University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame
My Fifty Years at Notre Dame / by Leo R. Ward, C.S.C.

CHAPTER XI: Football at Notre Dame

I go for all kinds of indoor and outdoor games. Hockey, hurley and Gaelic football. Golf on the course and the wonderful TV pictures of golf. Swimming, handball, football, bridge and cribbage. Play and games are for fun. Think of them imposed, as they are in schools. Fun imposed!

Today I was swimming in "The Rock," and yesterday and the day before, and good for Rockne in many ways and especially for occasioning that gorgeous pool, its sea-green water sun-streaked, and swimmers with their long powerful "clop, clop" strokes and their dives bisecting the water, and thanks to the Administration which, early in the depressed thirties, unable to collect more than a handful of dimes even in Rockne's name, went ahead and put up "The Rock."

Golf came to Notre Dame in 1930, on a field that had alternately raised pigs and potatoes, so proper to the Irish; our first golf team was the best we ever had. Because golf was out in a field and free-swinging, I took to it, but my two or three pick-up clubs were a painful sight to confreres. It never occurred to me that golf was a bag, rules on "how to swing" or new and shiny balls. It was freedom and fun out in the open. Our first golfing coach taught me in a minute all the golf I could learn: "Decide you're going to put the ball on a definite spot down the field. All golf strokes are firm, no baby strokes." A priest duffer added useful formulas:

Another reduced golf to Aristotelian principles. The last end, getting the ball in the cup, is the first principle, the first means to that end is to hit the ball, and the first means to this is to keep your eye on the ball. Father Leo L. Ward said I was so particular about stance that I was afraid of my shadow.

A friend with whom I often played was a pre-Trappist named Johnny Reynolds. He never let up: "Bobby Jones says use your light spoon more . . . You can't look up and see a good shot." He loved Irish bulls and other nonsense. Off the tenth one day, he said we still were neck and neck; but because we couldn't find his ball, he corrected: "You were neck, but I wasn't." Hanging on a hillside I got off a good shot, and down went his clubs: "Unfair competition! You have one leg longer than the other from plowing around those Iowa hills." The response delighted him: "I couldn't have one leg longer, but might have one shorter than the other." Once we played with a pious man who landed in shrubs. When the pre-Trappist asked, "Where is our man?" My reply was: "Down in the bushes making acts of humility over the ball." Another day I had to praise my delightful buddy's great shots. Down went his clubs: "You cut that! You're trying to get my goat by praising my shots!"

One fine golfing day he was gone to Gethsemane. No more golf, no more gab, no more long leg, short Leg. Our friend has for years been the white-haired founder of monasteries.

The C.S.C. duffers have had many escapades on that ex-potato-and-pig ranch. When Brother Ferdinand, a foot from the cup, granted his put, Brother Martin, forty feet out, replied: "I grant mine, too." Fathers Gass and Misch, after deadly battling, were tied going to the eighteenth. Gass went on in two, but Misch was in the rough a potato patch away. Deftly his ball leaped out and picked a path through traps into the cup. Gass missed his put. "You're lucky, Misch." "Lucky, man? All my life, I've been trying to do just that." When my long uphill sidling put, meant for a foot to the left, went a foot to the right for a birdie, my companion, a man who wasted few shots or words said nothing for a long while.

Good golf, good swimming and handball and other games are an art almost like dancing, and I enjoy not only the gorgeous impromptu dancing that boys and girls do on the grass, on football Saturdays, tight-pantsed boy never touching mini-skirted girl, and all done to students' improvised hillbilly orchestras, but I have always enjoyed the singing and square dancing that faculty clubs have done during the intermittent life of those clubs. Once I went with an old student and his wife to their "Westchester Whirlwind" dancing and singing club; if the suburban news report of that event had reached Corby bulletin board, I would have been "The Whirlwind" forever.

