What Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish can teach us about American Catholicism
By any normal standard, the fall of 1943 was a magnificent one for the Fighting Irish of the University of Notre Dame. The nation as a whole was thinking about war, mobilizing to beat Hitler and the other Axis powers abroad. On the home front, the Irish football team racked up nine wins, six of them against highly ranked teams. They were crowned national champions despite a disappointing end-of-season loss at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. Their star quarterback, Angelo Bertelli, was called away by the Marine Corps to serve in the South Pacific after just six games. But his performance in those six games still won him the Heisman Trophy, the highest honor a college football player can receive.
For most coaches, the success of that season would have been the crowning achievement of a lifetime. Frank Leahy, Notre Dame’s head coach, was barely getting started. After the 1943 season he took a two-year leave of absence, serving in the United States Navy. When he returned, he headed up one of the most remarkable dynasties in the history of football. The 1946 Notre Dame recruiting class would play four years under the Golden Dome without ever losing a game. They claimed three more national championships and two more Heisman Trophies before hanging up their cleats.
Leahy’s teams were so saturated with talent that some players left college for the National Football League in hopes of getting more playing time.
Those were the dynasty days. Leahy’s teams were so saturated with talent that some players left college for the National Football League in hopes of getting more playing time. With so many superstars at his disposal, Leahy established a habit of playing his second string for the second and fourth quarters of each game. Just as the opposing team was gasping for breath, they would look up to see a fresh crew of Irish players leaping off the bench.
U.S. Catholics embraced the Fighting Irish with enthusiasm. When the leaves started turning each September, people who had never set foot in the state of Indiana would be decked out like frat boys, raising the gold and blue for Our Lady’s loyal sons. In parochial schools across the nation, nuns led Catholic schoolchildren in prayers for Irish victory. Notre Dame was the first school in the U.S. to have a nationwide following of “subway alums,” devoted fans for whom a radio dial represented their only connection to the university. It was said in those days that every priest in the U.S. was a de facto recruiter for Notre Dame.
In the minds of their fans, Notre Dame’s stars were much more than football players. They were warriors, fighting for the honor of Catholics across the nation.
In the minds of their fans, Notre Dame’s stars were much more than football players. They were warriors, fighting for the honor of Catholics across the nation.
A Storied History
College football turns 150 this fall. It is a good time to reflect on the significance of a homegrown sport that has deeply influenced American culture. What has football contributed to American Catholicism? What has Catholicism contributed to American football? For Catholics, it is particularly worth revisiting Notre Dame’s unique story. In this heavily Protestant country, where “popery” has often been viewed with suspicion, Catholics spent centuries fighting for full social inclusion. That effort brought many colorful characters to the fore as Catholics worked to establish a presence in politics, business, the military, the academy and the arts. But the struggle assumed a particularly literal guise on crisp Saturday afternoons in the fall. In the old country, feuding Catholics and Protestants sometimes settled their differences with the sword. Here in the United States, they preferred the pigskin.
Notre Dame’s football team dates back to the late 19th century, but there is not much worth remembering until the dawn of the 20th. Its first noteworthy coach, Pat O’Dea, was an Irish-Catholic Australian who made a name for himself as an outstanding kicker at the University of Wisconsin. O’Dea brought an abundance of energy to the game, and he quickly made Notre Dame’s football team into a regional power. Unfortunately, he was a fighting Irishman in more ways than one. In 1901, O’Dea recklessly volunteered the Irish for a matchup with his own pro team, the Studebakers. Coaching one team while playing for the other, he was bound to ruffle some feathers. The college players trounced the local pros, and O’Dea’s humiliated teammates turned on him in an ugly post-game brawl. Embarrassed by the national attention, Notre Dame fired its pugilistic coach.
Better times were soon to come. In 1911, the team welcomed a remarkable young player who was destined to transform Notre Dame, and indeed all of college football. Born in Voss, Norway, Knute Larsen Rockne was a brilliant and athletically gifted young man, with the work ethic of a boy who had grown up in poverty. He excelled immediately, both as a player and as a student. Within five years of his graduation, he was back on campus, ready to put South Bend on the map as the head football coach.
In 1911, the team welcomed a remarkable young player who was destined to transform Notre Dame, and indeed all of college football: Knute Rockne.
Legends rose from the grass during those golden years, with Rockne fielding five unbeaten teams, claiming three national championships and chalking up more than 100 victories against only 12 losses. The Four Horsemen, Rockne’s legendary 1924 backfield, made their famous ride “outlined against a blue-gray October sky,” in the sportswriter Grantland Rice’s famous turn of phrase. George Gipp was selected as Notre Dame’s first-ever Walter Camp All-American, just weeks before dying of pneumonia in dramatic fashion. (According to legend, he told Rockne on his deathbed to urge the boys to “win just one for the Gipper” the next time they found themselves in a tight spot. Sixty years later, Ronald Reagan inherited the phrase, having played Gipp in the 1940 film “Knute Rockne, All American.”)
Rockne cultivated a nationwide fan base, in part based on his success; a century later he still holds the record for the highest winning percentage in the history of college football. He was a key figure, not only in building up Notre Dame’s football team, but also in selling college football to a still-skeptical American public. A born salesman and a brilliant strategist, he was continually scheming, looking for innovative ways to develop and improve his teams. This was never more evident than in the famous game against Army in November 1913, when Rockne and his friend Gus Dorais revolutionized the game of football by their use of the forward pass.
It was unusual in those days for teams to travel so far for a single game, and the Easterners’ expectations were not high. Notre Dame was so underfunded that they brought more players than cleats, and had to share. Many fans assumed that these corn-fed Midwesterners had been imported by Army as a sacrificial offering. As it happened, that game would go down in history. Rockne and Dorais had spent their summer tossing a football on the shores of Lake Erie, in effect inventing precision passing. Before that, the forward pass had been legal but was primarily used in desperate situations as a last-ditch move. Rockne realized that a practiced, well-executed passing game could be an incredibly potent weapon for Notre Dame’s offense. Dorais completed 14 of 17 passes for a total gain of 243 yards, and Notre Dame crushed the favorites, 35 to 13. College football has never been the same.
Tragedy struck in 1931 when the beloved Rockne, still in his early 40s, was killed in a plane crash. The nation mourned. Irish fans wondered if the glory days were over. It turned out, though, that Rockne’s legacy still had life. Elmer Layden, one of the Four Horsemen, kept the team in fighting shape through the Great Depression. In 1941, the reins were handed to the most talented of Rockne’s protegees: Leahy. By the time Leahy retired in 1951, the Irish had been a dominant force in college football for four decades.
Nostalgia and Realism
Modern-day Notre Dame fans like myself tend to look back on these times with a mixture of pleasure and pain. It is sweet to reflect on the magnificence of Notre Dame’s football tradition. There is also some bitterness when we consider that the team’s best days may be behind it. The boys still take the field on Saturdays in September with their heads encased in gold. Supposedly, this is a metal that doesn’t tarnish. The legacy, however, does feel a bit tarnished.
It has been 30 years since Notre Dame football’s last national championship, but the changes go beyond the scoreboard. We still sing the famous “Notre Dame Victory March” (composed in 1908, just before the advent of the Rockne years), but its lofty claims have started to feel like run-of-the-mill braggadocio. Is this just the cumulative effect of too many disappointing bowl losses? Was it inevitable that the scrappy, come-from-behind Irish would lose some of their mystique, once they became an established football power? Or is Notre Dame’s decline just another illustration of the mundane truism that the good times eventually stop rolling?
Over the past decade, Notre Dame’s football team has been coached by Brian Kelly, a 57-year-old Irish-American Catholic from Massachusetts. Though he lacks the affable charm of a Rockne or a Lou Holtz, Kelly has proven himself a capable coach, boasting two undefeated regular seasons and, last year, an appearance in the College Football Playoff. (The Irish were blown out in the semifinals by the Clemson Tigers, but the pain was lessened after Alabama’s vaunted Crimson Tide suffered the same fate a week later.) Clearly this is not dynasty-level domination. Still, with Kelly at the helm, Irish fans have enjoyed four bowl wins, fielded Heisman candidates and heard sportscasters discuss them as serious national title contenders. Fans can turn to their September calendars hoping that perhaps, just maybe, this could be the year.
Should that be enough? It still feels that we are listening to echoes of past glory, perhaps in part because Notre Dame is no longer as much a cultural touchstone for Catholics as it was in days of yore. Subway alums still exist, and many of us still cheer the gold and blue every Saturday. Today, though, it would be quite unusual to see nuns urging children to implore the Almighty for victory over Michigan State.
All sports dynasties decline eventually, of course; and in Notre Dame’s case, it may even be that the decline of football is actually a good thing. The good times ended in part because the bad times ended. When Catholics were still coping with prejudice and widespread marginalization, a winning football team could symbolize their ongoing struggle for cultural recognition. As the larger project succeeded, that pugilistic spirit was inevitably going to decline. Maybe we do not need the Fighting Irish anymore.
Rockne realized that a practiced, well-executed passing game could be an incredibly potent weapon for Notre Dame’s offense.
Catholics Turn Their Lonely Eyes to You
But here is the problem: It still feels as if we do. U.S. Catholics may have settled their differences with Protestants, but we still feel beleaguered. The U.S. church is not in a state of good health. The revelations of horrific clerical abuse of minors and vulnerable persons seem endless, and many Catholic institutions have faced bankruptcy and closure. On a cultural level, the church’s moral authority seems to be waning. Legions of young Catholics are leaving their faith behind. Where have you gone, Joe Montana? More than ever, it seems, Catholics need reassurance that their faith will prevail against the odds.
Attracting players is more difficult for Notre Dame nowadays, when nationwide recruiting of student-athletes is commonplace and when Notre Dame is just one school among many that can offer athletes the benefits of top-notch facilities, regular television exposure and legions of adoring fans. Under the Golden Dome, players can find superb academic opportunities that are probably unmatched by any other major football program apart from Stanford. Regrettably, this does not always appear to be a priority for most athletes. Justifiable concerns about the cumulative negative impact of the rigors of the sport on players’ health may also mean that the pool of potential players begins to shrink.
Notre Dame’s unique identity has helped them before, however. Anti-Catholic prejudice had already waned considerably by the time Ara Parseghian took the reins as head coach in 1963, but that did not stop the quarterback Joe Theismann from soundly defeating the Texas Longhorns in the 1971 Cotton Bowl. Later in that same decade, another extraordinary Joe—this time Joe Montana—thrilled the nation with yet another incredible Cotton Bowl victory over a vaunted University of Texas team. For my own generation, the Holtz years may still be a fond memory. Catholics had mostly come into their own by that time, but Tony Rice and Raghib Ismail, known as Rocket, still managed to strike fear into the hearts of defensive backs across the land. With the right coach, the right strategy and a stable of electrifying players, anything is possible. It is also impossible to predict when a genius like Rockne might appear, providing the gust of wind that stirs the smoldering coals back to flame.
All sports dynasties decline eventually, of course; and in Notre Dame’s case, it may even be that the decline of football is actually a good thing.
A Legacy Beyond Football
Rockne’s impact extends well beyond the gridiron, however. His Fighting Irish did much to revolutionize a great American sport, but the Notre Dame tradition is about more than stopping the wishbone offense or perfecting the forward pass. It is about surviving and thriving as a minority in a nation that is not always as hospitable as we might hope. Considering that many Catholics are feeling ill at ease in our own society, we should draw some inspiration from the example set by those scrappy young athletes. There are lessons that have application both on and off the gridiron.
First of all, Catholics as a whole can benefit from even a small group of Catholics who excel at something that is broadly respected within society. In the earlier half of the 20th century, the Fighting Irish set Catholic hearts ablaze by beating Protestants at what was, quite literally, their own game. Originally invented by Ivy League patricians, football was once a sport for wealthy, silver-spooned elites. Immigrants and minorities had to muscle their way in, both literally and figuratively. Football was the perfect vehicle for proving that Catholics were tough enough, smart enough, and American enough to be accepted in the culture at large. Even if Catholic dogma seemed obscure and Catholic liturgy arcane, no one could ignore an argument articulated in the language of drives and downs. Modern-day Catholics should take note: It pays to speak to people in a language they understand.
Originally invented by Ivy League patricians, football was once a sport for wealthy, silver-spooned elites.
It is also worth reflecting on this when controversies arise concerning Catholic education. This seems to happen especially at the University of Notre Dame, where faculty and students have had a number of public battles over curricula, contraceptives and invited speakers, among other issues. The world of higher education has become increasingly progressive, and Catholic colleges and universities may struggle to maintain their distinctive religious character without losing all secular credibility. To many people, these debates seem to present us with a straightforward choice between the City of God and the City of Man. The reality may be more complicated. It would certainly be sad to see the University of Notre Dame lose its distinctiveness as a Catholic school. On the other hand, secular credibility has some value too. Rockne became a Catholic at Notre Dame and was, by most accounts, an admirable human being. He would not have had the cultural impact that he did, though, if he had not known how to win football games.
Paging back through the Notre Dame saga, we should also reflect that respect is not often given to us in this world. It is usually a hard-won commodity. As Christians, we can understand that all souls are precious. In ordinary human society though, it takes work to persuade others to like and admire us.
Notre Dame’s most successful coaches were different in many ways, but they all shared something in common: an extraordinary work ethic. Parseghian worked himself so hard that he ultimately had to resign for the sake of his mental health. Leahy was infamous for grueling practices that by many players’ accounts made the actual games feel like a breeze. Holtz started his very first month of coaching by dragging players to 6 a.m. practices on freezing winter mornings. This was in January, just after the regular season had ended.
Paging back through the Notre Dame saga, we should also reflect that respect is not often given to us in this world. It is usually a hard-won commodity.
Sometimes it seemed like too much. Without that training though, these would not have become elite teams. We all occasionally need that kind of bracing discipline. When we feel ill-used or persecuted, a kind word can sometimes be the needed medicine. Other times, we may just need someone to order us to drop and do 50.
The final lesson is a pleasant one. The Fighting Irish remind us that Cinderella stories are not always the stuff of fairy tales. In the prejudiced and class-divided first half of the 20th century, no one would have expected Irish Catholics to revolutionize a great American sport. But they did. They seized that ball and ran with it, and generations of young Catholics reaped the rewards of their success. In the chilly light of a 21st-century November, it is easy to think that such things cannot happen again. The Golden Dome does not sparkle so brightly anymore. The prospects for Catholicism in the United States can feel bleak. And nostalgia for a once-dominant sports team will not save us.
That is true, of course. Football will not save us. Sometimes God’s grace can manifest itself in surprising ways, though. A dynamic football team once brought hope into the hearts of demoralized and struggling U.S. Catholics. It could happen again, on the gridiron or in some other sphere.
Rally, sons of Notre Dame!