Nov. 14, 2011

By Todd D. Burlage

From an athletics and professional standpoint, Coley O’Brien might illustrate Notre Dame’s presence and influence in the Washington, D.C., area better than any of the University’s 5,000 alumni, in and around the nation’s capital.

On the football field, O’Brien will forever be remembered for the two appearances he made as a sophomore quarterback for the top-ranked Irish in 1966 when he replaced injured starter Terry Hanratty.

O’Brien took over for Hanratty in the first quarter of the classic game against No. 2 Michigan State and helped preserve a 10-10 tie to keep Notre Dame on track to a championship season. A week later, O’Brien threw for 255 yards and three touchdowns as Notre Dame won 51-0 at No. 10 USC to finish an undefeated season and secure the ’66 National Title.

Diabetes kept O’Brien from ever chasing a professional football career. But with a Notre Dame law degree and plenty of connections back in the Washington, D.C. area, career opportunities came like touchdown passes for the University folk hero, and arguably the most-appreciated backup quarterback in Irish history.

“It was a long road for someone from the East coming to the Midwest and going to Notre Dame,” says O’Brien, the Washington, D.C. prep player of the year in 1964 out of St. John’s High School. “But obviously everything turned out great and it was a terrific experience.”

From high-powered Capital Hill lobbyist, to a private-practice attorney, to a stint with the NASA space exploration program, O’Brien has worked plenty of interesting and important jobs since returning to Washington, D.C., after graduation. And his Notre Dame ties to the Capital Beltway keep his career on the fast track.

O’Brien left NASA in 2006 and returned to Capital Hill when he took a job working closely under fellow Notre Dame graduates and congressmen Rep. Peter King (R-NY), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif). O’Brien currently serves as Lungren’s staff director for the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies.

Football heroics and a fascinating professional career make O’Brien’s success story one of many to come out of the prestigious Notre Dame alumni group that calls the Washington, D.C. metro area home. And this Veterans Day Weekend, highlighted by the Notre Dame football game with Maryland, is a perfect way to celebrate the influence Notre Dame carries in this area.

Notre Dame Club of Washington, D.C. (NDDC) president Molly Savage (Class of 2005) oversaw much of the event planning and weekend coordination for the Shamrock Series game at FedEx Field. And the primary mission of the local alumni club was to make this weekend more than just a football game.

The theme of the Veterans Day weekend is “God, Country, Notre Dame.” And through a partnership between the NDDC alumni club and the Yellow Ribbon Fund (, the weekend events are geared as much toward recognizing the disabled soldiers that sacrificed everything to protect our freedom as to hosting a college football game.

“The football game is all about having fun with family, and going to the tailgate parties, and having a great time, and that’s all great. But there is a lot more going on in the world,” Savage says. “So these endeavors speak volumes to the character of the Notre Dame family, that instead of focusing on only the football parts of it, we’re focusing on honoring the service members who have given so much to this country.”

On the football field, the areas around Washington, D.C., have provided Notre Dame with more than 60 players, dating all the way back to the early 1900s.

But the pipeline from the Beltway to Notre Dame is probably more evident on the basketball court. Just a few of the esteemed basketball players from the area that helped entrench Notre Dame as a perennial top-10 program in the late 1960s and 1970s include Bob Whitmore (DeMatha), Austin Carr (Macklin), Collis Jones (St. John’s) and Adrian Dantley (DeMatha).

All four of these hardwood greats are included in the almanac titled “D.C. Sports Heroes,” a 49-page book that lists more than 400 outstanding athletes, coaches, administrators, promoters and teams from Washington, D.C.

“That’s where the basketball program became revered in the 1960s and 1970s,” Blue & Gold Illustrated Senior Editor Lou Somogyi says. “Those were the glory days. That was the pipeline that lifted Notre Dame into a top-10 superpower program in basketball.”

Notre Dame head basketball coach Mike Brey (Bathesda, Md.) is from the Beltway area, as are two of his current players in guards Eric Atkins (Columbia, Md.) and Jerian Grant (Bowie, Md.).

The football pipeline from the Washington, D.C., area is alive and well also, with three Irish seniors – Lane Clelland (Owings Mills, Md.), Andrew Nuss (Ashburn, Va.) and David Ruffer, (Oakton, Va.) – all calling the Washington, D.C., area home.

The all-time list of Irish football players from this area isn’t as star-studded as the basketball alumni. But, you can’t ignore the fact that some of the best Notre Dame players of all-time at their positions came from the Washington, D.C., metro area.

Running back Allen Pinkett (Sterling, Va.) was a two-time All-American at Notre Dame. He left after the 1985 season as the career rushing leader with 4,131 yards, until Autrey Denson set a new career standard in 1998 with 4,318 yards.

Pinkett became the first Notre Dame player ever to rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, tallying 1,179 in 1983, 1,268 in 1984 and 1,176 in 1985. He remains the Irish career-scoring leader with 53 touchdowns, including 49 rushing, and Pinkett is also tied with Vagas Ferguson (1976-1979) for the most rushing touchdowns in a single season with 17.

Standout wide receiver Tom Gatewood (Baltimore, Md.), who played under head coach Ara Parseghian from 1969-71, set almost every receiving record at Notre Dame, and had nearly all of them hold up for more than 30 years until modern-day stars Jeff Samardzija, Golden Tate and Michael Floyd broke them.

Former Irish defensive end Victor Abiamiri (Randallstown, Md.) is in his fifth season with the Philadelphia Eagles and one of a handful of Notre Dame graduates from the DC area that played in the NFL.

Perhaps these three former Irish standouts will be among the many Notre Dame alumni in attendance for only the second Irish game ever against Maryland, and the second appearance in Washington, D.C.

Notre Dame welcomed in the Tyrone Willingham era with a 22-0 win over Maryland on Aug. 31, 2002, at Giants Stadium, and the Irish blanked Navy 30-0 at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium on Nov. 5, 1998.

“It’s really nice to be able to host the Notre Dame family at the nation’s capital,” says Savage, speaking on behalf of her alumni club. “If Washington, D.C. is America’s hometown, it’s really nice for our club to then play host to our Notre Dame family at America’s hometown. It’s a perfect combination for us of bringing together our Notre Dame family here in the nation’s capital.”