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Army-Notre Dame Stirs Yankee Stadium Ghosts

This article was published on November 17, 2010 in the The New York Times.  Story was written by Bill Pennington.

To understand how universally significant the Yankee Stadium football games between Army and Notre Dame once were, it is worth revisiting World War II's Battle of the Bulge. During the winter of 1944-45 in Belgium, American troops were surrounded and being infiltrated by English-speaking German spies dressed as American soldiers.

How did the Americans tell friend from foe?

They asked any unfamiliar face to tell them the score of Army's 1944 game with Notre Dame.

Because every G.I. knew that at sold-out Yankee Stadium on Nov. 11 - then a holiday called Armistice Day - top-ranked Army had routed No. 5 Notre Dame, 59-0.

"Those games were the Super Bowl of today," said Joe Steffy, an Army team captain and lineman in the 1940s. "There was no more famous place to perform any sport than Yankee Stadium, and there was no rivalry bigger than Army and Notre Dame. Many years, it was the national championship game."

Terry Brennan, a fleet back for Notre Dame in the same era who went on to coach Notre Dame, remembered a pregame buildup unmatched by any other week in the schedule.

"For Army week, it was like the whole sports world stopped," Brennan said. "We got off the train to New York and couldn't walk across the platform, there was such a crowd. We didn't even stay in Manhattan; we went 50 miles north to the Bear Mountain Inn, where it was quieter."

Army and Notre Dame will resume their historic rivalry Saturday at the new Yankee Stadium under different circumstances. Neither team is ranked, though Army (6-4) is bowl-eligible for the first time in 14 years and Notre Dame (5-5) is coming off a 25-point upset of Utah.

But the first college football game at the new Yankee Stadium is also the first Yankee Stadium game between Army and Notre Dame since 1969, and it has stirred ghosts from Knute Rockne to Doc Blanchard.

It is also a time to remember that Notre Dame's famed "subway alumni" were spawned by the Yankee Stadium games from the 1920s to the 1940s. The term originally referred to first-generation Americans of European descent who flocked to Yankee Stadium from the five New York City boroughs to cheer Notre Dame players with names like O'Donnell, Carideo and Mieszkowski. In the succeeding decades, Notre Dame's subway alumni represented the next emerging power in America - the sons and daughters of immigrants - and they spread Notre Dame's popularity nationwide.

Cheering for the other side were hundreds of thousands of Army veterans from two world wars - and their families - who treated the footballers from West Point as if they were a national college team.

This unique rivalry began in 1913 because Yale unexpectedly dropped Army from its schedule. Army, eager to fill the open date, accepted an invitation to host little-known Notre Dame at West Point. Notre Dame was so obscure that The New York Times previewed the game with an article that listed Notre Dame as hailing from South Bend, Illinois, not Indiana.

A daring passing attack, however, led Notre Dame to a shocking 35-13 upset. Army won the rematch the next year, and the annual competition was on.

By 1923, West Point's on-campus field was too small for the crowds congregating to see the Notre Dame games. The game was moved to Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, then the Polo Grounds and, finally, in 1925, to Yankee Stadium, which had opened two years earlier. Army won two of the first three games at Yankee Stadium and was heavily favored to win the 1928 game as well. At the half, the score was 0-0.

It was at this moment that Rockne supposedly gave his "Win One for the Gipper" speech, an emotional oration about a deathbed conversation with the Notre Dame great George Gipp, who died of pneumonia eight years earlier.

There is considerable doubt whether Gipp ever uttered such a sentiment to Rockne. Some researchers also dispute when the speech was made. A recent biography, "The Gipper," by Jack Cavanaugh, quotes Rockne players and assistants who insist the speech was given before the game started.

What is unquestioned is that Notre Dame took a 12-6 second-half lead and held on - even with Army at the 1 as the game ended - before 78,188 roaring fans.

When the tale of Rockne's motivational speech made it into the New York newspapers, Army-Notre Dame's intense competition had an immortal hero - and soon, a cinematic champion played by Ronald Reagan - to go with the football drama.

