ND Football Walk-Ons, Part II

Nov 06, 2014

Several friends replying to my earlier post...

...on Notre Dame Football walk-on’s wondered why I had not mentioned Rudy, Notre Dame’s most famous walk-on.  I was focusing on walk-on’s who were similar to Joe Schmidt……those who became key contributors to the team.

Like all walk-on’s, Rudy made a contribution during the week by working hard to keep the scholarship players on their toes, but his personal contributions would not likely have been remembered, without the wonderful movie made about his book.

Here’s a Rudy story that Rudy doesn’t even know…..I was at the 1975 Georgia Tech game when Rudy garnered his fame.  I remembered his play only because of an odd reason.  When the announcer mentioned  “now coming in for the Irish, Daniel Ruettiger”, there was a cheer from the students.  My wife asked me why he got applause.  I said “I have no idea.  I’ve never heard of him.”  She said “YOU’VE never heard of a Notre Dame Football Player?”  I said, “No………he must be a walk on”.  As they say in Hollywood, fade out.  Thirteen years later, I was protecting celebrities, in Los Angeles.  One of my short-term assignments was an undercover role in the top talent agency in Beverly Hills.  I had a desk in the reception area, with the fake title of “Concierge”, but my real assignment was to observe the people who entered the building, making sure there were no stalkers.  As the Concierge, my only task was accepting scripts.  Late one day a script was handed me, pitched for an actor named Tom Hulse.  I called his agent and got a busy signal.  Before dialing again, I happened to thumb through the pages and saw the word “Dame” on the top of one page and “Notre” at the bottom of the previous page.  I glanced back at the cover and say RUDY, by Daniel Ruettiger and remembered the 1975 game.  I read the opening summary and then put the script in my briefcase and took it home!  My wife said “You stole a script?”  I told her that I was just keeping it for overnight security.  I had a big lump in my throat as I was reading it.  It was a three-hanky script.  It was surely  a can’t miss movie. 

The next morning I submitted the script and waited for a blockbuster movie to come out.  And waited.  During my previous job as Chief of Staff to the Sheriff of L.A. County, I had the chance to review several scripts for police shows and movies.  This one seemed like a lock, compared to others I had read…………but, perhaps I’m a trifle biased.

Anyway, five years later, the movie came out and has become part of Notre Dame lore, but I always wondered what took Hollywood so long.  Two years later, I was back at Notre Dame, holding down my dream job, as Coordinator of Stadium Personnel.  Every few years or so, I would see Rudy in the end zone.  More than 15 years later, I got a call from the Development Office, asking if I would give a Campus Tour to a potential donor.  The man was described to me as the agent for Labron James and Oprah Winfrey.  We had a nice tour of the campus, ending in the President’s box in the Press Box of the Stadium.  This was the first time I had a chance to exchange small talk with my guest.  I asked him which agency he was with.  He named the same agency where I was their first “Concierge”.  We discovered that we each started there around the same time.  At last, I had the chance to find out what took them so long to make this movie.  He told me that they might not have made the movie yet, except that the Director of “Hoosiers” (David Anspaugh) said “I can make a hit out of “Rudy”. 

Finally, 35 years after I saw him play, I completed my knowledge about the movie “Rudy”.

Anyway, I received a lot of great replies to my initial posting about “key” Notre Dame Football walk-on’s.  In PART II, I am adding some critical omissions with some additional notes.  Two great Notre Dame Football historians contributed a lot of great information.  Lou Somogyi, of Blue & Gold Illustrated was very helpful.  He has spent many years studying our history and writing wonderful stories.  Brian Boulac probably holds the record for the longest career as a Notre Dame Football player, Coach, Recruiter, and Administrator.  Brian added a lot of personal notes to what follows.

