ND Football Walk-Ons
I sat near Joe Schmidt Sr. at the UNC game...
When he learned that I was a former employee of the Athletic Department, he asked me if I knew anything about our walk-on’s. Modestly, I told him that I was one of the top historians of Notre Dame Football-LOL. Joe mentioned that Coach Kelly has asked Joe to be a type of mentor/leader for the upcoming and incoming walk-on’s. Joe asked me if I could prepare something that he could give to young Joe to help him understand some of our walk-on history and traditions.
I prepared this information below.
I’m hopeful that some of my readers might be able to add something to this list. I did not attempt to have a comprehensive list, but merely to give some of the more noteworthy highlights.
What an awesome FSU game. Too bad the refs didn’t let the players decide the final outcome.
Here’s some info for you about Notre Dame walk-on’s. I’m copying it to some of my Notre Dame friends. If I get some additional notes or corrections, I will pass them along to you.
First of all, let’s examine the history of football scholarships (technically, grants-in-aid). In the early days, such aid was not permitted. All college sports had to be strictly “amateur”. In fact, Michigan was kicked out of the Western Conference (Big 10) for a few years because their great coach (Fielding Yost) was not a professor, therefore he was a “professional” coach, rather than an “amateur” as he would have been if a faculty member. You may recall that Notre Dame did not have this problem, because Knute Rockne was a Chemistry Instructor.
The NCAA was founded in 1905, partly in response to problems with eligibility issues.
Along the way it became common for athletes to be “recruited” to schools, usually, by other former players or boosters. These players might get “alumni scholarships” or some other kind of financial assistance from campus. At Notre Dame they became dining hall waiters and campus mailmen. Initial school grants were need-based, like the Ivy League does today. It was not until after WWII that today’s “full ride” came into being. Today’s 85-player limit on the numbers of these full rides, did not come into being until a few years after I graduated from Notre Dame (1966).
Fortunately, there were no recruiting gurus back then either. Players came to campus without having much idea who they wound find in their recruiting class, unlike today’s situation, in which coaches and players negotiate their relationships based on who is or isn’t on the depth chart at their position.
I have picked out some KEY walk-on’s, in whose footsteps your son is now walking. This is not near a complete list, but it does have some wonderful names from Notre Dame lore.
1. Pat Heenan was written up in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED when I was still in high school. He played three years of Interhall Football for Dillon Hall (one of my old dorms), before making the varsity for his senior year (1959). S.I. said that “Dillon Hall could beat Kansas State” (then the worst team in the NCAA). Pat was the starting RE, opposite Monty Stickles. Those were the days when you played both ways. Pat later played two years for the Washington Redskins as a cornerback.
2. Nick Rassas was a fine Chicago halfback, with Notre Dame bloodlines, but was not given a scholarship to play for the Irish. He saw brief action as a running back in 1963. When Ara arrived, in 1964, Nick became one of the “resurrected” players (to borrow from the title of a book about that season) of the Irish. He worked his way up to the starting safety spot where he played with distinction for the next two years. He was our leading punt returner for two years, and still holds our single season record for most punt return yards, leading the NCAA that year also, with a 19.1 average. He led us in kick returns one year and interceptions another. He scored 7 TD’s on defense and special teams. He was a consensus All American in 1965, and a second round NFL draft pick. He played parts of three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.
3. Walk-on Ed Gulyas became a two-year starter at LH for the Irish, in 1970 and 1971, leading us in rushing his first year.
4. Center Mike Oriard became our first walk-on Team Captain, in 1969. He was a second team SPORTING NEWS All American. He played four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. After earning his doctorate in English, he became a prolific sports author and highly regarded English Professor and Associate Dean, at Oregon State University.
5. Robert Thomas was a fine place kicker for Notre Dame and later the Chicago Bears, for whom he played 10 of his 12 NFL seasons. One of Bob’s strong points was his ability to kick well in the often hostile weather in Chicago. Notre Dame was good experience for that! Bob kicked the field goal which was the margin of victory in the 1973 Sugar Bowl Game (thank you Robin Weber), which won the National Championship for the Irish. After earning his law degree, he worked into his current position as a member of the Illinois Supreme Court. He is in the Academic All American Hall of Fame and received the 1999 NCAA 1999 Silver Anniversary Award. Bob came from the period when no kickers or punters (and certainly not snappers or holders) were scholarship athletes.