The teams played at Yankee Stadium every year thereafter except in 1930, when the game was played at Chicago's Soldier Field. The game was occasionally played in snow, sleet and rain and always before crowds of about 75,000. And although Notre Dame won most of the time in the 1930s, the games remained close, with one of the teams usually ranked high enough to be competing for the national title.

A Notre Dame lineman in the room listening to Rockne's 1928 Gipper speech was Frank Leahy, a son of Irish immigrants who became Notre Dame's coach in 1941 after stops at Georgetown, Boston College and Fordham, where he coached Vince Lombardi. His familiarity with the Eastern Seaboard made Leahy a seasoned recruiter, and he began stealing players from all the Eastern powers, including Army.

One such player was Johnny Lujack of Connellsville, Pa., who turned down Army's offer to play instead at Notre Dame.

"A lot of people in town called my dad to tell him what a terrible mistake I was making," said Lujack, who as an 18-year-old quarterback led Notre Dame to a 26-0 victory over Army in 1943.

World War II depleted the rosters of hundreds of college football teams. At the same time, the soon-to-be legendary duo of Blanchard and Glenn Davis was beginning a three-year run at West Point. They were the unstoppable forces in the 59-0 whitewash heard round the world in 1944 and a 48-0 Army victory at Yankee Stadium in 1945. Davis and Blanchard won back-to-back Heisman Trophies.

By 1946, war veterans were back on campus setting up what sportswriters that year called the Game of the Century at Yankee Stadium between No. 1-ranked and undefeated Army and No. 2 and undefeated Notre Dame. Like many a Super Bowl to come, the hype seemed to overwhelm the participants and coaches, and a boring, tactical game ensued. With neither team taking many chances, the result was a 0-0 tie.

"I had lunch years later with Red Blaik," Brennan said of the Army coach. "When we talked about the 1946 game, he said: 'I choked. We should have been more aggressive. But Leahy choked, too. He did the same thing.' "

The game hinged on two moments - Army's stopping Notre Dame at its 4 in the second quarter (Notre Dame did not try a field goal), and Lujack's open-field third-quarter tackle of Blanchard, who had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in the season-opening game (surgery for that injury was decades away).

"John did a good job chasing me to the sideline and grabbed my legs," Blanchard, who died last year, said in a 2003 interview. He then cackled: "But before my knee injury, I wouldn't have been running toward the sideline. I would have just run him over."

Lujack called the tackle routine at the time. Since then, he has amended that thought.

"For more than 60 years, people have been telling me it saved the game of the century, so I guess it was a pretty big tackle," said Lujack, one of four Heisman Trophy winners to play in the game. Lujack won the trophy in 1947; his teammate, end Leon Hart, won it in 1949.

After the 1946 game, Army and Notre Dame did not play at Yankee Stadium for 23 years. In 1969, Notre Dame was heavily favored with a top-five ranking, but midway through the first quarter, there was no score.

"I remember being on the field, kind of looking around and thinking that this is where Mantle and Berra had played and Johnny Unitas and Y. A. Tittle, too," said Tom Gatewood, then a sophomore wide receiver for Notre Dame. "I looked at the huge crowd and stadium and thought, 'Wow, this is a big deal.' "

Soon Gatewood was streaking downfield chasing a long pass from quarterback Joe Theismann.

"As the ball was in the air, the entire crowd was silent," Gatewood said in a telephone interview last week. "Every eye in the place was watching the flight of the ball, but nobody was making any noise. Then, at the very second the ball touched my hands, there was an explosion of sound.

"I caught the ball and ran toward the end zone."

It was a 55-yard scoring pass, the first touchdown in a 45-0 Notre Dame victory.

"I remember standing there knowing that I was now a part of the history of this place and this unbelievable rivalry," Gatewood said. "The crowd was just going crazy. I have to say I'm so glad they're going back to Yankee Stadium. That game belongs there."

 

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