Former Notre Dame star running back, Joe Farrell, was the first to reply.  As a fullback, Joe helped keep John Huarte upright during his Heisman Trophy year (1964) when Ara turned Notre Dame’s fortunes completely around.  Joe pointed out that walk-on’s Mike Brennan and Pat Eilers were two stars in the late 80’s at Notre Dame, both being key members on our 1988 National Championship Team.  Brennan was a starting offensive tackle, who later had a four-year NFL career.  Somogyi pointed out that Brennan originally played Lacrosse at Notre Dame before moving over to football as a sub tight end and tackle and then starting tackle. 

Eilers transferred to Notre Dame after a year at Yale.  How many people know that Yale holds a 1-0 edge over Notre Dame, defeating Knute Rockne!  For ND, Pat was a sub at strong safety and split time at flanker with Ricky Watters, before becoming a starting wide receiver.  Pat had a six year NFL career as a defensive back.  After a successful career as a Chicago businessman, Eilers returned to Notre Dame this summer as Quality Control Coach for Brian Kelly.

My Notre Dame classmate, Alan Loboy, pointed out my glaring omission of recently deceased Tim Rudnick.  Alan came to Notre Dame from Notre Dame of Niles (IL).  After playing running back at both ND schools, Al returned to his high school where he coached Rudnick.  Somogyi pointed out that Rudnick started every game for the 1973 National Championship Team and later had an NFL cup of coffee. 

Star defensive back Jim Smithberger added an anecdote about his former road roommate, Nick Rassas.  The night before the 1965 Army Game, in Shea Stadium, they “stayed up late watching the Lou Gehrig story on an old black & white TV”.  I’m a sucker for these kind of stories.

Somogyi reminded me of an odd ND walk-on.  Creighton Miller came to Notre Dame from a prominent (and wealthy) Notre Dame family and did not require football aid.  This meant that he could skip some of the training regimen that Leahy required of the scholarship players.  This drove  Leahy crazy.  Creighton led the nation in rushing for Leahy’s 1943 national champions.

When I was a student, one of my jobs was Night Manager of a Roseland Motel.  Two others who held that same spot were former Notre Dame player Jim Brocke and former walk on Larry “Monk” Forness.  Brocke shared a couple notes about walk-on’s.  He pointed out that Brian Dierckman was a walk-on linebacker for the 2002 team and is now an orthopedic physician and certified sports medicine specialist in Indianapolis, which Brocke now calls home. Brocke donated a locker in the name of former Notre Dame Coach Bob McBride, the man who recruited him for the Irish.  Jim told me that he just learned that Joe Schmidt occupies the McBride locker.

Incidentally, my classmate John Lienhard, a big student of both Notre Dame and Naval Academy football history, corrected the date of Notre Dame’s first night game.  It was in 1982, not 1988.  Reggie Ho did make his kicks after dark, but it was not our first time under the lights.

Former Notre Dame walk-on Sam Gerardi played during the end of the Frank Leahy era.  He is a great historian of ND Football.  He mentioned that walk-on Brian Lewallen made one of the biggest catches in Notre Dame history.  Brian became a back-up defensive back, behind All American Tom Schoen.  Brian once returned a punt for a TD.  His big catch?  Terry Buck!   Brian married the most photogenic cheerleader in Notre Dame history.  Sam also pointed out that Skip Holtz was a walk-on at Notre Dame, following Rudy through the Holy Cross route.

I got a nice note from Mike Anello, who is now working on his MBA at Harvard.  Mike said “….thank you for mentioning me amongst so many incredible names. I still pinch myself every time I think back to the time I had the honor of wearing the golden dome!  I actually have gotten to know Joe Schmidt well.  He is a great guy.  I couldn't be happier to see how well he has been doing.  Would love to see him with a ‘C’ on his chest next year!  Hope you are doing well and thank you for thinking of me.  It means a lot!  There is no place on earth like Notre Dame!”

While doing a little more digging, I recalled Pete Schivarelli, a good friend of mine.  He was a walk-on defensive lineman for Ara.  As a student, Pete was the guy who would open his coat and, displaying his wares, say “Wanna buy a watch?”  OK………I made that up, but that would capture his personality and entrepreneurship.  Pete was one of the driving forces behind the Parseghian Statue, at Gate B.  If you look at the figures in the statue, carrying Ara, one of them is Pete, showing his full 6’3 height (sculptor Jerry McKenna must have gotten a free watch from Pete for the slight stretch of Pete’s height). 

