Reflections from the Dome

Notre Dame's famed 1966 backfield with Rocky (l) Larry Conjar (c) and Nick Eddy (r)

Notre Dame's famed 1966 backfield with Rocky (l) Larry Conjar (c) and Nick Eddy (r).

 

The following chapter, is an excerpt from the book Fighting Back by Rocky Bleier and Terry O'Neil. The chapter is entitled "Notre Dame," and tells about Rocky's student life under the Golden Dome.

Notre Dame

If you're familiar with some of those wild, dicey tales of illegal college recruiting practices, I'm afraid you'll be a little disappointed in the story of how I got to Notre Dame.

I wasn't one of the "blue-chippers," as recruiters call them. I received about twenty letters of interest, mainly from Wisconsin state schools, the Big Ten, and a few independents, such as Notre Dame, Boston College, and Miami of Florida.

When I was in high school, all I knew about Notre Dame was that a guy named Knute Rockne had coached there and built a winning football tradition. I didn't know where it was, or how big it was. I had surely never been to Indiana, and I don't think I'd ever heard of South Bend.

All of that was changed by an Appleton restaurant owner, Russ Skall. He was an alumnus, and one of the thousands of arms in Notre Dame's national scouting network. He recommended me to Hugh Devore, the ND coach in 1963, and drove me to South Bend one Saturday morning in the fall of my senior year. Notre Dame lost to Wisconsin, 14-9, that day, but before the game, I was ushered into Devore's office. He tossed a lot of compliments at me, which was somewhat surprising to hear from a college coach, and then he promised I would be offered a grant-in-aid, which was downright astounding.

A few months later, in January, 1964, a rumor circulated in Appleton that Vince Lombardi of the Packers would become Notre Dame's new coach. I was in the bar when I heard it, and I promptly went from table to table, from stool to stool, announcing that if St. Vincent was going to South Bend, I was, too. Of course, the rumor was unfounded, and the Irish eventually hired Ara Parseghian from Northwestern. I'd never heard of him.

The next month, I got some advice that seemed logical from Dave Hurd, the Notre Dame assistant who was recruiting me. He said, "Rocky, you can visit all the schools you want. They all roll out the red carpet with dates and parties. You'll have a great time everywhere. But that won't help you make a decision. On the contrary, it'll only confuse you. Instead, why not pick three schools that interest you for solid reasons. Visit just those three, and then make your decision."

So I did. On consecutive weekends, I went to Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Boston College. I did not, however, allow football to interfere with another of my loves. Here is a letter I sent to Dave Hurd in February, 1964:

Dear Mr. Hurd,

As you know, I am supposed to come down on the weekend of March 6-8, but I just found out that the school band is having their concert that weekend and I'll have to play. I was wondering if I could get the date changed to another weekend, maybe to the 14th, or to any weekend that you might think would be good.

Sincerely, Rocky Bleier

I really did love playing my trumpet in the band. In fact, during my freshman year, when band practice and basketball practice conflicted, I went to band for an hour after classes, then to the last half hour of basketball. As you can imagine, Torchy was less than enthralled with my lack of devotion, and told me to make a choice. Luckily, band was changed before my decision was due. If he'd forced me, I don't know what I would have chosen. That's how committed I was to the trumpet.

Dave Hurd was more understanding, though. He rescheduled my visit for Friday, March 13 ...a perfect day to meet the previously unknown Coach Parseghian.

Ara was overwhelming to me. He had that dark Armenian face, the firm chin, wavy black hair flecked with gray, and those piercing, deep-set eyes. He looked like a head coach. He had such presence in one-to-one conversation, especially on his own turf. He impressed me that day, and later, as being extremely well organized. All through the interview, he took notes in longhand on a yellow legal pad. ..notes which he filed and retains in his office today, He began the conversation

 

"We offer less than the NCAA permits," Ara said, "so if you're looking for something under the table, I'll close my books right now and end the discussion. Once you sign the grant, it's yours for four years. We don't take it back if you're injured or don't play well. We give room, board, tuition, and books. We don't give the fifteen-dollars-a-month laundry money, but we have our own laundry on campus, and we'll give you tickets for it."

Not only did Notre Dame have its own laundry, it had its own barbershop for my crew cut, its own clothing store, its own bookstore and dining halls. It was a city within itself, and quite small-just six thousand undergraduates in those days. In fact, the campus even had its own movie theater, Washington Hall, where I went that Saturday night to be entertained.

