Joe Delaney

Evolving Traditions: Subway Alumni Connection Lives On

Joe Delaney owns all the gear.
The requisite blue and gold repp tie.
The navy blue sweatshirt — and another in green.
Some say University of Notre Dame. Others say Irish.
There are hats and pins and jackets.
In all, Delaney figures over the years he has collected more than a few dozen items that say Notre Dame.
He grew up attending Catholic schools and a college with a religious affiliation.
A longtime managing director for Deloitte, Delaney has been an active member of the Notre Dame Club of Staten Island for decades.
“I first came to the Notre Dame campus in 1981 to see Notre Dame play Florida State. I visited with my old friend Steve Orsini (captain of the 1977 Notre Dame national championship team and then the Irish ticket manager), who had been my colleague at Deloitte,” he says.
“I’ve probably made another 25 trips to campus over the years.”
He’s the executive director of the 28-year-old Bread of Life Food Drive, a growing effort (210 cities in 2018) that also dovetails with former Irish football coach Lou Holtz and his “Lou’s Lads” organization of former Irish football players.
Delaney received the first Notre Dame Alumni Association Volunteer of the Year Award on an individual basis in 2012 and then shared it again in 2018 as part of the connection with Bread of Life and Holtz.
He is chairman of the board of Catholic Charities of Staten Island.
He’s a member of the Notre Dame national alumni board of directors.
Now living in Pleasant Plains (a neighborhood on Staten Island), he lists former Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., as the individual he most admires.
It all fits perfectly into the portrait of a Notre Dame fan.
There’s only one wrinkle in the picture.
Joe Delaney is a Seton Hall graduate.
Lawrence Lewis grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey. His father was Welsh-American, his mother was a first-generation Irish immigrant.
His dream was to attend Notre Dame.
But for years he never came close to South Bend. The closest he got was in obtaining a ticket for the famed 1946 Yankee Stadium 0-0 tie between Notre Dame and Army.
Lewis accumulated some number of college credits at several East Coast institutions. But then he began a 39-year career with the Port Authority of New York, working as a police officer and later as manager of tunnels.
In 1981, at age 64, he enrolled at Notre Dame and graduated three years later. One granddaughter graduated the year before and another the year after.
Delaney qualifies as maybe the ultimate Notre Dame subway alumnus. Lewis fell into that category for most of his life, until he finally had the time, money and inclination to come to campus to study.
Together they represent hundreds, if not thousands, of New York-area individuals who have had no formal affiliation with the University, yet attached themselves to Notre Dame — often because of their rooting interest in the Irish football teams that for years came to Yankee Stadium to face Army.
Today represents a celebration of that unique phenomenon.
There’s never been a question about the myriad ways in which Knute Rockne affected football at Notre Dame:

  • As a senior end he played in a 1913 victory over Army at West Point that changed the way the Notre Dame football program was viewed.
  • As a football coach and tactician he was unmatched — resulting in a career .881 winning percentage that remains the highest in the history of college football.
  • He was known as a master motivator of his players, whether it was through use of humor or sarcasm. His use of the “Win One for the Gipper” pregame speech is the stuff of legends.
  • He was a marketing genius before his time, in great part through the relationships he built with the national media, who in those years happened to be the same individuals who officiated his games.
  • He created the design for Notre Dame Stadium, including plans for parking all the cars of attending fans, at a time when on-campus facilities of that size were deemed luxuries.

Yet maybe the most impactful decision Rockne made — one which remains a central part of Notre Dame’s intention today to remain independent in football — was to ensure his teams played in New York.
Thousands of fans traveled to today’s game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx via the New York subway system under the official designation of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
They most likely took the 4 train up the east side of Manhattan, starting at Crown Heights in Brooklyn — or they jumped on the B train up the west side of Central Park, beginning at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn.
That’s not much different than what ticket-holders did in 1925 when Rockne brought his team — then the defending national champion — to an earlier version of Yankee Stadium to meet Army.
