Irish fans everywhere are anxiously counting the days (55) until the start of the 2007 season. We are all looking forward to seeing how this very young, underdog team will play. Will they wake up the echoes or shake down down the thunder? Will new Irish legends emerge? And if so, who? Will it be the likely suspects? Or the unknowns?
As we wait for this year's squad to race out of the tunnel, now is a great time to look back and remember the Notre Dame heroes from our childhood. For me, it's Joe Montana. Do you remember the "Chicken Soup Game"? If you're more than about 40 years old, you're probably nodding your head with fond memories. If you're younger, you may have heard about the 1979 Cotton Bowl, but your personal memories of it are likely hazy at best. And, of course, if you're younger than 30 you were still an infant, if you were even born yet. If you're that young the '79 Cotton Bowl was "before your time." Asking young Irish fans today if they remember that game is the equivalent of asking fans of my generation if they remember the Frank Leahy teams that went 36-0-2 from 1946 through 1949 (undefeated for four straight seasons). If you had asked me that question in 1979 I would have probably asked "Frank who?"
But I do remember Joe Montana in the Cotton Bowl, and it changed my life. Subtly, perhaps, but certainly significantly. On New Year's Day of 1979 I was fourteen years old, a 9th grader in junior high school. I had been a Notre Dame fan as far back as I could remember, watching the Notre Dame Highlights shows on Sunday mornings, with Lindsey Nelson (the TRUE voice of the Fighting Irish) calling the action. My favorite Irish player of all time up to that point was quarterback Tom Clements (#2). Joe Montana changed all that.
On a bitterly cold New Year's Day the Fighting Irish were getting walloped by a team that I had never even heard of. The Houston Cougars? We weren't losing to mighty Texas, or Oklahoma or even an old nemesis like Michigan State. We were getting embarrassed in front of the whole world by the Houston Cougars. The score at halftime was 20-12 Cougars. Intolerable, but manageable. But things would get much worse. As the team came out for the second half, an ill quarterback Montana stayed in the locker room. His body temperature had dropped dangerously and he couldn't stop shivering. With their leader out of commission, it looked hopeless for Notre Dame as Houston scored 14 third quarter points to take a 34-12 lead into the fourth quarter. By that time Montana had returned to the game, with the help of some hot chicken soup. But he wasn't playing like he felt any better. He completed 1 of his first 11 passes in the second half, with an interception.
Midway through through the fourth quarter, with the score still 34-12, the comeback began. A blocked punt returned for a touchdown, plus a two-point conversion, trimmed the lead from 22 points to 14. A defensive stop and an efficient 61-yard TD drive (highlighted by a Montana pass to Jerome Heavens) cut the deficit to six points with 4:15 left in the game. A defensive stop followed by a Montana fumble gave Houston a chance to "ice" the game. But when the Cougars decided to go for it on fourth-and-one, they left the door open. The defense held and the Irish had the ball and a chance to win with 28 seconds remaining.
Montana scrambled for one first down, and threw to Kris Haines for another, putting Notre Dame in a first and goal situation with just 8 seconds left. On first down, Joe had to throw the ball away, leaving just 2 seconds on the clock. As time expired, Joe took the snap and rolled right, finding Haines in the front corner of the end zone to erase a 22-point deficit in less than 8 minutes. An Irish penalty meant that they actually had to kick the extra point twice to seal the win. The Comeback Kid was born.
Joe Montana became my favorite football player that day, and when he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the third round that year, I switched my allegiance from the Raiders (Coached by John Madden and featuring greats like Kenny Stabler, Jack Tatum, Cliff Branch, Fred Biletnikoff, Dave Casper, and Ted Hendricks) to the 49ers (coming off a 2-14 season in 1978 and led by first year coach Bill Walsh, who led them to another 2-14 season in 1979).
I remember when Joe was a brand new 49er that I went to see him at a personal appearance at the J.C. Penney store in Fairfield, California, not far from my home town. To my amazement, there was almost no one else there. This was Joe Montana! And he was sitting there by himself, behind a small table, near the escalator, ready to sign autographs if anyone wanted him to. Not many did. I don't remember if I was too cool to ask for an autograph, or if I simply forgot to bring something for him to sign. I said "hi" and told him what a big fan I was, and he thanked me for stopping by. My Dad made some small talk with him for a bit. Joe was fairly shy even then, and I was a bit starstruck, so not much more was said. But he was the biggest celebrity I had ever met, and I'll never forget it.
Fast forward to 2003. My family and I are back on Campus for the game against USC. While we were browsing through the bookstore, Joe Montana walked in with his family. I was excited to see him (along with every other adult in the store), but when I told my kids who I had seen, it was obvious from the looks on their faces that they had no idea what I was talking about. I might as well had been talking to them about one of the stars who had played for Frank Leahy.
How could they not know who Joe Montana is? Well, how would they know? Sure, they've been watching Notre Dame football games since they were tots, but they never saw Joe play. Not even as a 49er.
Which brings me around to the purpose of this post. How do we, as Notre Dame fans, pass along the tradition and history of the Fighting Irish to the next generation? Notre Dame alumnus Paul Kostolansky ('89) is trying to do just that through a set of illustrated children's books called Irish Tales. Each book in the series tells the story of a famous Irish game and contains a lesson about life for kids. The first book is called "The Chicken Soup Game" and details for young fans the amazing story of the 1979 Cotton Bowl and the importance of a never-say-die attitude. The book is an officially licensed product of the University of Notre Dame and has been featured in Notre Dame Magazine Online.
Paul wrote to me recently asking if I'd consider blogging his Irish Tales, and I told him I'd be happy to, if it would benefit a worthy cause. So, thanks to Paul and Irishtalesonline.com, the Children's Memorial Hospital (in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago) will receive a monetary donation as well as the gift of some Irish Tales books.
Who do you want to pass your love of Notre Dame football on to? Your kids? Grand kids? Those nephews and nieces who are being tempted by the dark forces of USC, Michigan, or Boston College? The Chicken Soup Game would be great as a bedtime story for the youngest Irish fans, and appropriate material for readers up to about a 4th grade reading level. Readers more advanced than that will certainly consider this a younger kids' book.
So as we wait anxiously to find out who will be the next Joe Montana, let's not forget to teach the next generation about the first Joe Montana, the Comeback Kid.