FORMER SUBWAY ALUMNI LEADER REFLECTS ON HIS "NOTRE DAME ODYSSEY"


Herb Juliano
(1922-1998)

Herb's Archive this month will tell the story of Johnny "One-Play" O'Brien, famous for making the winning touchdown catch in the legendary "Win One For the Gipper" game against Army in 1928.

 

 


Johnny "One-Play" O'Brien
        

Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye...

Johnny "One-Play" O'Brien was one of Herb Juliano's favorite players. He was a quiet, unassuming young man who came out of Los Angeles to become a track star and world record holder for the 60-yard hurdles. His most lasting fame, however, was his amazing single play performance against Army in 1928. This game of course is famous for Rockne's half-time speech to the physically overmatched Notre Dame team. He told the story of George Gipp, and his death-bed request that "One day, when the going gets rough, to go out there and win one for the Gipper." This was the game, and they were the team.

Tragically, nine years later, Johnny O'Brien was killed in an auto accident. He was a Notre Dame assitant coach under Elmer Layden and he was returning home after showing game films to a Knights of Columbus
group in Chicago. Here is the game story, from Francis Wallace's "Notre Dame Story."

 

A heavily favored Army team kicks off to the
Irish in 1928. 
Rock's legendary "Win One for the Gipper"
speech would come at halftime.

Undefeated Army was waiting, the team that had scored 45 points to Notre Dame's 7 in the three previous
years; waiting with Red Cagle at the top of his form. 

I was pleasantly surprised when Army didn't seem to go anywhere at the start; when my little team began to punch-punch-punch like a drill press through that big and terrifying Army line; when they didn't stop short of the goal and when Collins, with his wrist in a cast, went over.
    The ball popped out of his hands! 
Army recovered and we lost that miracle touchdown. (The present automatic-touchdown rule was not then in the book.)

Now I waited for it to happen-for Army to roar and rush. But instead, my little guys came back like bicycles through heavy traffic, and this time Chevigny went over, held the ball, yelled: "There's one for the Gipper." (Army had scored earlier, so the score was now 6-6)

He did say that. I checked with Niemiec, my home town boy whom I had personally bird dogged into Notre  Dame, and who told me that, regardless of how I may have felt in the press box, there was never any doubt in the minds of the team on the field about their ability to win. he said they seemed very calm and workmanlike about it rather than emotional. They had prayed some at the beginning: but then Moynihan, the Chicago cowboy, said as how he 'lowed that by now the Lord knew what they wanted and would just as well be satisfied if they just went ahead and played football the best they knew how.

With the score at 6-all and three minutes to go, it was Notre Dame that was challenging, with Niemiec still in there on his one good leg, Collins with his wrist in a cast and Chevigny (nobody knows how long) out of his head.

The ball was on the Army 20 with third down and five to go. Chev had been running well all day "for the Gipper" and now was called to make the first down-but he missed the ball which bounced straight back with three Army linemen dashing for it-and in those days they could have picked it up and convoyed it all the way, which was probably what they would have done; but Chev's instinct beat them to it. Then they asked him the usual questions: he didn't know what day it was and out he came, was replaced by Billy Dew. And in this confusion, for the crowd was turbulent and both benches fluid, the tall sophomore end came in. Carideo had already called the pass play and O'Brien's entrance confirmed it.

"It was a regular reverse pass," Niemic said. "I got good blocking and had plenty of time to throw. I saw O'Brien was in the clear and knew the play would be good." Just like that, he said it and probably felt it-which gives you an idea of the poise of those young fellows on the field while the adult crowd goes mad.

On his first play Johnny O'Brien snared a pass by Johnny Niemiec and fell across the last stripe. He then returned to his place on the bench.

Niemiec took the ball, rolled out, saw that his line was holding, knew he could throw the ball if O'Brien was there - O'Brien was there - and now the ball, high and true and leading, up there for Johnny to grab it - he had it - was juggling it, was falling - but over the goaline with the ball and into immortality. {Score Notre Dame 12, Army 6]

O'Brien came out of the game, returned to the bench and  was hugged by Rockne. [Editors note:Legend has it that this was the only time Rockne hugged a player on the sidelines]
  
The boys replay those games years after; and once around a lunch table at the Paramount commissary in Hollywood, Moon Mullins told us what he had said to his pal O'Brien: " I told him if he hadn't caught it, he might as well have kept on going."     "I juggled it and fell," O'Brien chuckled, "and didn't know I was over the goal line."
    