When Rockne’s Notre Dame teams traveled to games by train, they found crowds of fans and well-wishers at every stop. When Notre Dame played in New York City in the years after World War I, New York mayor Jimmy Walker held parades to greet Rockne’s teams.
Connected subway routes took fans to Rockne’s 1921 meeting with Rutgers at the Polo Grounds (along Eighth Avenue, Harlem River Drive and West 159th Street in Upper Manhattan) and a 1923 game with Army at Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn.
That 1925 Notre Dame-Army game at Yankee Stadium marked the first of 21 games in a 22-year span at that site between the Irish and the Cadets (only missing the 1930 season when the teams played in front of 110,000 spectators at Soldier Field in Chicago).
All 21 of those games listed as sellouts — with crowds of around 75,000 fans routinely gathering to watch those matchups.
Many of those fans favored Notre Dame — yet they never attended the University and many had never traveled anywhere near South Bend.
And so the term “subway alumni” was born.
New York provided a focal point for Rockne, in great part due to prospective media attention. But that wasn’t the only place Irish fans bloomed.
“Notre Dame became a rare source of pride for the immigrant Irish who were struggling for acceptance in that era,” wrote Michele Himmelberg of the Orange County Register in 1988.
“Other downtrodden immigrants and Catholics joined the cause, and they turned out in droves when Rockne brought the team to Chicago and New York in the ’20s.”
Michael A. Ramos, now an attorney in San Antonio, remembers coming to Notre Dame for the first time decades ago. He had been admitted to Notre Dame — but could not afford to enroll — and attended the University of Texas at San Antonio instead.
“I remember in Catholic school when I was little, we prayed for Notre Dame on Friday that they would win on Saturday. I still do that,” he says.
“When I flew over the Golden Dome I had tears in my eyes. And when I went into the Golden Dome, you could almost hear Knute Rockne. You could almost hear the voices. You should never forget the tradition, just pass it on. Pass it on.
“I guess the names and faces change, but the spirit of Notre Dame never does.”
Former Irish all-star linebacker and 1988-89 team captain Ned Bolcar, a New Jersey product who now works on Wall Street, once said he has never forgotten the subway alumni:
“They have no connection with the University except they cry when the Irish lose and cheer when they win. That’s where the mystique comes from, and it’s most obvious when you’re winning. To me, as an athlete, as a member of the Notre Dame football team, I had a chance to touch that mystique.
“Wherever we went in the country, we had supporters. I think it was the people who were so special, who made up the Notre Dame family, that caused there to be that mystique.”
Former longtime Notre Dame executive vice president Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., had his own explanation:
“The Irish Catholic immigrants knew they could send their sons here and the boys would feel at home.
“Then, as our football teams became successful, other minorities began to identify with us, too. Years ago, in the early 1900s, we were always the underdog. We were the small, poor, private school going up against the Goliaths — Army, Michigan, Indiana.
“And we always seemed to come from behind to win. So all the underdogs in the country began to adopt us. Those people became very proud of ‘their’ college which is why we’ve always been sustained by our alumni, real and subway.”
When the Irish renewed their rivalry with Army at Yankee Stadium in 2010, Bill Pennington of the New York Times suggested that the Battle of the Bulge helped explain the significance of all those Irish-Cadet games played at the home of the Yankees.
“During the winter of 1944-45 in Belgium, American troops were surrounded and being infiltrated by English-speaking German spies dressed as American soldiers,” he wrote.
“How did the Americans tell friend from foe?
“They asked any unfamiliar face to tell them the score of Army’s 1944 game with Notre Dame.
“Because every G.I. knew that at sold-out Yankee Stadium on Nov. 11, top-ranked Army had routed No. 5 Notre Dame 59-0.”
Former Army captain Joe Steffy remembers those days well:
“Those games were the Super Bowl of today. There was no more famous place to perform any sport than Yankee Stadium, and there was no rivalry bigger than Army and Notre Dame. Many years, it was the national championship game.”
Former Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter Ray Didinger once captured the spirit of the subway alumni:
“Notre Dame.
