Feb. 5, 2015
When Thom Gatewood arrived on the University of Notre Dame campus to embark on his academic and athletic careers, he dropped off his luggage in his room and quickly sprinted to the athletic area.
There, the prospective Fighting Irish football player checked in with the equipment manager.
“I thought there would be an opportunity to choose a number,” Gatewood says looking back. “That wasn’t the case. I was assigned No. 44. I thought that was kind of odd for a receiver.
“I said, ‘What’s the scoop here? There must be a mistake.’ The equipment manager said, ‘Your number is 44.’
“I said, ‘That’s usually for running backs.’ The equipment manager said, ‘That’s what we have you listed as, a running back.'”
Although he was recruited as a wide receiver, Gatewood started his Notre Dame career as a running back.
Determined and driven, Gatewood ended his Fighting Irish career as a record-setting receiver–and now he is a Hall of Fame receiver.
Gatewood, a two-time All-American for the Irish, has been named to the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2015. He set Irish records for most passes caught and most receiving yards in a season (77 catches for 1,123 yards in 1970) and was Notre Dame’s all-time receiver when he finished his Irish career in 1971.
But when Gatewood showed up for his first practice at Notre Dame in 1968, he showed up as a running back.
Freshmen wouldn’t be meeting with the coaches until the next day when Gatewood found out, courtesy of the equipment manager, that he was a running back. He couldn’t sleep that first night on campus.
“I stayed awake all night thinking, ‘How am I going to make this team?'” Gatewood said. “I’m not a running back. I’ve never played running back. I never did get a straight answer on who decided I was going to be a running back.”
Since freshmen in those days were assigned to scout team duty, Gatewood soon discovered he was a target at practice . . . a big target.
During USC week, Gatewood imitated Trojan star tailback O.J. Simpson.
“I’m wearing number 32, and they put a big red helmet on me,” Gatewood said of taking on the role of Simpson in practice. “I’m the only guy out there with a big red helmet, wearing number 32, and I’m running against the number one defense, getting beat up on every play, every play. When we played Michigan State, I was Clinton Jones, so I’m wearing the green Sparty hat. I’m a guy with a target on my back.
“I wasn’t content being a running back. Running back was work. Cutting back against the grain was not natural. If I had been doing it since I was six years old, I’d know all about that. Having the instinct for what your pulling guard is going to do, or a trap block and what the timing is, and so forth, when you make a decision to dip in and dip out … I had to learn all of that. It was a real struggle.
“Because I was running scared, maybe playing running back made me a better player, a better receiver.”
It made him an All-America receiver, but just getting to finally play the position where he flourished at Baltimore (Maryland) City College High School took some doing on the Fighting Irish practice fields.
“I would lobby and lobby and lobby the coaches,” Gatewood said of trying to become a wide receiver. “I lobbied the receivers coach, Mike Stock. I lobbied the head coach (Ara Parseghian). I would stand next to him all the time, saying, ‘Coach, can I go over and get in line with the receivers? I want to show you what I can do.’ I kept lobbying him and being a nuisance.
“Finally, I think they just wanted to shut me up. They put me in a huddle with (quarterback) Joe Theismann and said, ‘We’re going to have him run a couple of routes. Just throw the ball to him.’
“I caught everything that was thrown. Theismann couldn’t out-throw me. He couldn’t get it past me. I’m diving, I’m catching everything. Then the coaches said, ‘It’s one thing to catch passes like this. Catching against a linebacker, against people who are going to hit you, fast safeties … that’s a different thing.’ I still caught everything. I finally got my wish. They pulled me off the depth chart as a running back.”
Gatewood was finally a receiver, but he was listed as the seventh receiver.
“I just kept running and running and working and working,” Gatewood said of his drive to excel. “I had a really good spring game. By the time the first game with Northwestern came around my sophomore year, I was playing. I think all that training as a running back helped. Once I was in the slot, doing end-around stuff, catching screen passes … I was prepared to run in traffic.”
Theismann, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003, praised Gatewood’s intellect as a key factor in his ability to thrive for the Irish.
“You always have to think about someone’s intelligence first,” Theismann said. “Even though people tend to focus on someone’s athletic skills, you have to be smart enough to be able to understand what you want to do, how you want to do it and the way you go about doing it. Thom is really a smart guy. He was a very natural athlete, a very gifted, natural athlete.”
Theismann, who would become a Super Bowl champion quarterback for the Washington Redskins after his Notre Dame career, teamed up with Gatewood to form one of the most productive passing combinations in Irish history.
“The great combination of Terry Hanratty to Jim Seymour led the way,” Theismann said. “Thom did a great job of being able to work with me and make plays. The other thing about it, he was really easy to throw the football to. He always presented himself in a situation where you really didn’t have to force the ball to him. He was fast enough to be able to run away from people, he was big enough to be able to get away from them and he understood the concepts that we ran on offense really well. So it was really easy to get the ball to him. He made my life a lot easier.”
Dan Novakov, a left tackle on the Irish teams that featured Gatewood and Theismann, said Gatewood achieved his greatness quietly.
“Thom was not a rah-rah guy,” said Novakov, who is currently the chairman of the Cotton Bowl. “He led more by example than by word. He was a mature guy. I would call him a perfectionist. He ran great routes. He wasn’t the speediest guy, but he ran great routes and he was very disciplined. He was a decent blocker, which you can’t say about a lot of wide receivers. He actually lined up at tight end from time to time. He was a complete player.”
Novakov agreed with Theismann that Gatewood’s intelligence made him a cut above the competition.