That's what Army was up against that day, Notre Dame with all the stops out-think, fight, pray, work, fun. 
Cagle got hold of the kickoff, which he was not supposed to have done, set sail with all his fury and speed behind the enraged Army blockers, passed midfield, hit the sidelines, seemed to be going all the way when Collins came across and knocked him out of bounds with a shoulder block-the perfect play at the sidelines for Cagle was as hard to tackle as Blanchard or Davis in full flight.

The next two minutes were as riotous as I've ever seen at a football game, not excepting the finish at Ohio State in 1935. Cagle, on the option pass and run, was a touchdown threat on every play, a wild man, carrying, passing, moving steadily ahead; but Army drew two five-yard penalties- and suddenly Cagle was taken out of the game and Hutchinson came in.

I was never so glad to be rid of any man. Later I asked Biff Jones why he had taken Cagle out. He said time was running short-there was no electric clock for the crowd to see in those days- and Hutchinson was a better passer. Ted Twomey and Moynihan, in there at the time, told me that Cagle had also been arguing in the backfield.

Hutchinson threw a pass into a mass of men on the three yard line -and Army came up with it!

It was getting dark and the crowd was crazy. There was an argument with the officials-and through my field glasses I saw and Army man throw his headgear disgustedly to the ground. That gave me the first tip that the game might be over. It was.

[Editor's note: in a tragic and eerie footnote, four of the cheif actors in that game died violent deaths. Rock in a plane, Chevigny at Iwo Jima; O'Brien in an automobile accident, and Cagle, mysteriously on a subway platform.]

Nine years later, the Notre Dame campus was shocked to learn that Johnny O'Brien had been killed earlier that day. Below is the University Religious Bulletin, published March 12, 1937.

May He Have Heaven!

Johnny O'Brien spent his last earthly moment about 2:45 this morning behind the wheel of his car.

Last night he had shown the film, "Highlights of the Season of 1937," to a group of K.of C.'s in Harvard, Illinois. Anxious after the meeting to get home to his wife and three children, Johnny started out late for South Bend.

Near 99th Street, on Route 6, out of Chicago, his car crashed into a viaduct. When they got to Johnny he was dead.

Johnny was most prominent in Notre Dame athletics as "One Play" O'Brien. His fame started in 1928-the worst season that Notre Dame ever experienced under Knute Rockne. Army of that year was headed for the National Championship until Johnny O'Brien, tall and speedy, went into the game for his famous one play, to take the pass that beat Army.

In track he also starred. He was captain of the 1931 team, one of the most successful in Notre Dame history, and for a time, held the world's record in the 60-yard high hurdles.

After graduation, Johnny spent three years as assistant coach at Navy; in 1934 he became head coach and athletic director at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas; then, last spring, he returned to Notre Dame as end coach and assitant to Coach Nicholson. 

Thus he was know to the world at large.

Those who knew him intimately admired far more his many lovable qualities of character. He never seemed to get into a position where he couldn't tell the truth. And that, by the way, is immensely to any mans credit. He never sought the limelight, but once in it, he invariably came through-in life as well as in football.

He possessed a quiet, delicious sense of humor that functioned usually at his own expense. "Oh," he replied recently to a questioner, "my family made me a hurdler. I was the youngest in a family of boys. I learned to clear fences running away from my older brothers."

Johnny lived always as a true Notre Dame man. How comforting to say that, because, since he really lived that way, Our Lady wouldn't abandon him at the hour of his death.

Tomorrow at 6:25 in the main church there will be a solemn requiem high mass for Johnny. Father O'Hara, President of the University will be the celebrant; Father O'Donnell, vice-president, will be the deacon; Father Carrico, director of studies, sub-deacon. 

Students in the halls are asked to attend and to offer Holy Communion in a body. Confessions will be heard at night prayer tonight and (for a limited number) during the Mass tomorrow.

To Johnny's bereaved wife and family the tenderest sympathy of all at Notre Dame. May Our Lady take care of him.
 

 

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