A Holiday edition of The Clarkives
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a Notre Dame fan.
My earliest remembrance of Notre Dame football is the 1970 Cotton Bowl game against Texas. It was Notre Dame’s first bowl appearance in 45 years since the Irish had played Stanford in the 1925 Rose Bowl.
I was just about to turn six and was in kindergarten at Central Elementary School in Portage, Indiana. Who would have thought, back then, that Notre Dame would play such an important role in my personal and professional life?
Back in those days, when Ara Parseghian was roaming the sidelines and there was only the college football game of the week, it was a magical time to be a Notre Dame fan.
Just imagine, today, if Notre Dame football games only aired a handful of times per season.
Fortunately, we had the syndicated “Notre Dame Replay” show with Lindsey Nelson and Paul Hornung. A show made famous for condensing a Notre Dame football game into an hour long show that was highlighted by Lindsey’s famous “ We now move to further action in the _____ quarter.”
WFLD-TV Channel 32 in Chicago would air the show in my area on Saturday nights around midnight, rather than Sunday mornings, and I would do everything in my power to stay awake to watch it. It was part of my Saturday night ritual. The other was to watch “Creature Features” on WGN-TV Channel 9.
In addition to my ritual, I also took part in our family tradition where we celebrated New Year’s Eve with extended family members in Logansport, Indiana.
My parents would make a dinner reservation at San Remo’s Restaurant in Griffith, Indiana and then drive us to my mother’s cousin’s home where we would welcome in the new year.
Back then, going out to dinner was a huge event. We did it, maybe, once a year and always dressed up for the occasion.
I looked forward to our annual trip, as much as I did to the frog legs and “Kiddie Cocktails” at San Remo’s, because my cousin, Mike Warner, was a huge Notre Dame fan.
Mike and I were the same age and our birthdays were only a month apart. We got along like a quarterback and center.
I was impressed by his knowledge of Notre Dame football and remember his football music box that played the Notre Dame Victory March when you opened it. It was his prized possession.
Mike and I were able to watch the first half of the 1973 Orange Bowl game between Notre Dame and Nebraska on New Year’s Day, but I had to leave at halftime to go home and I remember listening to the second half on the car radio.
Needless to say, it was not a pleasant listening experience. Especially when I learned that Roberto Clemente, a favorite baseball player of mine, had been killed in a plane crash the day before on New Year’s Eve.
Years later, I served as the play-by-play announcer for a baseball team in Lincoln, Nebraska and would speak to civic clubs where I would tell the story of listening to that Orange Bowl game on the radio and how Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers ruined my childhood when the Cornhuskers soundly defeated the Irish 40-6.
Fast forward 364 days to New Year’s Eve 1973 and the undefeated and third ranked Fighting Irish are playing the undefeated and top-ranked Crimson Tide of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
It was Ara Parseghian vs. Paul “Bear” Bryant for the national championship.
Once again, my family jumped into our American Motors station wagon, with the simulated wood panels on the sides, and drove to Logansport to celebrate the upcoming new year.
Mike and I had our evening planned. We would watch the Notre Dame game and then get ready to bang pots and pans at midnight while relatives would sing “Auld Lang Syne”.
But first we had a game to win.
We talked before the game about going undefeated and becoming national champions, while we listened to the Victory March over and over on his football music box. We just knew they were going to win.
Finally it was time for kickoff.
ABC had the coverage with, Indiana native, Chris Schenkel and Howard Cosell on the call.
The Irish scored first when Wayne Bullock crossed the goal line on a 6-yard run, but kicker Bob Thomas missed the extra point. Alabama would then score to take a 7-6 lead.
Mike began to feel a little bit nervous so I said to him, with extreme confidence, “Al Hunter is going to return the kickoff for a touchdown.”
The high end-over-end kick came down into the hands of Hunter, the Greenville, North Carolina native, on the far side of the field at the ND 7. He did a couple “shoulder shivers”, then found a seam up the middle and outran the Alabama defenders, looking like Secretariat in the Preakness, 93 yards into the end zone to give the Irish the lead and momentum.
Mike and I went wild and did a mixed “Irish jig-voodoo” type dance to celebrate. Coming back down to reality, since it was only the second quarter, we knew there was still a lot of football to be played. Mike did give me that “how did you know that” look, then went back to biting his nails.
Notre Dame would have an even more memorable play later in the game, one that I could not ever foresee or predict.
The Irish were pinned back against their own end zone with a third down. Quarterback Tom Clements got the play from Ara – “Power-I-right, tackle-trap-left” – a play where he could bootleg or pass.
Tight End Dave Casper was the intended receiver, but was called for being offside to put the ball inside the one yard line. Still third down, Clements took the snap, dropped back and looked for Casper. “Ghost” was not opened, so he looked upfield for reserve tight end Robin Weber who caught the ball for a key first down that preserved the victory and the national championship for the Irish – Notre Dame 24 Alabama 23.
1973 was, indeed, a magical season for Notre Dame and I wish I could bring back those emotional feelings I felt as a youngster. An excitement comparable to finding a commemorative bottle of 7-Up that celebrated Notre Dame’s national championship. Finding one in a carton was like hitting the lottery for a Notre Dame fan.
If you are in my age range, you probably have one of the bottles. There was no way you were going to turn it back in for the nickel or dime deposit.
The New Year’s tradition of visiting relatives in Logansport eventually faded away; San Remo’s closed its doors and, as I got older, my family created new holiday traditions closer to home.
I would return to Logansport a few years later, at the age of 18, where I started my radio career at WSAL-AM/FM in 1982 and would later would learn my colleague, Phil Houk, also had a Logansport connection. Perhaps he was in town on the same New Year’s Eve in 1973 watching the game at his relatives house.
Mike and I still see each other on occasion. He remains a loyal son of Notre Dame and has passed along his love for the Fighting Irish to his daughter, Kayla, who now roots for Notre Dame deep inside SEC territory. Mike’s nephew, John, recently led the flight crew that performed the flyover at the Georgia Tech game.
I do miss those magical days of watching Notre Dame football replays as a youngster and when the Irish return a kickoff for a touchdown, like Chris Tyree did this season against Wisconsin (which I predicted in the press box as verified by Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley), it brings a smile to my face and reminds me of watching the 1973 Sugar Bowl game with Mike on Ottawa Street in Logansport and listening to the Notre Dame football music box playing the Notre Dame Victory March.