(Photo: Notre Dame Media Archives)
Editor’s note: this article has been updated to make a correction. The Green Bay Packers are on a bye this week not at the Denver Broncos as previously reported.
It was 50 years ago this month, on the back of Eric Penick’s famous 85-yard touchdown run to the endzone, that the Irish defeated 6th ranked at the time, USC 23-14 en route to the National Championship. That 1973 Irish team will be on campus this coming weekend celebrating the 50-year anniversary of their title and to be honored by the University. The anniversary of that big win and Penick’s run makes this week’s USC match-up a particularly appropriate weekend for the celebration.
Many luminaries from that team are expected to be in attendance, including Penick.
Penick’s big run is what is most remembered about him, and it is one of the great moments in ND football lore, but there is much more to Penick’s life than that one play. For starters he battled his way through a serious health issue recently that ultimately required the amputation of a leg. His story is one of the many that has come from the ranks of the 1973 team that not only won it all, but held its opponents to just 6.6 points per-game and rushed for a school record, that still stands of 350.2 yards per game.
A big contributor to that rushing attack was Penick.
Penick came to Notre Dame in 1971 out of Gilmour Academy near Cleveland with a reputation as a big, lightning fast runner. While at Gilmour his junior year, he had won state titles in the 100- and 220-yard dash. That was impressive, but as a senior he outdid himself. Penick accomplished the rare feat of sweeping three events at the State of Ohio championship meet, the 100, 220 and 440. Those three first place finishes resulted in enough team points to singlehandedly earn his school a State Championship.
Ara Parseghian and ND fans were excited to welcome this phenom to South Bend. Penick had all the attributes of a great runner. As a track champion, his impressive speed was obvious, and at 6-1 209 he was unusually big for the times to be carrying the football, in a non-fullback role.
He broke out as a sophomore in 1972 and led the Irish in rushing with 727 yards and five touchdowns. Then in 1973 he played a huge role with 586 yards and seven TDs.
Two of those scores were pivotal for the Irish in 1973.
The first was the electrifying run against USC. It was mid-season and the Trojans were ranked #6 at the time. In the third quarter with the Irish holding a tenuous 13-7 lead, Penick took a pitch to the left at his own 15-yard line, followed some key blocks and exploded 85 yards to the end zone. Penick was mobbed on the field and Notre Dame Stadium roared. The Irish went on to a 23-14 victory over their archrival.
Penick’s second big TD in the 1973 season occurred against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. With the Tide leading late in the 3rd quarter 17-14, the Irish recovered a fumble at the Alabama 12. On the first play of the drive, Penick took a counter action handoff from Tom Clements off tackle to the left, and scampered his way to the end zone.
The Irish prevailed that night in what had been dubbed, “The Battle of New Orleans”, 24-23, and were awarded the 1973 National Championship.
Fate however then stepped in and changed Penick’s trajectory which seemed to have him on its way to the NFL.
During spring practice leading up to his senior year, Penick suffered a devastating injury that included a broken leg and torn ligaments in his ankle. The recovery was slow and he was limited to just 12 carries during his final ND season. In fact Penick was never the quite the same after the injury.
After being drafted by and spending a short time with the Denver Broncos, Penick put his ND degree to good use. He went into the financial consulting business and spent many years with United Lending Partners. In 1985 his work took him the Dallas, Texas and he liked it so much, he stayed for over 35 years.
Penick now lives with his daughter in Michigan, and recently co-authored an autobiography, A Notre Dame Man: The Life, Lore and Runs of Eric Penick (2023, by Penick and Stephen Alexander with a forward by College and NFL Hall of Fame Tight End, and 1973 teammate, Dave Casper). The book, which has been well received, explores Penick’s life from his 1953 birth in Cleveland to his days as an elite athlete and to his life after football. It details the story of his successes and battles against adversity, including the major health challenge in 2022.
Penick will be signing his book at the Hammes Bookstore on campus from 9:30-11 AM, the morning of this week’s battle with the Trojans. During the signing the fan who caught the football that Penick flipped into the stands after his run against USC is expected to present the ball back to Penick.
Among others expected to be at the 1973 team reunion are: Reggie Barnett, George Hayduk, Mike Townsend, Dave Casper, Wayne Bullock, Gary Potempa, Frank Pomarico, Robin Weber, Drew Mahalic, Sherm Smith , Steve Niehaus, Kevin Nosbusch, Rick Slager, Steve Quehl, Greg Collins, Frank Allocco, Steve Sylvester, and Jim Stock.
The status of starting quarterback from the team, Tom Clements, for this weekend is not known. Clements is a little busy this time of the year as an assistant coach for the Green Bay Packers. The Packers however are on a bye this week.