“It’s the school longshoremen drink to on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s the school your spinster aunt, the one with the brogue, rooted for.
“Notre Dame.
“It’s about priests, cabbies and pot-bellied cops named O’Malley.
“It’s about kids in green tams tearing down goalposts in the rain.”
Proving Didinger’s point, there was Dave Cooper, a New York cabdriver with no particular Notre Dame affiliation, who for years picked up former Irish basketball coach Digger Phelps and any of his assistants and took them anywhere they needed to go while recruiting in the New York area.
To further explain the mystique Didinger added:
“Every poor Irishman who ever had a shopkeeper’s door slammed in his face, who ever had the urge to roll up his sleeves when he heard the word ‘mick,’ felt his chest swell with pride. Notre Dame became not a school but a cause.
“The lads would gladly climb aboard a train, ride halfway across the country and still knock your block off.
“Here was this little private school going around embarrassing brutes like Michigan, Nebraska — even the Army, for goodness sake — on their own sod.
“Soon all minorities rallied behind Notre Dame. They were the team of the inner cities, the team they cheered for on Two Street and in the Bronx, on stoops and on fire escapes, any place where stomachs growled and fingernails wouldn’t come clean.
“Notre Dame is a family place. Moms and dads trust it, kids are awed by it.
“People grow up with Notre Dame the way they grow up with Thanksgiving turkey and the Sunday paper.
“It becomes part of their lives, something a good Catholic boy grows into, like his brother’s Mackinaw.”
And no one underestimated the role Rockne played in the creation of the Notre Dame story.
Said Jim Crowley, one of the Four Horsemen, “Notre Dame has always been in the paper.
“But Rockne put the school on page one.”
Former Notre Dame football coach Dan Devine, then 25, remembers the first time he came to the Notre Dame campus in 1950 as a Michigan State assistant freshman coach.
“When I grew up, Notre Dame was Grantland Rice and the Four Horsemen and win one for the Gipper,” he said.
“It was Shangri-La. It didn’t exist.
“I was really disappointed when Notre Dame proved to be a place.
“It wasn’t supposed to be there.”
Twenty-five years later Devine became the Irish head coach.
“It was like you suddenly found yourself in King Arthur’s chair and found out those people really lived,” he said.
Jim Conrad, president of the Notre Dame Club of Gettysburg, says his club currently has 145 members and only 13 are Notre Dame graduates.
“Our board of directors are all subway alumni except for one,” he says.
Conrad says subway alumni are particularly prevalent in eastern Pennsylvania.
He adds, “The Williamsport, Schuylkill County and Hanover Township clubs — I am not sure whether they have any graduates.”
Meanwhile, Joe Delaney recalls listening to his first Irish football game in 1955 as Notre Dame defeated SMU. Since that first contest he hasn’t missed listening or watching a single Irish game.
He attended his first Notre Dame football game in 1957, when his father took him to Philadelphia to see the Irish play Army. He figures he’s seen 30 Notre Dame games since that one — either at Notre Dame Stadium or at contests in New York City, the New Jersey Meadowlands, Baltimore or Washington, D.C.
Delaney saw two Notre Dame-Army games at Yankee Stadium — in 1969 and then in the Shamrock Series contest in 2010.
“Notre Dame has held such a great appeal for me,” he says. “My late father, Joe Sr., died when I was just 14 years old, but he inspired me with his love of Notre Dame.
“And my dad’s love was not just based on Notre Dame football, but in the pride he felt in the leadership of Notre Dame, especially Father Ted Hesburgh.
“My dad always reminded me that most Notre Dame football players that he followed graduated with their degrees and became successful professionals in law, business and medicine.”
On his way to Yankee Stadium tonight, Delaney left Staten Island by ferry, jumped on the uptown Lexington Avenue 4 train from the Bowling Green station — and headed to the 161st Street stop in the Bronx.
Once a Notre Dame subway alumnus, always a subway alumnus. 
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books (one a New York Times bestseller) and editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.