January 1st, 2013 by Patrick Sturgeon
To celebrate his beloved Fighting Irish reaching the BCS Championship Game on Monday 7th January, Patrick Sturgeon (aka Paddy the Brick) looks back at Notre Dame greats of the past and present to choose his Top Five Favorite Golden Domers!
My love affair with Notre Dame football began as a youngster growing up in Youngstown, Ohio. The high school that I went was like a mini-ND. Catholic, same uniforms, and nicknamed the Fighting Irish. I remember sneaking into the stadium to watch Ursuline High School football games on Friday nights and using the dollar my mom gave me to buy a soda and fries.
I also used to love watching ND games on TV and listening to Keith Jackson start each contest with his famous… “Here Come the Fighting Irish” as they entered the field. In the 1970s, not every game was televised, but on Sunday mornings in the autumn throughout the Midwest of America, there was one hour highlight show called Notre Dame Football Highlights with Lindsey Nelson. I hardly ever missed an episode at 10am each Sunday and would arrange my weekly obligation to attend church around my favorite program. To this day, every time I hear the fight song “Notre Dame Victory March” I still get goose bumps.
Notre Dame is the most beloved and hated college football team in America: think Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees and Manchester United all rolled into one. The Irish epitomize what college football is all about. They are legendary and historic. They are “Play Like a Champion Today” and “Win One for the Gipper” They are “Touchdown Jesus” and “Rudy.” But as some non-ND fans in the USA like to brag about recently, they are “not relevant.” They are overrated because the last time they won a national title was in 1988. But this year, there is definitely a sense of “Cheer, Cheer for old Notre Dame, Wake up the echoes cheering her name!” as the second stanza the victory march goes … Could this be the 12th National Title in school history?
Bearing all of this in mind, I wanted to share with you some of my favorite players of all time that I actually saw play, guys who woke the echoes, young men who you emulated in the backyard football games, players who were as tough as nails and played with the hearts (or in this case shamrocks) on the sleeves.
Perhaps it was fate plus a helping of talent, will power and a little luck of the Irish that propelled Notre Dame to the national championship game this season, the 125th season for those of you keeping track. But, I think it was also the Fighting Irish tradition that also provided the spark to this unforgettable season. So to honour this tradition here are my Top Five Favorite Notre Dame Players of All-Time…
#5: Manti Te’o (2009-12) Linebacker
Seeing Manti Te’o up close and person in Dublin in the Emerald Isle Classic versus Navy was a great way to start the 2012 season.
The future NFL star played through two personal tragedies this season and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Not bad for a defensive player. He is truly the heart and soul of this year’s Notre Dame team and will be a top pick in the NFL draft in April.
I love the fact that a Mormon kid from Hawaii decided to attend Notre Dame.
#4: Tony Rice (1987-89) Quarterback
I remember how much fun it was to watch Tony Rice run the option for Notre Dame. The guy was super fast, smart and when needed, he had a canon for an arm.
He led the unbeaten Irish to the 1988 national championship with wins over Michigan, Miami, USC and West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl, a game I was lucky enough to attend as a member of the media in Phoenix.
Ironically, Rice never played in the NFL, he was the only member of the starting 22 players for the 1988 title team that did not play on Sundays. But he will always be remembered by Irish fans for his play on Saturdays where he compiled an impressive 31-4 record that included a national championship and almost another one in 1989.
#3: Tim Brown (1984-87) Wide Receiver
Brown was one of the best athletes I ever saw play for the Irish.
Every time he touched the ball you thought he was going to score, which is why he also returned punts and kickoffs during his career. He earned nickname “Touchdown Timmy” because of his habit for getting into the end zone.
Brown still holds the single season record for all-purpose yardage. More importantly, the two-time All-American became the first wide receiver to ever win the Heisman Trophy in 1987. Sadly for Irish fans like me, he was the most recent of Notre Dame’s seven Heisman winners. I continued to follow his outstanding career in the NFL where he was selected to nine Pro Bowls.
#2: Joe Montana (1975, 1977-78) Quarterback
Joe Montana was the starting quarterback for the 1977 national championship team, but most fans like me only think about one game he played for old Notre Dame, it was his last. “Joe Cool” engineered the most memorable comeback in school history.
I still remember to this day the 1979 Cotton Bowl against Houston. Montana had the flu and needed a bowl of chicken soup at halftime to keep up his energy. Houston had a 34-12 lead with 7:37 left and all seemed lost. And then it happened, Montana lead the Irish to three touchdowns in the final minutes including the last score on the last play of the game to give the Irish a 35-34 victory. I remember running around the house like a crazed maniac telling anyone who would listen about the game I had just witnessed. Years later I bought a copy of the game and still watch it to this day when I need to remember why I love Notre Dame so much.
We all know that Montana went on to win four Super Bowls and become one of the greatest players in NFL history, but I firmly believe he learned to deal with all the pressure in South Bend, Indiana. Montana is without a doubt the most famous football player in Notre Dame history.
#1: Ross Browner (1973, 1975-77) Defensive End
Ross Browner is from Warren, Ohio, a stone’s throw from my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. When I was a little kid the newspaper was dominated by his athletic exploits. He was a mainstay on Notre Dame football highlights every week. He was a four-year starter and played defensive end like no one I have ever seen: to say he was dominant would be an understatement.
He won two national championships and was the Outland winner in 1976, and the Lombardi and Maxwell winner in 1977. He came from a football family, his little brothers Jim and Willard played at Notre Dame, while brothers Joey and Keith played at archrival USC before the NFL. Ross’ son Max Starks even plays for the Steelers.
The Browners are one of Ohio’s football families and which is probably why Ross is at the top of my list of favorite Notre Dame players of all time.
Vagas Ferguson (1976-79) Halfback: His very name was so cool when you were little kid, and the way he played wasn’t bad either. He left ND as all-time leading rusher and most career TDs with 32, and still holds record for most yards in a season with 1437 in 1979.
Mike Stonebreaker (1986-90) Linebacker: Another great name and player, you have to love a linebacker named Stonebreaker. He was on the last team to win the national title in 1988.
Raghib Ismail (1988-90) Wide Receiver: Nicknamed the “Rocket” [pictured right] because of his amazing speed. He should have won the Heisman like Tim Brown. Ismail was money in the bank every time he touched the ball.
Bob Crable (1979-81) Linebacker: Crable is still all-time leader in tackles with 521 in a career that included 26 in one game which ties the NCAA record.
Ken MacAfee (1974-77) Tight End: The three-time All-American was one of Joe Montana’s top targets and at 6’4 and 250 pounds was a man amongst boys in the mid 1970s.
Jerome Bettis (1990-92) Fullback: “Bettis the Bus” made playing fullback cool during his era. He still holds the school record with 20 touchdowns in one season.
George Gipp (1917-1920) Halfback: Legendary coach Knute Rockne coined the phrase, “Win one for the Gipper” after the late Notre Dame star who died during his senior season.
James F. Faragher (1901) Tackle & (1902 and 1903 ) Head Coach: Faragher hails from Youngstown, Ohio and is a distant cousin of my kissing cousins the Murphy family (my grandmother was adopted). So my connection to Notre Dame started over 100 years ago.
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