Remember, 1964 was before coeducation. This was the social event of the weekend. The place was jammed with guys screaming epithets at each other and at the figures on the screen. That may seem a little childish to you, but I was a naive Midwestern kid from a Christian Brothers high school, and I enjoyed the camaraderie I found.

I was escorted around campus for the weekend by Tom Regner, an offensive lineman, and Kevin Hardy, a defensive lineman. They were both in the area of 6-feet-4, 260 pounds, both became All-America, and both had their heads shaved nearly to the scalp. They were truly imposing sights for this little lad, but they were genuinely friendly and I liked the way everybody on campus said hello to them.

I saw Coach Parseghian again before I left Notre Dame. In a rather forceful and persuasive manner, he offered me a grant-in-aid and asked me to sign it immediately. These are his notes from the earlier interview:

Rocky Bleier, Xavier H.S., Appleton, Wisconsin. 18. 5-10 1/2, 177 . Born 3-5-46. Ranked 18th in a class of 111. College boards: Verbal 435, Math 525. Wants liberal arts. Dad tavernkeeper. Averaged 12 points in basketball. Runs track: 100 ...:10.3, 220 ...:22.9, shotput ...46 feet. Scored 55 TDs in three years, scored 21 TDs in senior year. ND first school he has visited. Football team has won 34 in a row, 49 of 50 in basketball. This boy has good personality. Decided to pitch him. Will visit two others-Wis, B.C. Parents want boy to come to ND.

I really never had a chance. But at that point, anyway, I resisted and kept my promise to sign nothing until I'd visited the other two schools.

The Wisconsin trip was heady stuff because the coach, Milt Bruhn, lavished me with praise. He said, "I've never seen anybody so quick laterally. You move faster laterally than most guys do forward." Bruhn promised to start me at halfback in my sophomore year, along with Tom Jankowski of Whitefish Bay, the stud fullback in the state. What he could not promise, however, was to reduce the student body by about 80 percent. There are nearly as many students on the campus at Madison as there are residents in all of Appleton. It's the biggest of the Big Ten, and I felt too small-town to be comfortable there.

Boston College was a serious alternative. I liked the city and the campus. It was different from anything I'd known in the Midwest.

I allowed one week to make a decision, and wore out my knees praying to the Lord for guidance. I knew my mother wanted me to go to Notre Dame. ..for all the irrational reasons that most Catholic mothers want their sons to go to Notre Dame. While neither she nor Dad ever tried to exert an influence, Dave Hurd took one final precaution. On March 24, the evening I said I'd decide, he spent two hours talking on the telephone to Mom. ..just to be sure the other coaches would get a busy signal. He really didn't need to. In the end, I was sure I wanted Notre Dame.

When I got there, however, I wasn't so sure Notre Dame needed me. The first order of business for freshmen in the fall was to be timed in the forty-yard sprint. As we assembled in the old Fieldhouse, it was all I could do to keep my jaw from falling open. These guys were monsters. I thought I was good-sized, at about 185 pounds, until I saw Ralph Moore, a fullback who went 6-feet-2, 220 pounds. He had a shaved head that made him look even meaner, and when he ran, he kicked his knees up near his chest. There was another behemoth named Jim Yacknow, a tight end with size, strength, hands, everything. He had a heavy beard and looked so mature that one player walked into the Fieldhouse and asked him, "Where do we go, Coach?"

I thought, "What the hell am I doing here?"

Freshman year was really not much fun. We had no games, so it was practice, practice, practice. We ran the opponents' plays against the varsity defense in what was supposed to be dummy scrimmage, but always turned out to be "live" contact. Those defensive linemen never missed a chance to cheap-shot the little freshman back with an elbow or a forearm. It grew cold and dark in early November on Cartier Field, our practice facility. For the first time in my life, I was eager for a season to end.

It was only small consolation that the varsity was having a great season, winning its first nine games with John Huarte throwing for a Heisman Trophy to Jack Snow. In the final game, they were knocked off, 21-17, in the last few minutes at Southern California. But 9-1 was cause for delirium, coming on the heels of 2-7 in 1963. It was Notre Dame's first winning record since the Terry Brennan era ended in 1958. We freshmen never felt part of it, though. We watched the varsity on television like the other fans.