I have never in the thick of the football-event. Big-time athletics in American schools, colleges and universities are a good thing and a bad thing. Thousands on thousands of youths, thirteen to seventeen, are in high school, and by early winter, their studies demanding though not commanding, students need an outlet. Basketball fills the bill. It makes the school one as nothing else does, and it helps players and the whole school to be fair winners, good losers, and does the community much good. Think how badly Indiana farmers and villagers need entertainment not imposed by Hollywood; they need local causes and local heroes. In these respects basketball is one of our best down-to-American-earth institutions.

Disvalues are associated with sport. Application to algebra, history and French suffers. Think of the shenanigans universities perform in declaring boys "college material." So far as study is concerned, it would be better if athletics and teams and team spirit, all of them good things, had never been born. Study-wise, nearly all boys suffer and the school suffers. Lucky team and school that wins a championship. But the school is unlucky, too, and likely to pay for it in diminished academic returns. BigÄtime basketball and football hurt schools on all levels. The coaches, the build-up, the associations have a strangle hold, and who by this time would try to break it?

It takes time and a lot of money to make a football player, a super team costing at least half a million a year: in "scholarships," eight or ten highly-prized coaches, in equipment, scouting and pictures, travel, insurance, assistants and secretaries, business managers, medics and surgeons. Ask Woody Hayes. The telephone bill costs as much as a star. Who cares? The enterprise also pays in dollars, prestige and fun, and a winning team can give students and some professors and priests needed ego support. It is compensation for what people don't do.

Perhaps football pays. There are hidden costs; for example, what football or almost any sport may do to students, to studies and the spirit of study throughout the school, in hundreds of freshmen and even in professors. I suspect that at Notre Dame, football has been a contributing cause to a lack of study and a spirit of study in some priests. No one can say how many priests or to what extent. It has seldom contributed to their spirit of study.

Some priests have found it boring to listen to football gossip in season and out of season, and not only gossip but concern. Football is the conversation piece from September till New Year; prospects, injuries, bulky freshmen, scouting and progress-regress reports, all of these taken day by day from observation and hearsay and newspapers and sounding like a page out of Thucydides on the Peloponessian War. "What did Joe D. say tonight in the Tribune? I didn't get to read him." What neglect of the higher academic life!

In years past, good minds have spent days and days following Notre Dame teams, and it is remarkable and beautiful to see teachers permanently devoted to athletes' professional careers: "That's our boy, number 23! It's old Euclypt! Watch him cut! At-a-boy! I knew Euc could do it!" Rarely do these priests go strongly for artists, scientists or bishops. The fellowship is beautiful, and good, too. People in colleges are suffering for community, and happily the college or university on the one hand and coaches and athletes on the other aaiow each other, and there is hearty feeling between college people and the stars of yester year.

This good is at times overdone. Once Notre Dame, after riding high, got knocked off on almost the season's last play. It was like the end of the world the way some monks suffered. Some could remain relatively outside the event; these spoke to each other of the historic day when Massachusetts disestablished the church: a famous churchman hearing the news felt that light would shine no more. But it did.

The furious drive to win, the insatiable thirst to be unbeaten and be number one eats up the time and energy of faculty and students and some administrators. This happens even in lower grades. A nun, wanting her students to prepare for high school, said: "But the pastor and the coach exploited the kids and drove them to perform and to win!" The lust to win gave me trouble, too; it had me going two ways at once because, loving football and all games, I could nevertheless see that the lust gets in the way of what it seems to me a university is to do. On an autumn day I heard a sub-dean speaking to the President. The latter said, "Wait till the season is over and we'll get at these things." An alumnus, himself an old footballer, hearing that story, replied, "The harvest, you know, the harvest."

