Reflections from the Dome

George (right) and two great Notre Dame friends, Johnny Lujack (left) and Ziggie Czarobski.

George (right) and two great Notre Dame friends, Johnny Lujack (left) and Ziggie Czarobski.

 

The following account of George Connor's career at Holy Cross and Notre Dame is from the excellent book on the Frank Leahy era: Leahy's Lads by Jack Connor. To order the book, take the following link: http://www.irishlegends.com/Pages/leahylads.html

George Connor (as told by Jack Connor)

George was an All-State tackle in his senior year at De La Salle Institute in Chicago. His coach, Joe Gleason, himself a star halfback on the 1935-36 Notre Dame teams, describes George as "big, smart, fast, very mobile, and the toughest player in the Catholic League." He says that George hit so hard in practice that he often held him out of contact drills and scrimmages for fear he would hurt his teammates.

George was recruited by almost every major college team in the country. He was recruited particularly by Notre Dame. Our dad, Dr. Charles H. Connor, had a brother, Msgr. George S.L. Connor who was president of the Alumni Association at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1942. Father George, as he was called, asked his brother to intercede with George and influence him to come to Holy Cross.

Being the youngest of the four Connor children, I can recall how we were indoctrinated from childhood with the traditions of both Holy Cross and Notre Dame. Although George was no stranger to the benefits of going to Holy Cross, his heart was set on going to Notre Dame. Our dad had not said anything about his conversations with Father George regarding Holy Cross, yet George was aware of the pressures put on Dad and he knew that the matter had to be brought into the open and discussed.

One evening, George asked Dad if they could talk. After he was seated near his father, George said, "Dad, I would like to go to Notre Dame, but I know Father George has requested that I go to Holy Cross. How do you feel about it?"

Our dad, never at a loss for an opinion, said, "George, I know you would like to go to Notre Dame, but you would have to play on the freshman team. Freshmen are eligible for the varsity at Holy Cross, so if you went there for one year, you could play some ball. That would take care of any family responsibilities and then you could switch to Notre Dame." (The rule requiring transfer students to sit out a year before becoming eligible was not in effect at that time.) George said, "Dad, if that's what you want, that's what I'll do."

George joined a Holy Cross team coached by Ank Scanlon in August for the summer practice before the 1942 season. In his letters home, George did not comment much about his progress on the football field, but just prior to the team's first game, the family received a clipping from the Worcester Telegram, the local newspaper, from George. It was a picture of George in his football gear with a caption that read, "Freshman may play Saturday ." George had crossed out "May play" and wrote in, "Will start "

And not only did he start the first game as a 17-year-old freshman, but he earned All-Eastem honors that season. The team lost its first four games that year, but after the Crusaders beat Manhattan College in their fifth game, they improved with each subsequent contest. The final game was against their archrival, Boston College. The BC team was undefeated, ranked number one in the country, and was supposed to play in the Sugar Bowl. From their respective records, and from any perspective, it looked like the mismatch of the year. No football expert gave Holy Cross any chance at all of giving the great Boston College team any kind of game, let alone of winning.

The morning of the game, George saw his uncle, Father George. During the course of the conversation, the monsignor inquired, "George, do you think the Holy Cross team can give BC any kind of game?"

Without hesitation George replied, "Father George, we are going to beat them today."

Stunned by George's reply, the monsignor tried to ease what he thought would be a terrible disappointment for George. "You must realize they have the most devastating team in the country, so l hope you do not get your hopes too high."

"I know they have a great team," replied George, "but so do we and we're going to win today."

The monsignor walked away, no doubt wondering what type of lunacy had befallen his nephew.

On the cover of the program that day was a picture of the Boston College co-captains, Fred Naumetz and Mike Holovak, wearing their football jerseys with the numbers 55 and 12. As fate would have it, that was the final score of the historic game played at Fenway Park -with Holy Cross the winner. The game stunned sports fans throughout the nation. In 1950 a panel of sportswriters voted this game as the upset of the half-century. Many of today's football historians and sportswriters still call it the greatest upset ever.

From the opening kickoff, Holy Cross dominated the game. The Crusaders did everything right and Boston College could never seem to get its vaunted offense and defense going. George became a star that day by his continual trapping of BC's All-American tackle, Gil Bouley. In the third quarter, Bouley made his first tackle of the game and the Cross fans in the stands began a cheer, "Bouley made a tackle, Bouley made a tackle." The Holy Cross backfield of Ray "Cookie" Ball, John Grigas, Tom Sullivan, and Johnny Bezemes kept the BC team off balance the whole game with dazzling, runs, sharp passes, and doing the unexpected.

The Cross linemen, Captain Ed Murphy, George Connor, John DiGangi, George Titus, Tom Albergini, Ted Strojny, and Bill Swiacki devastated the Eagles in blocking for their explosive backfield. On defense, they completely dominated the BC line, which was considered the best in the country. Holy Cross not only beat the Eagles that day -the Crusaders totally destroyed and embarrassed them.

The game, aside from the football aspect, will long be remembered by many people in the Boston area. As the projected easy winner of the game, the Boston College team was invited to attend a celebration party at the Cocoanut Grove, a landmark Boston nightclub. When Boston College lost the game, the players declined to attend. That night there was a fire that consumed the Cocoanut Grove, killing hundreds of people in the worst nightclub disaster in the nation's history. Because there was just one exit, a revolving door that jammed, it took only 12 minutes for 492 of the 1,100 people gathered there that fateful November 28th to lose their lives and for 200 more to suffer extensive injuries.

The disaster left its imprint on history as new safety laws were initiated throughout the country to prevent any such tragedy from ever happening again. As a consequence of the Holy Cross victory that day, the Boston College team did not meet the same fate as those who were at the Cocoanut Grove that night.  Although BC lost the game, the team and their families can be forever grateful that losing a game proved to be the stroke of luck that spared the BC team from being caught in that dreadful fire.

