From "Out of Bounds"

Carideo, O’Conner, Mullins and Savoldi in their track uniforms. (From the University of Notre Dame Archives)

Carideo, O’Conner, Mullins and Savoldi in their track uniforms.
(From the University of Notre Dame Archives)

 

This article is called “Remembering Jumpin’ Joe Savoldi” and is by Rick Young for The South Bend Tribune.

“Hey, was your dad Jumpin’ Joe Savoldi?"

Joe Savoldi III has heard that question hundreds of time at athletic banquets and from customers at his Dodge dealership, even down in Birmingham, Ala., in the heart of Bear Bryant country.

His dad was indeed one of Notre Dame's all-time great backs and a colorful character to boot. Jumpin' Joe Savoldi was a sophomore on the 1928 "Win one for the Gipper" team, a junior on the undefeated 1929 national champion team and a senior on the 1930 squad, Knute Rockne's last and probably best team, which repeated as national champs.

Savoldi played in the Chicago Bears backfield with Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski. He was celebrated professional wrestler and was even a spy during World War II.

"His reputation has held up longer than you can imagine," said his son, a Harbert, Mich., native who started his own auto dealership in Birmingham in 1974. "My dad died in 1972. He would have been 74. There have been a lot of heroes at Notre Dame since he played, but the old-timers remember him.

"I was born in 1934, so I never saw him play football," continued his son. "But I saw him wrestle an awful lot. Before the age of five, I had been around the world with him. "He never got out of Italy with his purse because Mussolini confiscated it when dad refused to give the Fascist salute."

Joe Savoldi Jr. became Jumpin' Joe Savoldi against Carnegie Tech in 1929. "It was a goal line situation and he took a jump of the line and scored." his son said. "Everybody does it now, of course, but apparently nobody had thought of it back then.”

Savoldi played in only six games in 1930 before he was dismissed from Notre Dame for being married, a violation of university rules. Still, he made second team All-America.

"There was an awful lot of publicity about his being thrown out of school," Joe III said. "Of course, he always had the headlines anyway. The Bears gave him a few thousand dollars as a bonus, big money then, to play with them, and apparently his teammates resented it. He said when he hit the line, 20 guys would hit him."

Jumpin' Joe turned to wrestling in 1931.

Joe in his prime as a world champion wrestler – when that title meant something. (From the J.G. Savoldi collection)

Joe in his prime as a world champion wrestler – when that title meant something.
(From the J.G. Savoldi collection)

“Ed (Strangler) Lewis, one of the originators of big-time pro wrestling, took Dad under his wing and he wrestled for 16 years. Dad was 5-11, 220 pounds with an 18 ˝ inch neck and a chest that went along with it. A lot of his Italian relatives were stone masons. He was born in Italy and didn't get over here until he was 12.

"The way pro wrestling came about was that amateur wrestling was too dull for the audience," continued Joe III. “Pro basketball has emphasized offense and not defense over the years. Pro wrestling decided to do the same thing.

"In the early days, that meant if a guy had you down in a hold that you couldn't get out of but that wouldn't win the match, he let you out.

"But in those days if something flew out of your mouth it was a real tooth. They bled real blood. You might get thrown out of the ring 15 rows up in the stands. I've seen a wrestler wipe out a line of typewriters along press row.'

Jumpin' Joe was a spy after the breakout of the Second World War. "The government came to dad because he could speak fluent Italian and knew all the dialects. He was put in Italy six months before the invasion of Italy. After the war, he was a provost marshall of Naples."

Joe III, 47, was a standout collegiate athlete, too, but not at Notre Dame. "Notre Dame just kind of assumed I'd play there," recalled Joe. "But Michigan State delivered a football-basketball-track scholarship."

He played all three sports as a freshman, but concentrated on track afterwards. A high hurdler and decathlete, he felt he had a chance to make the 1956 Olympic team. But he tore up an ankle in the NCAA finals.

He admits frustration over Notre Dame's four victories without a loss of Alabama's football team. I’m for Notre Dame," he explains, "when they aren't playing Michigan State or Alabama.”