Pete donated the Monogram Club Lounge in the Stadium.  He is the Manager of the band “Chicago”.  Some members of the band learned their music from the father of jazz at Notre Dame High School (IL), Father George Wiskirchen, who is now Notre Dame’s Jazz Band Director.  Through these contacts, “Chicago” has performed with the Notre Dame Marching Band.  Pete has donated and raised funds for a number of Notre Dame related causes, including Ara Parseghian's Niemann Pick Foundation and Charlie Weis’ Hannah and Friends House.

Steve Barry added some terrific information on Pat Heenan.  According to Steve, Pat played for campus Interhall football co-champ Zahm Hall as a freshman, in the fall of 1956 (Zahm tied Dillon 0-0 in the championship game).  He then played for campus champ Stanford Hall as a sophomore and for campus champ Dillon Hall as a junior, before walking on with the varsity.  This must be the Notre Dame record for Interhall football championships.  The next year after playing end at Notre Dame, Pat was the starting left cornerback for the Washington Redskins.  Steve said he and Pat went to a N.Y. Rangers hockey game right after Heenan intercepted a Charley Conerly pass, intended for Kyle Rote, at Yankee Stadium.  This deprived Rote of a touchdown and preserved the win for Notre Dame’s Ralph Guglielmi, quarterbacking the Native American.

Jeff Kohler added an interesting story about a walk on:  “I coached Dillon Hall’s Football team, when we won the campus championship in 1980. We had a tremendous athlete from Buffalo—Mark Nasca.  He had been a walk-on for the 1977 National Championship team and won a ring. I wonder how many guys have a National Championship ring and an Interhall Football Champions patch?”

Former Notre Dame lineman Steve Kolski added a great walk-on story.  Walk-on John Powers was the starting right end on the 1960 team, the year after Pat Heenan held that spot.  Unfortunately, John was injured in his first game and that ended his season.  He returned in the spring and again was a starter at end for the 1962 team, but the injury jinx remained and he played sparingly.  Later, he played five years in the NFL.  Steve notes that John spent much of his private time helping disadvantaged persons finding jobs.  Like a lot of these fine men, John was a star on and off the field.

One of my favorite walk-on’s was Tim O’Neil.  The Leprechaun-sized O’Neil later wrote a wonderful book, Every Play Every Day: My Life as a Notre Dame Walk-on.  I greeted Tim as he came out of the locker room after getting some meaningful carries at the end of a game.  I congratulated him for his running.  He was disappointed.  “I should have gone all the way on that one play”.  He gave a talk at a Notre Dame Pep Rally that was an emotional tear-jerker for this old grad. Tim’s a wonderful Notre Dame man and great representative of our walk-on program.

Notre Dame historian Mark Hubbard wrote two outstanding books, Undisputed and Forgotten Four, which should be part of every Notre Dame fan’s library.  Mark reminded me that Tom Reynolds was a walk-on who became a back-up linebacker for the Irish.  Tom later got his PhD and has taught at several outstanding universities, including ND.  He earned perhaps his greatest fame from a “missed tackle”.  Seven years ago, he was in New York City, to speak at a conference.    He was then retired from the University of Texas as a Marketing Professor.  According to newspaper accounts, Tom was awakened by a “terrible scream”.  A “brutal bandit had just pistol-whipped a female California tourist outside her room”.  The thug had committed other such crimes.  He stole her purse and ran off.  Despite having just had a knee replaced, Tom took off after the guy and punched him, knocking him to the ground.  Tom then realized that, in the excitement of the moment, he had left his room naked (!), so he didn’t chase after him……“I think I startled him…I didn’t want to get arrested for indecent exposure”, Tom told me, over breakfast one day.   