George did not transfer to Notre Dame after his freshman year, as originally planned, but he did have the opportunity to do so. In his words this is what happened:

"1 was an 18-year-old V-12 student at Holy Cross College in early 1943. Most of the players from our 1942 team were in either the Army reserves or the Marine reserves. After the season, the Army guys were all called to regular duty and the Marine reservists were transferred to other schools. This left only about nine or 10 players available for the 1943 season.

"One day, I was ordered to see the senior military officer on campus, Capt Robert Davis, USN. My first thought was, what did I do wrong? The only thing I could think of was I had been late getting on campus a few nights before, yet it didn't make sense that such an offense would call for a meeting before the captain.

"When I entered the office, Captain Davis said, 'Mr.Connor, have a seat.

"I said, 'I prefer to stand, sir " figuring I would take my punishment standing up.

"Captain Davis got right to the point 'I have orders on my desk for you to report to the University of Notre Dame to continue your studies for your sophomore year [1943 season].'

"I said, 'Captain, I only have one question. Will Holy Cross field a team next year?'

" 'Absolutely " answered the captain.

" 'Then I would like to play for Holy Cross, so as far as those orders are concerned, you can tear them up.'

"Captain Davis smiled and said, 'It will be a pleasure to cancel these orders. Consider the matter closed, and good luck next season.'

"I never did find out who used their influence to secure those orders for me to report to Notre Dame in 1943."

George stayed on at Holy Cross to play the 1943 season. As a sophomore, he was elected captain of the team. He had a great year, making several All-America teams, and was voted the George Bulger Lowe Award as the outstanding player in New England.

Early in 1944, George's V-12 unit was called to active duty. He was commissioned an ensign and assigned to a subchaser in the Pa- cific, which eventually docked at Pearl Harbor. A command car pulled up to the dock and a Navy sailor approached the ship and asked where he could find Ensign Connor. Connor, who was the one he asked, said, "I am Ensign Connor." The sailor said, "Sir, I have been sent here by Commander Leahy, who requests that you meet him at Navy headquarters right away ."

Connor went below, changed uniforms, and was driven to headquarters. He explains what happened. "I met with Coach Leahy, who was very cordial and inquired as to my well-being as well as my family. Then he said, 'George, I wanted you to come to Notre Dame when you graduated from high school and I want you to come to Notre Dame after the war. If you come there, I can promise you two things: we will win the National Championship and you will be an All- American. I want to be fair and tell you that, as a transfer student, our publicity department will not give you much publicity -they don't like to do that, so you'll have to do it on your own.' Leahy could be very direct and forceful when he wanted to be."

When George's tour of duty was over and after he was discharged from the Navy, he did transfer to Notre Dame. Our father was ill at the time and unable to work George, despite his strong feelings of affection for Holy Cross, decided it was best to be close to home. He entered Notre Dame for summer school before the 1946 season to join our brother Chuck, who had also transferred to Notre Dame earlier in the year and was playing guard on the football team during spring practice.

 

A happy Frank Leahy with his new recruit. The critter is Clashmore Mike, Notre Dame's mascot.

 

George vividly recalls his first day as a Notre Dame player. "My first day of practice at Notre Dame was in the summer of 1946. I was amazed at the number of players that were out for practice. There were some 110 ballplayers on the field. We went through calisthenics, blocking and tackling drills, and then at the end of the two-and-one-half hour workout, Coach Leahy called the team up to huddle around him. There were a lot of veteran players from other years on the squad. I only knew a few, like Ziggie Czarobski from Chicago, John Lujack, whom I knew from the Navy, and a few others. Leahy appointed 11 players to choose sides of 10 men on a team to have a relay race. He said the team that won would not have to run 10 laps after practice, and it had been a long, hot day, so I wanted to win that race.

"I was picked sixth on my team. The last player to be picked for our team was a big heavy guy who seemed to have bigger feet than my size 14s, and my immediate reaction was, 'Damn, there goes our chance of winning.' Each participant had to carry a football and run the length of the field, go around one of the assistant coaches, and then back to the starting point. When it came to our last man, this chubby guy with the big feet, we were in about fourth place. This guy took off and passed all of them -ends, fullbacks, halfbacks -and when the race was over, our team didn't have to run the laps. I went up to him and said, 'I don't know you and I'm not going to tell you what I said about you, but my name is George Connor and I want to be on your side.'

 

Bill Fischer, all time great. All American in '47, '48, Outland Trophy winner in 1948.

Bill Fischer, all time great. All American in '47, '48, Outland Trophy winner in 1948.

 

"He said, 'My name is Bill Fischer,' and we did play on the same side, right next to each other, for the next two years, and he was the greatest "

At the first scrimmage of the summer football session, Coach Leahy did not pick George for either the first or second team. As the two teams were going at it, Leahy noticed that George was very restless on the sidelines watching the scrimmage. He looked over at George and said, "George Connor, do you think you could do a better job if I put you in the scrimmage?"

"Just let me play." George shot back.

"Get in there at tackle on the defense and lets see what you can do"

Leahy liked to test his players, so he had the first team run a play directly at George. George drove through the guy opposite him and made a devastating hit on the back an instant after he received the handoff, driving him farther into the backfield. After a few more plays that were almost a repeat of the first one, Leahy said,

"George Connor, I think you better get over here on the first team before you kill somebody."

 

George Connor is presented the first Outland Trophy in 1947 as his coach, Frank Leahy looks on.

 

George was consensus All-American that year and was voted by the Philadelphia sportswriters as the nation's ineman of the Year . That same year he was named the first-ever recipient of the Outland Award as the best interior lineman in the country.

 

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