Freshman life apart from football was not much fun, either. I didn't know anybody in South Bend-least of all, any girls-and there wasn't much to do on campus. I worked off most of my excess energy in impromptu wrestling matches with Chuck Grable, my roommate. We'd lock the door, strip down to our scivvies, and go at it for as long as an hour. ..amicably, yet intensely, with beds, desks, dressers, lockers, lamps, and chairs flying allover the room.

Drinking in the dorm was another occasional diversion. One night, we sat around like a bunch of cowboys. playing stud poker and drinking straight shots of whiskey. I finally passed out. Chuck and the others were caught by our floor prefect, a priest, who told me the next day, "1 don't know how you can stand it, all that drinking and rowdiness in your room while you're trying to sleep." I agreed it was tough.

It was also a tremendous relief, our prefect thinking I wasn't involved with the card party. As in Appleton, I was very concerned with my image. I wanted everybody to think highly of me. To this day, in fact, I place a high premium on making a good impression.

At Notre Dame, I was always happy to join in the dormitory pranks, as long as I wasn't caught. The occasional drinking, shaving-cream bombs, setting wooden doors on fire with lighter fluid, hiding moldy bread in someone's room. ..we did lots of devilish things to entertain ourselves and kill time.

Those first nine months seemed like nine years. I actually hated Notre Dame. But, of course, I didn't tell anybody back home. They all thought it was such an honor for me to be going there. ..to the University of Our Lady, with all that wonderfull tradition, and that quality education, and that sensational football team. How could I tell anybody I didn't like Notre Dame?

Plus I knew several guys from Appleton who'd gone away to school, then dropped out and returned home. I' d always considered that rather gutless. I was determined to stick it out at ND.

By sophomore year, I had my football confidence back and knew I would play in spite of my size. ..or maybe because of it. I have what I think is an interesting theory about Coach Parseghian and his offensive coordinator, Tom Pagna. Both were running backs at Miami of Ohio ... the kind of running backs who survived on versatility, good hands, steady blocking, picking the right hole. Neither did it on exceptional size or speed. Consequently, I feel they recruited and played backs who were made in their image and likeness. They wanted all-around athletes and they wanted winners.

I guess I was their kind of guy. I had played basketball and football, and pitched four summers of Legion baseball. In track, I had run the 100, the 220, and the half-mile relay, put the shot, and long jumped. I'd won eleven high school letters, and my teams had won football, basketball, and track conference titles in each of my last three years.

Publicity still of a young Rocky Bleier.

Publicity still of a young Rocky Bleier.

 

In addition, I was compactly built, just as Ara and Tom were. That's the way they wanted their backs. They used to see a tall back on film and say to each other, "He's cut too high." Tom subsequently told me they'd made a study of the leverage principles involved in blocking, and the stride patterns of the tall runner versus the short runner. They'd had success with the versatile, smaller man, who might not have had breakaway speed, but never made a critical mistake or missed an assignment.

In the eleven years of the Parseghian-Pagna Era, therefore, the offensive backs looked like they came stamped out of a machine: Bill Wolski, Joe Farrell, Nick Eddy, Larry Conjar, Rocky Bleier, Bob Gladieux, Dan Harshman, Ron Dushney, Ed Ziegler, Jeff Zimmerman, Bill Barz, Denny Allan, John Cieszkowski, Andy Huff, Ed Gulyas, Bob Minnix, Eric Penick, Art Best, Wayne Bullock. Eddy and Penick may have had a little more speed, and Cieszkowski and Bullock a little more size than the rest of us. But essentially, we all had about the same tools.

"A halfback is half tank and half cat," Pagna used to tell us. We spent four years at Notre Dame trying to live up to that description. .. trying to become the complete players Ara and Tom had been at Miami.

My sophomore season began with a sprained ankle, but by the second game, I was ready for fourth-quarter duty with the all-sophomore backfield. ..Tom Schoen at quarterback, Paul May at fullback, Dan Harshman and me at halfback. After the upperclassmen had put the victory away, Ara would send us in all together. We'd rush onto the field with the fans screaming," And they're only soph-ah-mores." The opposing defenses must have been pretty tired by the time we arrived, because I ended the season with the team's best rushing average, 5.6 yards a carry .

I got only one start that year. In a 69-13 victory at Pittsburgh, Bill Wolski tied a fifty-year-old record with five touchdowns. I don't know if he was injured or just exhausted, but he couldn't play the next week against North Carolina. I took his place and had a good day- eleven carries, sixty-six yards.

