Nov. 18, 2005
By Craig Chval
Jersey guys are in at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis is a Jersey guy who likes Jersey guys. Weis inherited a handful of Jersey guys and looks for a Jersey guy mentality in players he recruits, regardless of a prospect’s home state.
Tough. Quick. Nasty.
As Weis himself knows, Notre Dame teams at least as far back as the Leahy Era have had more than their share of Jersey guys.
Among the most prominent and successful was Bloomfield, N.J., native Frank Tripucka, a quarterback on Leahy’s legendary teams of the 1940s. Tripucka earned monograms as a backup to Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack on Notre Dame’s unbeaten 1946 and 1947 teams before winning the starting role in 1948. He led that squad to a 9-0-1 record and a number-two ranking in the final polls.
Tripucka’s New Jersey influence on Notre Dame didn’t end when he graduated. After becoming the first-ever starting quarterback in the history of the Denver Broncos and the first Bronco player to have his jersey retired, Tripucka and his bride and former high school sweetheart Randy settled in New Jersey. There, they raised a bunch of Jersey guys – six to be exact – with a daughter in the mix as well.
Kelly Tripucka, the fifth of those six sons, was an all-state performer in two sports in high school in Essex Falls, New Jersey. From there, Kelly followed his father’s footsteps to Notre Dame, where he became an All-American …. basketball player.
“I don’t think Kelly likes to get hit,” laughs Frank when explaining how the starting quarterback on an undefeated Irish football team could leave as his legacy to Notre Dame a basketball-playing son.
Anybody who watched Kelly Tripucka play basketball would know that Frank was joking. Without question, Kelly was a Jersey guy on the basketball court, mixing it up inside as a 6-foot-5 inch forward and consistently getting under the skin of opposing players and fans alike.
Tough. Quick. Nasty.
Kelly Tripucka blended his Jersey attitude with rare talent.
As a freshman, he was a starter on Notre Dame’s only men’s team to reach the NCAA Final Four, while earning All-American honors in each of the next three seasons. Tripucka also infused those Irish squads with his swagger, as Notre Dame knocked off four number-one teams during those four seasons, including Kentucky and Virginia on the road during Tripucka’s senior season in 1980-81.
“We’d play anybody, anywhere, anytime,” Tripucka says.
Tripucka, who still ranks ninth on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring list, was a first-round NBA draft selection, averaging at least 20 points per game five times in a 10-year career that included two all-star game appearances.
Kelly and all of his brothers – Tracy, Mark, Todd, T.K. and Chris – began playing football in the neighborhood, in pick-up games with helmets and shoulder pads.
A persistent junior high basketball coach, who also coached soccer, convinced Kelly to peel off the football gear long enough to give soccer a try.
“He has a hard head,” explains Frank, continuing his clinic on how to be a Jersey guy father. “And being such a big target, he used to get most of his goals on headers.”
Kelly Tripucka was honored by the University of Notre Dame in March of 2005 when he was selected to the school’s 100th anniversary All-Century Team.
Kelly was smart enough to use his height to his advantage when the opportunity presented, but his booming kicks are what earned Tripucka all-state honors as a sophomore and helped Bloomfield to a state soccer championship.
In spite of scholarship offers to play basketball and soccer at a number of top programs, including Duke, Maryland and South Carolina, Kelly decided to concentrate on basketball at Notre Dame.
All six of Frank Tripucka’s Jersey guys played varsity sports in college: Tracy and Todd played basketball at Lafayette; Mark played football at Massachusetts; T.K. played basketball at Fordham; and Chris, the youngest, played football at Boston College. And Heather, Tracy’s twin, was a legendary competitor in several sports just as girls’ sports programs were entering their infancy.
While obviously proud of the college careers of all six sons, Frank was thrilled that Kelly got a chance to play for Notre Dame, regardless of which sport.
“I could care less what sport it was,” says Frank Tripucka, in the same usage favored by Jersey guy Weis (disdaining the preference of grammarians – “couldn’t care less”). “I wanted all my boys to play sports. That was a strict rule – there was not gonna be anybody hanging around the house.”
Today, all the Tripuckas except Chris are back in Jersey. Frank spends lots of time watching his grandchildren’s sporting events with Randy. Like his father, Kelly married a local girl. Kelly and Janice are raising two Jersey guys of their own – Travis and Jake – along with eight-year-old Reagan, the princess of the family.
As father and son reminisce and laugh, Kelly rattles off dozens of his siblings’ accomplishments, never mentioning his many Notre Dame and NBA records. Only a Google search revealed that Kelly was named the Newark Star-Ledger’s New Jersey High School basketball player of the 20th Century, and that he was recently inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey.
Kelly recently joined the New York Knicks, headed by former NBA teammate Isiah Thomas, where he will continue his broadcasting career and get involved in other aspects of the team’s operations. More important, he’ll retain the flexibility to enjoy his sons’ high school sports exploits. Both excel in football, basketball and lacrosse – and both are hoping to be the latest Tripucka Jersey guys to play for Notre Dame.