Friday, February 21, 2014

Lambeau and ND Legends

In Patrick McCaskey's new book Pillars of the NFL, the lives and careers of the top ten NFL coaches and their teams are examined.  In our Sporting Chance Press Talk blog, we will excerpt some of Patrick's book to give potential readers a glimpse at this great new title that is scheduled to publish in March 2014. We start with a look at Curly Lambeau's interesting connection to some of the Notre Dame legends. 

In 1918, Lambeau attended Notre Dame where he rubbed shoulders with future college football legends.  At Notre Dame, Lambeau shared the backfield, albeit for a single season, with George “Gipper” Gipp, the storied back who would lead the team in both rushing and passing from 1918-1920.  Lambeau played under new head coach, Knute Rockne.  Like Lambeau, Rockne was a fan of the pass and in South Bend, Lambeau learned the Notre Dame box, a formation based on the commonly used single wing. ...

During Lambeau’s stay in South Bend, World War I was raging, but it was a flu epidemic that shortened the football season.  Notre Dame posted a 3–1–2 record.  In one tough game against the Great Lakes Naval Station, Lambeau faced future rival and Chicago Bears founder, George Halas, who played end.  The teams tied.  

As a freshman, Lambeau had a supporting role in the Notre Dame backfield.  He was no threat to superstar Gipp who among other astonishing feats, held the ND rushing career mark of 2,341 yards for more than 50 years.  Tragically, after his senior season, Gipp developed a strep infection and died.  On his deathbed, Gipp’s last conversation to Rockne was quoted as:

I've got to go, Rock.  It's all right.  I'm not afraid.  Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper.  I don't know where I'll be then, Rock.  But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy.

Rockne would famously use the deathbed story to motivate his underdog Notre Dame team against Army in 1928.  The quote would also make its way into movies and politics. 
The Fighting Irish player roster described Lambeau as flamboyant, an excellent blocker, and a good short-yardage runner. After the football season, Lambeau had a bout of tonsillitis.  Recuperating at home, he decided not to return to South Bend, and subsequently quit school for good.  Although Lambeau had a brief career at Notre Dame, he would be called an “ex Notre Dame Football star.”  He was proud of the connection.  Lambeau did not forget Rockne.  The two corresponded and Lambeau occasionally recommended a high school player to the Notre Dame coach and he encouraged the student to head to South Bend.  

Lambeau’s practice of recommending Green Bay players to his old coach created yet another Notre Dame legend.  One player who would go to Notre Dame on Lambeau’s recommendations was Jim Crowley.  Crowley would become one of the fabled Four Horsemen of Notre Dame—christened and made famous by Grantland Rice, a poetic sportswriter for the New York Herald-Tribune in an era when such craft was appreciated.   

Four Horsemen of Football, Library of Congress Photo

After Notre Dame's 13–7 victory over Army on October 18, 1924, Rice penned one of sports journalism’s favorite passages:

Outlined against a blue, gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. 
In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death.  These are only aliases.  Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.  They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.
Notre Dame student-publicity aid, George Strickler, who would become the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, had a photo shot of the four ND players on horseback, which was picked up by newspapers across the country.  The photo memorialized the passage, the players, and the team.  

Crowley “recovered” from the notoriety and later coached at Fordham University.  At Fordham, Lambeau’s work would come full circle.  One of Crowley’s players by the name of Vince Lombardi would go on to coach the Packers in one remarkable decade.  

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