Yet I was suffering an identity crisis. I just couldn't focus a mental picture of running alongside Nick Eddy and Larry Conjar. Fortunately, Torchy Clark [Rocky's high school coach] was in South Bend for that game, and he obliterated my identity crisis as only Torchy could.

"The hell you don't belong in that backfield," he said. "You're as good as any of those guys." So much for insecurity.

Two weeks later, we finished the season 7-2-1, which is about the record we deserved.

Spring ball before the 1966 season was tremendously exciting. A battle for the starting quarterback job developed between two freshmen-Coley O'Brien, who came heralded from Washington, D.C., and Terry Hanratty, who merely came from Butler, Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, the coaches were installing a pair of new offenses. They conceived a two-back offense, basically for passing, which employed Curt Henneghan as a flanker. And there was a three-back offense, which called for me to replace Henneghan and function as both a runner and wide receiver. Ara seemed committed to using both systems until midway through spring practice, when I developed a respiratory infection and missed a week's work.

I quickly learned that "The Man" is short of patience on only two matters in life-missed assignments and missed practice, no matter how good your excuse. So, with the freshmen throwers coming along, Ara decided to junk the three-back offense and go exclusively with Henneghan. All summer, I cursed my misfortune. But then, in prefall practice, the situation turned inside out. Henneghan returned to campus with a pulled hamstring, and guess who became a starter?

So did Hanratty. In the final week before the opener, Ara decided he liked Terry's size and stronger arm more than Coley's polish. But what a spot for him: The first game of his college career was to be played on national television against Purdue, the intrastate rival, the Top Ten challenger, the team with Bob Griese. A year earlier, Griese had completed nineteen of twenty-two passes and beaten us single-handedly.

On the first series of downs, we drove to the Purdue 8-yard line. There, Hanratty made a bad toss on a pitch-sweep. The ball hit me on the right shoulder pad, and before I could control it, three Boilermakers hammered me. An unknown sophomore cornerback named Leroy Keyes caught it in midair and went ninety yards for a touchdown.

Leroy eventually became a sensational player on both offense and defense. But when I see him these days, I always say, "Leroy, I should get ten percent of your contract every year. I made you what you are. I made you an All-America in nine seconds." That was his first game as well, and I put him on display like a debutante. "Our play" made every highlight film and television show of the season.

On the ensuing kickoff, however, Nick Eddy matched Keyes's effort with a coast-to-coast run of his own. I didn't block anybody on the play, but I sure looked pretty leading Nick into the end zone. And I felt a whole lot better than I had a few moments earlier .

Later in the game, Hanratty atoned for his poor pitch. He and Jim Seymour connected thirteen times for 276 yards, and we won, 26-14.

Then they did it nine times against Northwestern and eight more against Army. All of a sudden, everybody was making up nicknames for these two sophomores, calling them the greatest playmates since Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davis. We were No.1, and life was lovely.

The No.2 team was Michigan State, and before long, the season became a pedantic countdown to our (fill in the blank with your favorite adjective. ..cosmic, cataclysmic, monolithic) meeting on November 19. The Spartans beat all their opponents by an average of twenty-two points per game. We beat ours by thirty-four. In fact, it reached an absurd level against Duke on the Saturday before the "Big One."

Tom Pagna had always regaled us with heroic tales of his playing days. His favorite epic concerned a game at Miami of Ohio in which he was never tackled. Pagna said he ran the ball four times for four touchdowns. Then Ara, who was his coach at the time, took him out of the game because Miami was so far ahead. Just for effect, Tom told us he wore his uniform the next week without sending it to the cleaners. He was not bashftll in mentioning that his feat would never be duplicated.

Well, against Duke, Nick Eddy duplicated it. And I almost did. Nick ran the ball once for seventy-seven yards and a touchdown. I ran the ball twice and had one TD. We scored every time we had possession in the first half, for forty-three points.

Then the weeklong buildup for Michigan State began. And it was at least equal to the game itself. Their students started things by dumping leaflets out of an airplane as it circled our campus. The leaflets were addressed to the "peace-Ioving villagers of Notre Dame." They asked: "Why do you struggle against us? Why do you persist in the mistaken belief that you can win, freely and openly, against us? Your leaders have lied to you. They have led you to believe you can win. They have given you false hopes."

