By Fay Vincent
When I was a kid in New Haven, Conn., in the years just after World War II, Notre Dame football was a big deal to all little Catholic boys who dreamed of being great football players. I was one of those who grew up with wide-eyed regard for Johnny Lujack and Leon Hart, stars of those Notre Dame teams. On the newsreels at the movies I watched as strong Irish teams rolled.
I read of legendary coach Knute Rockne, who made his Notre Dame teams into national powers in the 1920s, as I tried to ignore the cold reality he had not been a Catholic. I mourned the gallant George Gipp and accepted the legend of his deathbed request to Rockne to ask the team to win one for the Gipper. Ronald Reagan played Gipp in the movie, and the role is the one people identify with the former president.
As the current Notre Dame team continues to win, I find myself watching their games and marveling at the tug on me Notre Dame football has maintained for all these years.
A few years ago, one of my contemporaries at lunch challenged the rest to name the Four Horsemen, the members of the Notre Dame backfield on the 1924 team that went undefeated for Rockne and won the national title. It was sports writer Grantland Rice who established the legend of those four players in the opening lines of his article that told the story of the Notre Dame win at the Polo Grounds over Army. His story began: "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rode again. In dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence and Famine. Those are aliases. Their names are (Harry) Stuhldreher, (Jim) Crowley, (Don) Miller and (Elmer) Layden."
Rice was not totally hyperbolic. They were outstanding players. I knew their names.
The center and captain of that team was Adam Walsh, a rugged, handsome Californian who later became assistant coach at Yale, where my father played for him. Walsh stood over 6 feet, and was a powerfully built 200 pounds. In his time he was a big lineman. But to hear my father, it was his remarkable speed that set him apart.
In those days, all teams used the single-wing formation in which the center passes the ball to the tailback, standing four or so yards behind the line. Walsh could center the ball, then pull out of the line with sufficient speed to lead the ball carrier on sweeps around end. The Four Horsemen were good players, but Rockne knew his line was equally talented. Walsh and a tackle on his team are members of the College Football Hall of Fame. The Horsemen are also members.
My father had affection and respect for Walsh, who was for many years the head coach at Bowdoin College in Maine. When he left Bowdoin, he was elected to the Maine Legislature, where he served happily and well for years.
Once day I read that he was living in a retirement home near Los Angeles. I was often in that area to visit our Columbia Pictures studios. My father encouraged me to call Walsh and visit him. I never made the visit, but we chatted on the telephone. He sent his regards to my father and recalled fondly his time at Yale. He died soon after we spoke. Yet even in that brief conversation there was a powerful tone to his voice, and I sensed the strength of his personality. He was a leader.
The sense that Walsh and Rockne and the legions of old Notre Dame players were also good and decent people helped propel the myths of Notre Dame football. Over the years, whenever I read ugly news relating to Notre Dame football, my immediate reaction was that Walsh would have been so disappointed. Notre Dame suffers because it openly stands for old-fashioned values like honor and academic excellence.
But football at Notre Dame is an enormous business and the specter of Penn State looms. The Golden Dome still stands. I watch the games and dream that the myths live on. Yet Adam Walsh is long gone.