I progressively found it impossible to surrender to that lust-drive. Once while our Aristotelian-Thomists sat in Chicago, a non-Notre Dame priest burst in to announce, "Notre Dame lost!" The end of the world. I gave a talk to cooperators in Chicago while Notre Dame and Dan Shannon were playing the Sooners and Billy Vessels and because I was late for supper I was making out in Corby Hall snack bar. A priest who at that moment was on his way to a night's work in the laboratory, said: "You mean you don't know how the game came out!" Another evening our President, home from a thriller, was holding forth in that same room when I made the mistake of entering, an ungracious thing to do, an embarrassing moment for both of us. Why should he be talking football and why should the intruder make so untimely an appearance? The speech was loud: "This Snabe Snooks, old SS, Sure Shot!" It was no place for me or the President to be; one of us should not have been there. It was awkward to keep leaning against the wall, it would be bad to saying nothing, bad to say anything and it was thoroughly bad to say what I said: "This Snabe Sure Shot, is he an Irishman?" But what was a fellow to do in my fix? A university world is a funny place.

One summer a proper little priest tiptoed to the President's door: "Omar Babuski, first string end, was killed in a car accident!" No reply, no comment. Later, the same man tiptoed to the same door:

"It wasn't Babuski. It was a student named Omar Babonski." "Oh," from within, "that's bad enough."

Football takes sdmething out of a school. It was almost as if football provoked the major crises at Notre Dame. The obvious instance was Rockne's death, and it is hard to believe now that the President announced that Rockne would always be the head coach and a senior and a junior coach would be appointed, and that the dean of science went out giving talks on the head coach. Terry Brennan was "released" just when some of us were having dinner at a professor's home. "Released -- well, now, so what?" We had more fun that evening than professors are entitled to, and people said, "Tonight at the back door of Corby Hall, you will get your release." At a Thanksgiving party a month earlier several had impounded the stadium, but then relented and decided that it might be used for bull fights and turtle races. But I tell you, for people who go football or those who like me go qualifiedly football, it is difficult and as if unfair to joke about the sport. At a particularly tense moment, several tried a joke or two until a minor official told us to hush up. But did we?

College athletics, notably in basketball and football, easily lead to a suggestion of evil in two directions, the more obvious and common one being chiselling in regard to school work. Boys have to be kept eligible, there are soft-touch professors who will help, and the athletic department knows the tough-guys.

Secondly, freshman coming to know the inside story have the edge taken off their ideals. Once when I proctored an exam, two boys, far apart in the room, turned in papers remarkably similar, a fact which I noted in the margins. One, a pass-catching end in Rockne's time, said there was cheating, and he and I have been friends ever since; the other, a philosophy major, never spoke to me again. Twenty years later, a star appeared in my class in Ethics; boys had choice of topics for the first assignment, and a paper with the star's name on it was superb. I merely asked him in public what he had written about. He did not know.

Stars are tinder pressure with studies and an incredible lot of severe training; they have to remain eligible. Something has to give. A priest-dean told me he was tutoring a freshman star; at which I wondered a little. "But how is he, otherwise, to get a college education?" Another day, a priest said of another star: "Boy, I'm glad that fellow is a senior! All the patching up we've had to do to keep him eligible! And then we'll have to make him graduate, it's like giving him an honorary degree." The concentrated abuse is the "bowl games." Universities interested in education would abolish these.

Even a non-com like myself reads about slush funds at famous universities and about bidding for talent. A Big Ten university once grabbed a star who could not pass third-year high school, gave him a college entrance test and declared him eligible. Athletes are popular and heroic figures on the campus and sometimes in the nation. I think that because of the pressures on them and the demand for victory, professors, coaches and deans have more than common responsibilities in regard to possible corruption.

First and last, I love football and other sports. What would my summer be without swimming, sun-bathing and baseball, autumn without football, long winters without a glance at basketball? I have enjoyed the way some of my well-muscled boys have considered games. In class I asked a fullback, famous for making first downs, what he played football for. This boy had difficulty in his major which was Economics (did he ever make it?) but his good-sense reply was:

"For fun." In a Physical Education group we were studying final cause, why people do things; we tried naming final causes of various activities and came round to games. What are these for? A pious boy said, "To develop character," but the consensus was Thomistic, and a burly fellow said, "I'm glad we decided games are for fun, because I'm going to direct a playground and I want kids to have fun." I asked, "What does Coach Leahy coach football for -- for fun?" The reply in chorus: "We don't know what it is for, but it's not for fun!" My interpretation, unreleased until now, was that he took football as a holy war.