Every night was occasion for a pep rally. The band marched around campus, playing the "Victory March" nonstop. Thousands of students fevered themselves, tossing around the rolls of toilet paper they would need the next morning. Ultimately, all would converge on a particular dorm and chant a player's name until he poked his head out the window and uttered a few incoherent phrases about the hated Spartans. It was great fun.

The newspapers spent all week informing America that Bubba Smith, State's pick-your-adjective defensive end, was slimmed down to 283 pounds with a 14D shoe, a 19 1/2-inch collar, and a size 52-long MSU blazer. I didn't need to read it. I had seen the movies. Until then, the best lineman I'd played was Granville Liggins of Oklahoma, who was only 5-feet-10, 215 pounds. But zip, was he quick. Now here was Bubba in game films, jumping over linemen, splitting the double-team block. ..nearly as quick as Liggins. And seventy pounds heavier!

The train ride to State was another experience. Their fans were standing on the platforms in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo-some even stood along the tracks, in cornfields and on dairy farms-jeering and holding sheet signs: "Bubba for Pope," "Hail Mary, full of grace, Notre Dame's in second place." None of that, however, was as bad as our arrival in East Lansing.

As I disembarked, I noticed the metal steps were slippery with ice. Behind me, I heard a yelp. It was my roommate on the road, Nick Eddy. He'd slipped, missed his grab for the handrail, and reinjured his bruised shoulder. He was doubled over, crying with pain and with the instant realization that he couldn't play in the biggest game of his career .

People called it "The Game of the Century" that year. ..which was not especially important, because somebody makes that statement about one game in nearly every college football season. What is significant is that now, nine years later, some of the experts are still calling it "The Game of the Century."

In the pregame warm-up, I was entranced-almost dizzy, or high - at the sight and sound of the seventy-six thousand fans in Spartan Stadium. Nothing I ever experienced on a football field, before or since, has equaled it. The chants rocked and swayed at a deafening level. Try to imagine quadraphonic speakers blasting the Rolling Stones at full volume. It was like that. ..clearly, the edge of insanity.

The game started disastrously for us. Our center, George Goeddeke, separated his shoulder and exited on the first series. Next time we had the ball, a messenger lineman mistakenly brought in a quarterback draw play. (Ara would never have taken that risk intentionally.) Hanratty ran it for four yards before George Webster pinned him and Bubba pounced on top, separating Hanratty's shoulder. State's offense, meanwhile, forged a 10-0 lead.

We came back just before the half on a thirty-four-yard TD pass from Coley O'Brien, Hanratty's substitute, to Bob Gladieux, Eddy's substitute. At the start of the fourth quarter, we got a Joe Azzaro field goal, and that was all the scoring. 10-10. The numbers will live forever.

There was plenty of postgame discussion about Ara's decision not to call time-out and not to pass when we had possession for the last six downs of the game. There was some discussion on the field, too. Bubba yelled, "Come on, sissies, throw the ball. I'll call time-out for you."

Charlie Thornhill, their linebacker, who had an exceptional game, screamed, "You don't want it."

I've always defended Ara's reasoning. We'd been stripped of our offensive weapons, we'd come back from a ten-point deficit, our defense had kept Michigan State outside our 45-yard line in the second half. Then, the critics wanted us to throw long, desperate passes into a prevent defense that was specifically designed to intercept them.

And consider our quarterback. Coley O'Brien is diabetic. He drank orange juice and ate candy bars on the sideline to maintain his insulin at a safe level. In this game, he was so tense that he recalls little or nothing of the action. Ara knew he'd done a great job bringing us back. He was not about to throw it all away with frivolous play-calling in the last minute.

I was our leading ball carrier, with fifty-seven yards. I wondered if I'd fufilled the expectations of Larry Conjar, our senior fullback and one of the offensive leaders. Before the game, he'd said to me, "Nick isn't going to play. The responsibility is on your shoulders. You can't let us down."

I also caught three passes for sixteen yards, but I paid for those. On a catch over the middle in the third quarter, Charles Phillips, State's defensive back, speared me with his helmet in the kidney. After the game, I felt a rush of pain while standing at the urinal. I looked down and noticed I was passing pure blood. But at the moment, it didn't seem to matter. Conjar's arms were a mass of black and blue. Jim Lynch, our linebacker, had played with a monstrous charley horse. Don Gmitter, the tight end, gutted it out on one good knee. And Gladieux joined the others who were done for the season.

