navy (20-6) and Michigan State (34-6).
Some 63,000 fans jammed the stands in Norman, and millions more watched on television. The game was a stalemate for three periods. Late in the fourth, with the ball on the Sooner three, Notre Dame quarterback Bob Williams pitched to Dick Lynch, who ran into the end zone for the game's only touchdown. The Irish defense held for the remaining four minutes, protecting a stunning 7-0 victory. Oklahoma's amazing winning and scoring streaks had ended.
Earl H. Smith is a dean at Colby College in Waterville, Maine; he writes occasionally.