In the early 1930's I went to the games and kept track of who was on the first team, who was off and on again. It was serious business, yet I would say it was for fun. It couldn't be a holy war, I never made burnt offerings to win games, and neither could I see an Irish victory as a good crack at the Protestants. A priest, quite a character and ex-athlete, used to travel a thousand miles for every home game, and at a pre-game lunch I asked, "Which are you for, the Irish or the enemy?" "Me?" he said, "I'm not for any of your damned A.P.A.'s!" Think of holy wars and bigotry from the Catholic or Protestant side boring into a good enjoyable sport like college football.

The record is clear, I went along. But when hardly more than a practice teacher, I made a bad pass. Assigned to talk to priests, those teaching and others, on how to encourage students to read, I made the mistake of saying that libraries and laboratories were more basic college-wise than are football coaches. To say such a thing would have been bold for even a seasoned priest-professor, because Rockne was coach and naturally an idol, and because our then President, a poet, a holy man who was soon to preach Rockne's funeral sermon, was touchy about football as educator and had gone out of his way to refute (could anybody ever refute?) the rhyme, new and fresh then, which said the "Fighting Irish" were Italian, Polish and Jewish. I had done the evilest thing that one young man could do in one day, and a particular priest, a solid citizen though a rigid man, never did forgive me. The evil thing I had so blithely said could never be erased, and there it is, my first recorded stand for college over football.

As I was leaving for Europe in 1934, Elmer Layden was the new coach, a man with whom boys' welfare came first; victory was less important. When I came home, I had occasion to reflect, as earlier remarked, on the function of a Catholic university. Season tickets were given to each monk, and living some distance away I saved time by making do at lunch on an apple and a bottle of milk and sometimes I took a nap on a long table in the old Science Hall. The day of the first game, I devoured my repast, forewent the nap, and, ticket in hand, started for the game. I never got there. Because somehow the Roman holiday crowd, with which on football Saturdays I am always delighted, made me stop. In that jam and jamboree, I had to think fast: "Whatever I am to do, and whatever we are to be, this is not it."

That turning away sad (I really went to my cell and started writing an unpublishable novel) was the practical close of my football career. After some years, saying something at table about the game, I was stopped: "Ward, that shows how long since you were at a football game!" I could no longer identify either myself or the university with the football team. Confreres would say, "Do you think we'll win?" My reply, "You refer to the Irish?" One priest thought that my ringing the changes on "The Irish" was a throwback to Erin's bogs. It was a refusal of the identification: we, Notre Dame and the football team. To the announcer's saying, "Five yards penalty for Notre Dame university," I felt doubts. When the Army was coming to our campus, the local fever went up and up until a priest arriving for lunch late and out of breath and hope, a sensible man at that and a great linguist, said Army was going to shorten the time between halves! To which a priest who knew a lot about games and had wit, asked: "Who told you?"

"A girl in the offices."

"Oh, well, then I believe it!" Surely enough, down or up to janitors and maids, Notre Dame was like one fighting Irishman for that game and many another. An unbeatable spirit.

For all my pretended coolness, I repeat that in my theory football and other games are wonderfully good things. So much fun! Once when Notre Dame was sure to have a lopsided win, and all Corby Hall had its collective ear glued to the radio, I wanted to hear Minnesota, powerless and crippled all season, in a possible upset of Northwestern. For that unholy purpose, I got to an absentee's set. Surely enough, Minnesota, the referees duly warned, pulled a then allowable eleven-man sleeper play, a fast little man dashing past dazed linemen at the fifty and finally scoring after a lineman, never going down himself, knocked down one defender at the fifteen and another, Bill DeCorrevont no less, at the five! There is a lot of fun in football.

Copyright ©2000 by the Indiana Province of the Priests of Holy Cross. All rights reserved.

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