Almost everybody was crying, especially Tom Pagna, The emotion of the game, the hitting and violent contact, was converted into the emotion of the locker room. ..the tears, the hugging, the trite phrases. Then Ara spoke to us:

    Men, I'm proud of you. God knows, I've never been more proud of any group of young men in my life. Get one thing straight,             though. We did not lose. We were number one when we came, we fell behind, had some tough things happen, but you overcame     them. No one could have wanted to win this one more than I. We didn't win, but, by God, we did not lose. They're crying about a         tie, trying to detract from your efforts. They're trying to make it come out a win. Well, don't you believe it. Their season is over.         They can't go anywhere. It's all over and we're still number one. Time will prove everything that has happened here today. And         you'll see that after the rabble-rousers have had their say, cooler minds who understand the true odds will know that Notre Dame is     a team of champions. There will be moments when you'll want to blast out at something or someone. But when we open these             doors to the press and to some of our so-called well wishers, remember one thing: Whatever you do, whatever you say, reflects on     us, on your parents, on the team, and on Notre Dame. 

Michigan State's season, indeed had ended. We had one final game against Southern California in the Los Angeles Coliseum. I was in the hospital with a lacerated kidney, but I got daily reports on practice. Pagna was at the top of his inspirational game, chastising the offense, "Why can't the Regners and Seilers and Conjars recognize that one more Saturday will immortilize their playing careers?" To Peter Duranko, the defensive tackle, he noted, "Duranko, no two men should ever block you out."

But Tom's best was reserved for a mimeographed letter to the team known as "The Phantom Speaks," which he wrote each week. This was the letter he circulated in the locker room a few days before the USC game:

    Irish! You are hurting...but unbowed and unbeaten. There are no sophmores on our squad. Having lived and fought your way back     against Michigan State made all of you grow up...beyond any point of inexperience.

    I remember 1964 in this same Coliseum, the Irish squad walking the long, empty walk from the field to the tunnel after our defeat. I     remember their full-grown bodies -- shaking with sobs of dejection. I recall the fantastic turn of events that robbed us of a national     championship. We never cried FOUL!

    We're going back there. The odds are these: They are a good wound, quick football team on their home turf. We must travel there     and play in warm weather. We must overcome their advantages. We are fighters-hurt tho we may be! We are aware of all the         obstacles, all the memories. Go, Irish-become undefeated!!! The champions you are!

We did exactly that. We dismembered USC, 51-0.

Several weeks later, the Trojans' coach, John McKay, told a member of his staff, "We'll never be beaten that badly again." And he probably won't. Every working day in the off-season that followed, McKay left word that he was not to be disturbed, and locked himself in a dark room to watch a portion of that game. Every working day for six months.

When USC people asked to see him, his secretary would say, "He's watching the film." And everybody knew what that meant.

McKay got his revenge the next year. He came to South Bend with a tailback named 0. J. Simpson, who turned us every way but out. He ran for 150 yards and two touchdowns. Before we could get him out of town, we were a 2-2 football team, and not looking very formidable.

I played Pagliacco that night-Iaughing outside, crying inside - the friendly, jovial host to five busloads of friends and relatives from Appleton. They left home at 6:00 A.M., armed with a Dixieland band, lots of liquor from Dad's bar, and my mother as a tour guide. After the game we took them to dinner in Niles, Michigan, just across the state line. It was a small, intimate affair for 150 people. We had a guest for every yard 0.J. had gained in the afternoon. I saw him running across my plate all night.

Our team failures weighed more heavily on me in 1967 because I was captain. The captaincy at Notre Dame entitles you to do more than call the toss of the coin. It makes you part of Irish football lore, and compels you to maintain an ideal. It's not an honor you openly campaign for, but it's one I wanted very much. One evening at the Grotto of Our Lady, I prayed, "Lord, please make me one of two things. Make me captain, or make me an All-America." In His infinite wisdom, the Lord made me captain. I guess He was trying to tell me something.

I wanted to be captain so badly, I almost broke up with my girl friend over it. She kind of wanted to get married. But in those days, Notre Dame captains were always single. Not by any ruling. ..that's just the way it was. Of course, it was a good excuse to give my girl, because I really didn't want to get married. In those days, nothing was stronger than my desire to become captain.

Soon after I was elected, I went to seek the advice of Jim Lynch in the traditional basement room of Sorin Hall, where nearly every Notre Dame captain has lived, since they first teed up a football in 1887. Lynch was the '66 captain by unanimous vote, a guy who fairly gushed charisma. You have no idea how acute was the inferiority I felt. My election came on a second ballot. And when our picture appeared in the South Bend Tribune, the caption read: "Jim Lynch, square-jawed captain of the 1966 National Champions, passes the symbolic Irish shelalaigh to his successor, Rocky Bleier, the baby-faced running back from Appleton, Wisconsin." Baby-faced!

Captain Rocky Bleier (front row, center, number 28) and his teammates in their 1967 team photo.

Captain Rocky Bleier (front row, center, number 28) and his teammates in their 1967 team photo.

 

Now the contrast was even more stark. Lynch had taken us all the way in '66. A year later, we had won only half of our first four games. Worse than that, I didn't sense the same yearning for victory, the same electricity in practice that we'd evidenced a year earlier. I discussed it with Pagna several times. I thought it was my fault. I wondered if maybe the guys didn't respect me.

Tom said, "Nonsense. The problems are these: The team tasted success once, and nobody wants it as badly the second time. We've lost some good people to graduation. And we've got to make some technical adjustments. Hanratty's had such success with Seymour that now he's hunting him up. Defenses know it. That's why we've had so many interceptions. Seymour's breaking his routes too often, trying to go deep on every play. We're too much a passing team. We're not hard-nosed. We're not prepared to go the long, hard grind-four, five, six yards at a time. When we get behind, there's a feeling of, 'Well, don't worry, Terry'll throw the bomb and get us even.' "

So we went back to the running game, and back to scrimmaging in practice, despite the risk of injury. Most important, the coaches made an appeal to our pride. Notre Dame didn't go to bowl games in 1967, so we had no tangible incentive. There would be no National Championship this time. But Ara insisted our own pride was a loftier goal. He was convincing, too, because we won our last six in a row for a very creditable 8-2 record.

I cherish three of those six in particular. Against Navy, I played the finest game of my college career -fifty-nine yards and two touchdowns rushing, a thirty-yard kickoff return, and a twenty-seven-yard punt return.

Two weeks later at Georgia Tech, I suffered torn ligaments in my left knee while scoring a touchdown just before halftime. That, normally, is an incapacitating and immediately detectable injury. But the quadriceps muscles in my thigh were so taut that they did the work of the ligaments, holding my knee in place.

I played the entire second half. ..running, blocking, catching passes, and punting. I even did some dancing at a party Saturday night. The doctors blinked a bit on Sunday, when they finally made the diagnosis. Monday I entered the hospital, Tuesday I underwent surgery, Wednesday I rested with the help of my friend Demerol, and Thursday I hobbled onto an airplane. Our season finale was Friday night at Miami of Florida. I was still woozy from all the sedatives. But if I couldn't finish my career in uniform, I wanted, at least, to be on the field. Besides, this was a helluva game. Both teams were in the Top Ten, we at 7 -2, Miami at 6-2.

Partly because of the medication and partly because my tear ducts seem to work overtime, I set an Orange Bowl record for emotion that night. It started before the game, my eyes moistening as I watched everybody suiting up. When I felt I couldn't control myself, I slipped into the bathroom for a good, solid cry. I made several trips.

I composed myself and stood near the doorway, off at a distance from the team, as Ara went into his pregame oration. He finished by saying, "Dave Martin and Dick Swatland will be cocaptains tonight."

That made me flinch, and I tried so hard not to cry again. But it was hopeless. ..especially when my teammates filed past me, one by one, at the door. Each man gave me a pat on the rump or a silent glance. Near the end came Danny Harshman, my former roommate and best friend at Notre Dame, who was starting in my place. He stopped and grabbed my hand. He squeezed it a second and said, "Remember, Rock, you'll always be our captain." Cue the tears.

We won, 24-22, in a kind of classic, gutty style that typified our whole season. Back in the locker room after the game, Ara quieted his noisy troops long enough to hold up the game ball and ask, "What should we do with this?" And in unison the team began to chant, "Rocky, Rocky, Rocky." Well, that's all I had to hear. Ara presented me the game ball, and I responded like Niagara Falls. I didn't stop crying for another twenty minutes.

Fortunately, I was in the kind of environment and among the kind of people who understood, and even appreciated, my emotional outburst. Given my background and personal makeup, Notre Dame was the right place for me. And that was true of my nonfootball activities, as well.

I dabbled in student politics and helped with retarded children a couple afternoons a week at Northern Indiana Children's Hospital. Those kinds of activities were well organized at Notre Dame, and available to be shared with fellows like me. I could cry in a football locker room, or cry after spending an afternoon with a retarded child...because the people around me were just like me. They knew what I was feeling, and they empathized.

Yet, by a strange dichotomy, that great strength was also Notre Dame's greatest fault. We were too much alike in those days. We were 98 percent white and 98 percent Catholic. Too many of us in student politics had similar views. In the classroom, we needed more nonwhites and non-Catholics to expand our horizons. Our thinking was inbred, and therefore restricted.

There were more restrictions: no cars on campus, lights out at 11:00 P.M., confinement to the dormitory after midnight, coats and ties to dinner. (The rule of mandatory daily Mass had been lifted a few years earlier.) Those things don't exist today, I'm glad to report. But for the boy I was at ages eighteen to twenty-one, it was tolerable discipline and probably benefited me. I'm also happy to say Notre Dame has diversified its student body since I graduated. It is by no means a cross section of American society. Yet I dare say it is more nearly similar than dissimilar to other major universities. The myth of Notre Dame, as something separate and apart from the mainstream of higher education, should be spiked and put to rest.

Academically, the university [in 1975] is probably a bit overrated. It is struggling mightily, but I don't think there is any present possibility that it will become the "Harvard of the Midwest," or the "Catholic Harvard," as some administrators have publicly hoped.

I opted for the School of Business, mainly because the foreign-language requirement in liberal arts frightened me. I graduated with a B average, though I must confess I have no particular aptitude for business. I cannot even keep my checkbook in balance. I guess if I had it to do over again, I'd take a broad-based liberal arts program, with emphasis on classical thought and literature.

While I'm expounding, permit me a few final words on the condition of college athletics and the practitioners at my alma mater .

I loved playing college football, and I'm distressed at hearing some of its problems. For instance, when a major state institution like the University of Vermont must give up the game for financial reasons, it's time to take corrective action. But more serious than the financial problem is the moral crisis.

Let's put this into perspective. We had our black eyes at Notre Dame, but they were mostly in the nature of pranks. In 1965, six of my teammates were seen hauling television sets from a Purdue University fraternity house to a waiting hearse, which they'd driven from South Bend. A few years earlier, some players were caught breaking into a cigarette machine they'd cleverly transported from the fourth floor to the baggage room of Breen-Phillips Hall. And yes, Rocky Bleier once sold his complimentary game tickets for $50 apiece when his pockets were empty. I don't condone those incidents, and Notre Dame didn't, either. The six television haulers were expelled, and I would have been disciplined if Ara had learned of my salesmanship.

But none of that chills me as deeply as a conversation I heard last year between a recruiter and the coach of a major Eastern college football team. The recruiter mentioned a high school running back whom he'd seen in the Deep South. Great burst, good moves, quickness ...this kid had everything, the man said. The coach responded, "We'd love to have him. We need his kind desperately. But I simply don't know how to recruit a kid from that far away without cheating."

Capsulized, that is the crisis of college football today: Can the game expel outlaws who are polluting it with offers of cash, cars, and apartments to impressionable high school kids?

Luckily for the serious student-athlete, there are still universities like Notre Dame and men like Parseghian whose integrity is intact. Of all my teammates, I knew only one who received a gift from an alumnus. It was a suit of clothes for a young man who had never owned one. But if he'd found out about it, I'm sure Ara would have disciplined the player unsympathetically.

Notre Dame people are not the only ones still playing within NCAA roles. I'm heartened, for example, by the beautiful story of Earl Campbell, a fantastic fullback who, in 1973, became the most actively recruited player in the glorious history of Texas high school football. Campbell visited Austin one afternoon for an interview with Darrell Royal, coach of the University of Texas.

Royal began, much as Ara did, by mentioning that he'd close his books and stop wasting everybody's time if the player wanted more than the standard grant-in-aid. Understand, Campbell is a black man of some considerable pride. He looked sternly back at Royal and said, "My people were bought and sold when they didn't have a choice. Now I have a choice, and nobody's buying me."

 

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