Nov. 12, 2004
By Craig Chval
As “The Three Amigos,” Frank Stams, Michael Stonebreaker and Wes Pritchett terrorized teammates, their coaches and opposing offenses while leading Notre Dame to the 1988 national championship.
Thirteen years later, opponents and coaches are finally safe, but the trio still terrorizes each other at every opportunity.
“Frank, when did you get out of jail?” bellows Pritchett into the telephone as he greeted Stams.
“I’ve got one of those bracelets,” responds Stams, without missing a beat.
“You can saw through those things, you know,” offers Pritchett.
“I know, but I’m afraid that they’ll put a chip in me next if I do that,” explains Stams.
Stonebreaker, the youngest of the group, explains his decision to attend Notre Dame.
“Wesley Pritchett was my host on my recruiting visit to Notre Dame. After spending a weekend with Wes, there was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be,” says Stonebreaker, the sarcasm dripping from his voice.
Wes Pritchett was a four-year monogram winner for the Irish, taking over a starting spot at inside linebacker in his final two seasons (1987-88). He was a second-team Sporting News All-American for the 1988 campaign.
Believe it or not, the Three Amigos hit opponents even harder.
Whether it was Pritchett sending West Virginia All-American quarterback Major Harris to the sidelines early with a devastating hit in the Fiesta Bowl or Stams burying USC’s Rodney Peete into the turf while Stan Smagala returned one of Peete’s errant passes for a touchdown, the trio set the tone for Notre Dame’s 12-0 season.
To hear the Amigos tell it, their ability to wreak havoc on the football field was due at least in part to their ability to wreak havoc off the field.
“The person who was glue, the person who really put it all together, was Barry Alvarez,” says Stams of the ’88 Irish defensive coordinator, now the very successful head coach at Wisconsin.
“Our personalities fit very well with Barry’s,” elaborates Pritchett. “He believed that you had to keep the guys loose.”
Of course, Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz wasn’t exactly known for promoting “looseness.”
“Lou was a master at keeping you on your toes,” says Stams, “and he had a great complement in Barry.”
“Barry let us be ourselves,” says Pritchett.
“Our biggest motivation was to keep Coach Holtz away from us in practice,” says Stams.
“If we didn’t play well, Coach Holtz would be over on the defensive side of the ball,” explains Stonebreaker.
Presumably, Holtz was working with the offense in practice the day Stams noticed something out of the ordinary while in the defensive huddle.
“I smelled a cigar while I was in the huddle, and sure enough, I came out of the huddle and there was Pritchett – he had grabbed (sportswriter) Tim Prister’s cigar and was puffing away.”
“We had as much fun as you could possibly have on the football field,” says Stonebreaker. “But we knew when to pull in the reins.”
“For me, it was the most fun I ever had on a football field,” says Pritchett. “You got to spend four years playing with a great bunch of guys, and you got to represent your alma mater.
“We had a blast … and we won.”
Michael Stonebreaker was a two-time consensus All-American and a unanimous first-team selection in 1990. He finished third in the balloting for the Butkus Award in his final year with the Irish (1990).
Winning was something that Stams and Pritchett didn’t take for granted. Each was a fifth-year senior in 1988 after enduring Notre Dame’s 5-6 season as freshmen in 1985.
“Having experienced the hard times, we had a deeper appreciation for the success we achieved,” says Stams. “It was a pretty good rags-to-riches story.”
“That definitely made us appreciate what kind of opportunity we had in 1988,” says Pritchett of Notre Dame’s rise in the polls as the Irish kept racking up wins.
The Amigos were a huge reason that Notre Dame was able to take advantage of that opportunity and claim its 11th national championship.
Both Stams and Stonebreaker were first-team All-Americans, while Pritchett also earned All-America mention. Stams was at his best in Notre Dame’s biggest games, as CBS’ Notre Dame most valuable player in the 31-30 win over number-one Miami and as the most valuable defensive player in the Fiesta Bowl win over West Virginia.
All three went on to play in the NFL, but there was something special about Notre Dame’s magical 1988 season.
“That whole last year was an experience I’ll take with me for the rest of my life,” says Pritchett, who has made his mark in the financial world as a licensed bond trader with Bear Stearns. “The things we overcome along the way set a precedent for what you have to do in order to be successful for the rest of your life.”
Indeed, between earning spots on NFL rosters to success in the business world, each of the Amigos has continued to enjoy great success.
As the youngest of the three, Stonebreaker had the unique experience of life at Notre Dame without the Amigos. He both missed the other two Amigos, and drew on their time together during his final season at Notre Dame.
“All of a sudden I was one of the oldest guys on the team and it was a different feeling,” recalls Stonebreaker, who is back in his native New Orleans as the owner and CEO of NoBrew, a company that offers ice coffee and other specialty coffees in customers’ homes.
“The best thing about playing with those guys was competing with each other to get to the ball carrier quickest – it didn’t even matter what the offense was running.”
Stonebreaker obviously was getting to a lot of ball carriers in a hurry during his final season at 1990, once again earning first-team All-America honors.
With the recent birth of Pritchett’s son Lawson Kenneth, the Three Amigos have become the three fathers. Stams dotes over his two toddlers, Rhiannon and Mason, while Stonebreaker prepares for the day when he’ll be kept busy keeping a future version of the Amigos away from his daughters, Savannah and Violette.
While family responsibilities have kept the Amigos from getting together as often as they’d like, they retain their passion for football – and Notre Dame in particular.
“I watch every game, and I still live, breathe and die with it,” says Pritchett. “And I can’t stand it.”
Not surprisingly, recent and infamous episodes of victories opponents taking liberties with the playing field in Notre Dame Stadium don’t sit well with the Amigos.
“Those kinds of things didn’t happen when we were playing,” says Stonebreaker.
“They would have been too tired to pull up turf after playing us for 60 minutes,” says Pritchett.
Stams, who currently regales University of Akron football fans with his football knowledge and wit as a commentator on the Zips’ radio broadcasts, is reminded of some of the extra-curricular activities the Amigos encountered in their day.
“I remember when you went toe-to-toe with that Miami kicker near the tunnel in ’88,” he taunts Pritchett.
“You didn’t expect me to take on one of those big linemen, did you?” responds Pritchett, who backed down from no one in his career.
As the Amigos trade insults, they plan for a mini-reunion at an upcoming Notre Dame game. Thank goodness all three are devoted family men (Pritchett/Megan, Stams/Mary and Stonebreaker/Catherine), so the women and children should be safe, but when the Amigos get back together, somebody better lock up the quarterbacks.