“Thom was obviously talented, but the way he carried himself, he was an intelligent player,” Novakov said. “That characteristic stands out. He was an Academic All-American. He was not your average athlete. He stood out in the classroom as well as on the football field. He used his intelligence on the football field.
“Thom was a top-notch receiver. He was an integral part of our offensive attack. Without him, I know we wouldn’t have had the success we had. I think a lot of Joe Theismann’s success was due to having Thom available as a receiver. He was elected a co-captain of our team, so that tells you what his teammates thought of him. He was looked to for leadership and looked up to in the classroom and the football field.”
When Gatewood finally got his chance as a receiver, it was at a time when the forward-thinking Parseghian was advancing a passing attack that already was making a mark on the college landscape.
“It was still an experience, it was a trial, but the passing game came exploding right onto the scene,” Gatewood said. “It was fun being part of that era. It was a whole awakening to a whole new way of thinking, having the offense really put pressure on the defense, and not just sitting there and reading the defense and running left, running right, and running up the middle. All of the sudden, offenses gave defenses something to think about.
“When I look at these offenses today, where every 22 seconds the offense is snapping the ball trying to put pressure on the defense, it’s redefined how you play against a defense, to not allow them to catch their breathe, to not allow them to substitute, to not allow them to read. You’d like to have a nickel package, but you don’t have time to get a nickel back in. Too bad, too sad. Here comes another pass. It’s a fun era for me to watch, and yet we were sort of doing that.”
Gatewood was ahead of his time as a possession receiver.
“I would get the ball on third down, with everybody in the stadium, including the ushers, knowing who was going to get the ball,” Gatewood said. “The sports information director at the time, Roger Valdiserri, came up with the nickname for me, ‘The Swinging Gate,’ because on no two plays in a row was I going to be in the same position. I would be running a button-hook, a slant, an out route, or whatever. I could do it from any place on the field and engage people and run crossing routes.
“It became a very complex offense, when it was really a very simple premise. Now everybody specializes. If you’re a slot guy, you’re a slot guy. If you’re a wide-out, you’re a wide-out. If you’re a tight end, you’re a tight end. I was a tight end, but I could flex out. (Patriot tight end Rob) Gronkowski does that. He flexes out, sometimes all the way out to be a wide guy, or mid-range, or in tight to the line. These are concepts that look new now, but it was being done in 1970.”
One of the most special moments for Gatewood was being on a Fighting Irish team that played in a bowl game for the first time in 45 seasons. At the end of his junior season the Irish played top-rated and unbeaten Texas in the Cotton Bowl, losing 21-17. The next season, the Irish returned to the Cotton Bowl and stopped the Longhorns’ 30-game winning streak, 24-11.
Numerous factors went into changing Notre Dame’s bowl policy, but the decision to go to the Cotton Bowl still involved a players’ vote.
“The challenge that was thrown out there for us was, ‘We’ve got a chance to play the against the number one team in the country. They’re undefeated. We have a chance to go to a bowl game and showcase the University, improve our standing.'” Gatewood recalled. “That’s all we needed. It was like, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.’ And then, there we were, playing against Texas and Darrell Royal.”
Gatewood’s said he always cherished his decision to attend Notre Dame to further his academic and athletic careers.
“At the time I was going to school at Notre Dame, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in 1968,” Gatewood said. “The world was changing. Race relations were not great in the country. There was political upheaval and social problems. When I looked at the landscape of having gone through recruiting … there was only one black player in the Southwest Conference, Jerry Levias of SMU. In the Southeastern Conference there were no black players. All those powerhouse schools, and they weren’t integrated. There were black players at Michigan State, because the Big Ten had integrated.
“My class at Notre Dame had five African-Americans,” Gatewood said. “That was the largest group of African-Americans recruited at the time. The following year there were eight African-Americans in Notre Dame’s recruiting class. Notre Dame was ahead of the curve in terms of integration, and I had a lot of pride and excitement in that.”
After graduating from Notre Dame, Gatewood played for the New York Giants in 1972 and 1973. He was a broadcaster with ABC and now is the owner of Blue Atlas Productions and a co-owner of Lane Larkspur, Ltd., a television production company that has won 11 network Emmy Awards, two network news Emmy Awards and four Peabody Awards. He is also heavily involved in community service initiatives, including “Healthy Children, Healthy Futures,” which is dedicated to bringing proper nutrition and fitness to inner-city communities.
Gatewood qualifies as a member of a select group of college players who has been chosen for the Hall of Fame and also earned the National Football Foundation’s Scholar-Athlete Award. He also earned an NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarship.
Gatewood makes time to watch his grandson, A.J. Dillon, play football. The Lawrence Academy (Groton, Massachusetts) tailback racked up 1700 yards and 30 touchdowns last season, putting him on the radar of colleges across the country. He also has a 3.6 grade-point average.
When he found out that he was being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, Gatewood said he was in disbelief. Players from his era were already getting passed over by the selection committee. He praised his coaches and his teammates.
“It’s a humbling experience to get into the Hall of Fame,” Gatewood said. “The reality is, it’s a cliché, but football is a team game. I can’t get open if the quarterback is sacked. Larry DiNardo, who was an All-America guard and a team captain, was very instrumental in getting things done in front. Joe Theismann, our quarterback, spent countless hours after practice, before practice, in film sessions, working with just one person trying to develop a bond, working to communicate on and off the field. He’s a person who helped propel me as well. The guys on the scouting team–they played critical roles. There are so many people who made this possible.”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent