Brian Kelly recently said that he's looking for "verified" speed. This is an interesting discussion point. Charley Weis often said he was looking for guys who “played fast”, implying that reactions and ball sense might be more important than running speed. As a layman, with NO verified speed, it has always seemed to me that the bigger guys might retain more of their speed than the smaller guys. In my freshman class at ND, we had two good-sized running backs who ran sub-10 second 100 yard dashes. Both Arunas Vasys, who later became an ND and NFL linebacker, and Nick Eddy, who was an All-American and NFL running back, were credited with 9.7 track times in high school. This was at a time when a “Ten second hundred” marked you as a speedster. I asked ND’s famed track coach, former Olympian Alex Wilson, how good Nick was as a sprinter. He said “he could be really good if I could get him to run in a straight line”. He pointed out that Nick was a halfback first and lost some time in his sprinting because he had a running back approach.
Who we can list as former ND football players who had “verified speed”? As most of you know, I have been researching early (1887-1917) Notre Dame Football. One of our first great stars was also a great track athlete and speedster. Reading about him got me to thinking about the fastest ND Football Players.
For this essay, I am excluding Track Stars who went out for football without earning a football monogram, with All-American Bill Hurd (9.3 for 100 yard) being the best example. I am also excluding speedy Football Players who did not earn a monogram in Varsity Track, leaving us without an ND Track body of work from which we can evaluate their speed. Ronnie “Bye Bye” Bliey, Art Best, Al Hunter, Tony Driver, Julius Jones, and Matt Shelton would be good examples of guys in this group.
I am also excluding players whose speed was in events greater than 200 yards/meters. Halfback Aubrey Lewis was one of the top intermediate hurdlers, in 1956 with a first place NCAA finish in 1956, so he is not recognized in this essay. Lewis was one of the favorites to win the Olympics, but fell on the final hurdle in the qualifications, so stayed home while Glenn Davis won in Melbourne. Davis, from Ohio State, finished second to Aubrey in the NCAA’s.
Here’s how our best footballers stacked up over the years, in regard to “verified speed”:
Hal Jewett was a speedster who had a car named after him! It helped that he owned the Paige Motor Car Company, when they made the Jewett, a scaled-down version of their luxury car. He scored ND’s first-ever Touchdown, against Michigan, in April, 1888. He graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering, 1890. At ND, he won the Gregori Silver Medal in Architectural Drawing. He also won the Canadian sprint championship, defeating Luther Cary, who was the first person to hold the world record in the electronically-timed 100 meters (10.8). Hal’s best time in the 100 yard dash was 9.8, which was then in the top 2-3 times in the world. He served as a Gunnery Captain, Michigan Naval Reserve, in the Spanish American War, serving on the U.S. Yosemite, in Puerto Rico and Cuba. He was quoted in Time Magazine (September 20, 1926): “The new Paige is a powerful brute. You can drive it right through hell and you can't make it heat up.” He predated ND having a varsity track team, but he was clearly one of the country’s top sprinters.
Bill Draper, was a very good track athlete. Through 1917, Draper ranked third among all ND track athletes for points won (142) in track meets. The Scholastic, from late march, 1904, reported on Draper’s sprinting speed: “The first event was the 50-yard hurdles…won by Captain Draper…The time 6 2-5 second equals the world's record. The 50-yard dash…was also captured by Draper who won…5 2-5 seconds. After this...in an effort to lower the world's record, doing it again in 5 2-5 seconds.” He was ND’s fullback, in 1904, succeeding Red Salmon, Notre Dame’s greatest football player of its first 30 years. Draper was Vice President of the Notre Dame Alumni Association, 1928-1929. Bill’s teammate, Red Miller, described Draper as “The most handsome man I have ever known”. Beats the heck out of running fast, for me.
Bill Martin played football and baseball at Whitman College. After transferring to Notre Dame, he became a football end and track sprinter. In 1910 he subbed in three games at end. This was one more than future Four-Time National League home run champion Cy Williams and three more than a future ND star end from Norway. According to Martin’s bio from the Whitman College Hall of Fame, “his times in the sprints in 1911 earned him the title of "world's fastest human." And “He set a world record in the 100-yard dash at 9.6 seconds, and he tied the world mark in the 220-yard event at 21.1 seconds. Through 1929, Bill held the Cartier Field record for the 220 yard run (21 and 3-5 secs.). Running for the Seattle A.C. at the 1909 AAU meet, he won the 100 and was 2nd in the 220. He was the Penn Relays champion in the 100-yard dash in 1911. Although he did not compete in the 1912 Olympics, Martin was the top U.S. qualifier, beating two rivals who later won gold medals.” After graduating from Notre Dame, he is alleged to have turned down an offer to play Major League baseball for the New York Giants. He enrolled instead in the Law School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also served as an assistant track coach. The University of North Carolina hired him away as its head football coach, but WWI soon interrupted his coaching career. After serving in the Air Corps as a First Lieutenant, Martin was named head track coach at Penn State, where he placed five athletes on the U.S. Olympic team in 1920. In 1925, he accepted the head coaching position at Harvard, then considered the top track school in the nation, leading them to victory in the IC4A Indoor Championship, on March, 3, 1923. Took a trip to several European Countries, in June of 1923, with his passport application indicating that his occupation was Harvard Track Coach.
Dutch Bergman was one of three brothers from Peru, Indiana who each played in the backfield for ND. At ND 1909-1912, 1913-1915. At Georgetown, 1912-1913. In 1914, he and Rupe Mills became the first two ND men to earn four Monograms in the same year. Bergman received 11 ND Monograms, which is still the Notre Dame record, not likely to be surpassed. WWI-Artillery Captain. Played Major League Baseball. Played for the Wabash Athletic Association pro football team. He had been a T.B. patient at the Irene Byron Hospital for 13 years prior to his death. During the 1890’s and early part of the next century three famous men lived within a few houses of each other in Peru, Indiana. On the streets next to Dutch, lived John Francis O’Hara, future President of Notre Dame, later Cardinal O’Hara, Archbishop of Philadelphia; and legendary songwriter Cole Porter. Porter had a bit of an ND connection. His Uncle, Louis Cole, had attended ND and his cousin Louis attended with Dutch. Dutch earned 73 track points for ND, ranking just below Knute Rockne (pole vaulter specialty) among ND gridder/trackmen. Dutch’s top sprint time was a ten-second hundred and 21 3/5 in the 220 yard dash both against Michigan Agricultural College (MSU), in a dual meet.
Gus Desch was a sub halfback, during the Gipp/Castner/Mohardt/Four Horseman period when ND was flush with great running backs. At the 1920 Olympics, in Antwerp, Belgium, he won the Bronze Medal in the 400 meter hurdles. He won the 1921 NCAA’s in the 220 yard low hurdles, with a time of 24.8.
Elmer Layden, of Four Horseman fame, won three track monograms and had a best time in the hundred of 9.8. Perhaps that’s how he was able to run for three TD’s against Stanford, in the 1925 Rose Bowl, including two interceptions for more than70 yards.
Jack Elder used his great track speed to have a 100 yard interception TD to win the 1929 Army game, 7-0, in Yankee Stadium. This return was originally credited as 96 yards, but after viewing that he appears to have leaped at the goal line to snag the pass, it was later reported as four yards longer. Elder was a great sprinter for ND, finishing 5th in the hundred in the 1929 NCAA’s. In his final home meet, two of the stop watches caught him in 9.6 and two in 9.8, so he was credited with 9.7. He was fifth in the NCAA that year.
Eric Penick gave me my top ND football thrill. In 1973, after getting a couple good blocks, Penick ran up the left sideline for 85 yards, outrunning the USC defense, which always included mostly Olympic sprinters! He left them in the dust. And, he was a good-sized guy. He was reputed to have run a 9.5 in high school. By the way, in this 23-14 ND win, my good friend Luther Bradley contributed my all-time favorite ND defensive play. On the first play from scrimmage, SC sent All American receiver Lynn Swann way to the east side of the field, where he was matched, one on one, with the Freshman Bradley. The plan was for Swann to catch the toss, juke Bradley, and then waltz to a 90 yard TD. The plan didn’t work. The ball and Bradley arrived at the same time. In the aftermath, the ball was on the ground, the receiver’s helmet was in the air, and Lynn Swann still has nightmares about the truck that hit him! I am not aware of what Bradley’s running speed was, but he had a 99-yard interception TD versus Purdue. Verified speed.
Greg Bell was a sprinter on the 1981 and 1982 track team. One of his ND highlights was scoring on a 98-yard kickoff return against Miami, in 1982. He was a rugged guy with great speed. He had a nice NFL career, with nearly 5,000 rushing yards; 51 TD’s; and one Pro Bowl appearance. When they visited me in the end zone, I had some fun chats with Greg and his pal Larry Moriarty, another big guy with great speed and a fine NFL career. Bell had an 85 yard NFL rushing TD. Larry’s longest was 80.
Tim Brown won the 1987 Heisman for his football prowess, but he was also a great track athlete. He has ND’s 3rd best time (20.98) in the 200 meters. As a football player, he was a taller version of Rocket Ismael being able to turn a game around as a receiver, returner, or taking a handoff.
Rocket Ismael is the name most ND fans associate with speed, of the verified type. He was a threat to go all the way on rushing, receiving, and kick and punt returns. Coach Lou Holtz also praised Rocket for his ability to “finish a run”. He was the Heisman runner-up, in 1990. His best 100 meters for ND was 10.34. He was also 2nd at 55 meters at 1991 NCAA indoor, earning Track All American honors. ND’s 2020 recruit Chris Tyree is being compared to Rocket, having similar size and blazing speed.
Willie Clark has one of ND’s top ten times (10.6) in the 100 meters, in 1991. He was a starting safety and corner for the Irish.
Randy Kinder is ND’s top indoor 200 runner and earned Track All American honors for his tenth place finish in 1994. His best time for the 100 meters was 10.63, at the 1994 IC4A’s. He led ND in rushing in 1994 and 1995.
Dean Lytle ran a very fast 10.52 at the 1994 Indiana Intercollegiate Meet. He is an intriguing guy. Besides his speed, he was an enormous 6’3, 230+ pounds. His first year, he was a back-up defensive end. He then played two years behind Jerome Bettis at fullback.
Allen Rossum twice finished 7th in the NCAA indoor 55 meters earning Track All American honors each year. He was second in the 55 meters (6.23) in the 1997 Big East Indoors. He ran a 10.02 100 meters as a high school senior. He was an outstanding defensive back and returner for ND. He had a terrific NFL career. He made the Pro Bowl in 2004. For his 12 year NFL career he is second all-time among kickoff and punt return leaders. He is the only player in NFL history to have a kickoff return for a touchdown with five different teams.
Dwight Ellick played defensive back for ND. He was second in the 55 meters (6.78) at the 2005 Big East Indoor Championship. His best 100 meter time was 10.79.
Terrail Lambert played defensive back for ND. He was third in the 60 Meters (6.82) at the 2005 Big East Indoor Championship.
On a sad note, the Atkinson twins, who each took their own life, were top track sprinters, a decade ago. Josh had a best time on 10.51, while George, who was a running back and kick returner, had a best time of 10.62.
On the current roster, the alleged top times in the 40 are by Troy Pride (4.32) and Braden Lenzy (4.40). Lenzy has shown Rocket Ismael caliber speed when given the ball on receiver runs and has no difficulty gaining separation on pass plays. His best high school time in the 100 meters was 10.82. Strangely, he was more of a 200-400 runner in high school. Troy Pride has ND’s top 100 meter time, with a 10.47.