6. John Carney graduated in 1987, as Notre Dame’s all-time field goal kicker until Kyle Brindza surpassed him this past weekend. John had a ridiculously long 22 year career as an NFL kicker, despite not making any team in three of his first four years out of Notre Dame. He holds a slew of records, including most times with four (29) and five fields (11) goals in a game. He is tied for the most times (2) with six upright splitters in a game! When he retired, he was third on the NFL career scoring list. Like George Blanda, John played in parts of four decades. He was an NFL Pro Bowler.
7. Diminutive (5’5, 135) Hawaiian Reggie Ho was a substitute kicker the year after Carney left. He won the starting job for the 1988 season. All Notre Dame did that year was win the National Championship. Reggie’s biggest contribution that year was four field goals, the final one coming with 1:13 to play, to defeat the Michigan Wolverines, 19-17. Notre Dame fans of that era called that the “Reggie Ho Game”. That was Notre Dame’s first home night game. Dr. Ho is now a cardiologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, in Philadelphia.
8. Kevin Carretta played for the Irish in 1993-96. During that span he was a terrific utility player. He appeared on most special teams and played as a back-up at inside linebacker and tight end.
9. Shane Walton was my personal favorite walk on story. He came to Notre Dame as the greatest soccer player in our history. His burning desire was to play football for the Irish……but, not as a kicker or punter……as a defensive back. He gained a promise from the Soccer Coach that he would be referred to football as a potential walk on. The Soccer Coach dutifully delivered Shane’s highlight tape to Coach Bob Davie. He later confided in me that he was hoping that Notre Dame Football would not be interested in looking at it. He nearly got his wish. One day, a Notre Dame assistant found the unlabeled highlight tape and liked what he saw. But, the coach didn’t know how to identify Shane. He did recognize the uniform of one of the opposing teams and called that coach, asking for the name of the team in the tape. That led to a call to Shane’s high school coach. When that coach was asked who is number such and such, the answer was “He’s the star soccer player on YOUR campus”! He led the Irish Soccer team in scoring and was named Big East freshman of the year. In order to become a walk-on for football AND not be counted against the 85-player limit, Shane had to give up his soccer scholie. This meant that he needed a campus job. This is where I came in. He came to the Notre Dame Police Department, where I hired him as a Student Ticket Writer. I confess that he might have written a few more tickets if I had not picked his brain about football each day he came for work. He was a fine young man. He was a first team All American in 2002. He played one year in the NFL.
10. Pat Dillingham was a preferred walk-on QB in 2002 and 2003. He was forced into action a couple times when starter Carlyle Holiday was injured. Pat’s biggest fame occurred at the end of the 2002 Michigan State game, in Tyrone Willingham’s first year. I had brought my top 25 Stadium Usher Supervisors and their guests up to East Lansing for the game. With less than a couple minutes to play, Holiday was hurt and the Irish were losing. Pat completed a 60 yard pass play to Arnaz Battle, with 1:15 remaining, and the Irish came home with a 21-17 win. Pat was also at the helm when we defeated Stanford the following week. That game was ironic in that Pat’s dad was the Head Orthopedic Surgeon for the Stanford Sport Medicine Program.
11. David Ruffer was an interesting walk-on. He transferred to Notre Dame from William and Mary. Like Heenan, he performed as an Interhall Football player (Siegfried), before walking on for the Irish. He won the kicking job, beating out two scholarship guys. He made his first 23 field goals, still the Notre Dame record. Two of them were 50 yarders! He was on the squad 2008-2011.
12. Mike Anello was a fan favorite during his time on the Notre Dame varsity. At 120 pounds, he was not big enough to play for his high school team as a frosh. He became a wrestler……..and a good one. After getting some attention at that sport, he was lured back to his first love. An outstanding student, he came to Notre Dame hoping to walk on. When he made the squad, he was given #45, Rudy’s former number. Mike became our top special team’s player, making all kinds of tackles, causing fumbles, recovering fumbles, and just showing the grit and determination that it takes to excel, when you are not gifted with the classic height or weight. He became a scholar athlete recipient and was a lead in fund raising for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, raising a lot of money for children’s cancer research. He represents all the best attributes that Notre Dame has ever turned out among it’s student athletes.
13. I have listed George Gipp as my final Notre Dame Football walk-on. Back when Gipp enrolled in Notre Dame, players received various kinds of aid to play their sports, but it was not like today’s Grant in Aid system. In any case, Gipp, a versatile athlete, was lured to Notre Dame because of its great baseball program. Gipp had played ball with a former Notre Dame baseball star. SHAMELESS PLUG—See my book,
Notre Dame Baseball Greats. As the legend goes, Gipp was spotted by Rockne kicking a football……….and the rest is history (and legend). Gipp played only a couple baseball games and one basketball game for Notre Dame.