Lou Somogyi pointed out a long list of walk-on kickers and punters, including Chuck Male (1978-79, transferred from Western Michigan); Mike Johnston (1980-82); Ted Gradel (1987); Scott Cengia (mid 1990s); and D.J. Fitzpatrick (2003-05).  Kevin Pendergast (1991-93) was a little different from the others, who were all preferred walk-on’s.  Kevin was brought over from the soccer team, after a tryout, when Lou Holtz became unhappy with his kickers.

Steve Barry gave me the details of a long-ago Notre Dame Football walk-on.  Christy Flanagan spent two summers at Culver Military Academy (where Coach Kelly took the Irish for some early season workouts this year).  At the suggestion of a tactical officer there, (a Notre Dame alumnus), Flanagan enrolled at ND in1923. He played on the freshman team as a walk-on. He didn't play a down in the 1924 season, but he did scrimmage daily against the Four Horsemen.

Flanagan's first season as a varsity starter was in 1925, and his first game was against Baylor, undefeated in their conference for the preceding three seasons. Notre Dame beat Baylor 41-0, and Flanagan instantly became famous for his part in the victory. That year he scored more points than the "Galloping Ghost" Red Grange, a senior at Illinois. 

The following season, Flanagan made his famous run against Army in Yankee Stadium. He ran 63 yards for a touchdown on the "perfect play," as not a hand touched him on the way to the end zone. The game was the first football broadcast on coast to coast radio. The next day Grantland Rice, creator of the famous Four Horsemen, dubbed Flanagan the "Lone Horseman." Flanagan went on to lead Notre Dame to a 20-7 victory over a standout Minnesota team led by Bronko Nagurski. The day after the game, Minnesota coach Don Spears called Flanagan "one of the greatest backfield men you will ever see play football." Flanagan made All-American that year and again in 1927. In 1927, he starred against USC in Soldier Field in Chicago. Flanagan led Notre Dame in rushing all three of his varsity years, rushing for a total of 1,822 yards.  He later had a distinguished career in college football coaching.  Christy’s son added a lot of walk-on info:  “I was a walk-on before making All American in golf in 1960.  My son Michael turned down a tennis scholarship at ND to walk on for Stanford, and was an All American there in ’93 and ’94. Finally Casey Cullen, my great nephew and my Dad’s great, great grandson, was an ND football walk-on and lettered in 2005 and 2006.”

George Gajdos, My former Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department colleague, added Matt Sarb.  Matt’s dad, Pat, was on the 1973 National Championship Team, backing up cornerback Tim Rudnick.  Matt walked on in 1998 and made the team also as a safety and back up “spear” for the kick coverage team. In his Junior year mid-way through a game just before ND kicked off after a touchdown, the starting “spear” ran back to the sidelines to tie his shoe. Matt was put in.  Full of adrenaline, he ran down the field and hurled his body at two Nebraska blockers allowing the trailing ND players to swarm in and make the tackle. The announcer (Pat Haden) commented on the play which was reviewed several times. Matt was on every kick coverage the rest of his time at Notre Dame.  ESPN did a feature on the relationship between Pat Sarb and Rudy.  You can watch it on youtube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wPmN7pCIow

Dave Martin, star linebacker from the mid-60’s, (who played ahead of Tom Reynolds), adds a couple notes about two walk-on’s who were in the class of 1997 with his daughter.  Michael Denvir, tight end and Billy Gibbs, a DB, were excellent special teams players and even better students.  Michael now works for the Jordan Company (Jay Jordan, class '69 major ND benefactor).  Billy is now a top attorney in Chicago. 

Incidentally, Mike Oriard (1969) and Shane Walton (2002) were the first two walk-on’s who became Captains, in the modern era.  Who was Notre Dame’s first ever walk-on captain?  That would have to be Henry Luhn.  Why?  He was the Captain of our inaugural 1887 team, in which EVERY player was a walk on.  Luhn later became a distinguished physician in the State of Washington.

Go Irish!


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