Nov. 4, 1999
by Cappy Gagnon
Fifty years ago, Notre Dame freshman Billy Casper walked into the office of athletic director Frank Leahy and said “Mr. Leahy, I’m going to have to leave Notre Dame. it’s just too cold here!”
With that statement, Casper, returned to his Southern California home and became one of the all-time great professional golfers. Leahy, from Winner, South Dakota, may have come to Notre Dame for the climate.
Despite that fact that South Bend is more than 2,000 driving miles from any part of California, some of Notre Dame’s greatest stars have come from California – a veritable gridiron rush to the Golden Dome.
Someone named Francis O’Hara, a halfback on the 1896 team, appears to have been the first Californian to play football for the Irish, less than 50 years after the Gold Rush. Little is known about O’Hara, but it is known that Notre Dame founder Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., sent a party to Northern California to look for gold in 1849.
It would be difficult to pick Notre Dame’s top football player from California, but it would not be difficult to pick the best season for Californians on campus. That would be 1964, when four of the biggest stars on head coach Ara Parseghian’s first team were from California.
Parseghian uncovered two gems languishing on the bench and turned them into an All American battery. Quarterback John Huarte won the Heisman – just before he earned his only varsity letter – and Jack Snow obliterated Notre Dame’s single season passing catching record with 60 receptions for 1114 yards. Parseghian demonstrated an uncanny ability to discover talent and to design a scheme which maximized a player’s strengths.
Huarte, from Anaheim, and Snow, from Long Beach, spent the summer of 1964 on campus at Notre Dame, among only four football players in summer school. There were no reports that they worked on their pass routes, ala Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais in the summer of 1913, but they certainly had the same magic in the fall.
Another star of the 1964 offense was halfback Nick Eddy, from Tracy. Nick was a big halfback with track team speed and was also the team’s second receiving threat. One of the big anchors on the defensive line was Kevin Hardy. Gertrude Stein may have said that there was “no there, there”, in referring to Hardy’s home town of Oakland, but there was plenty of Hardy, there, at left defensive tackle. The 6-5 Hardy was a legitimate giant in his day.
As good a passer as Huarte proved to be, he was no better than sixth or seventh string in his sophomore year, with a signal caller from Fresno topping the chart. Daryle Lamonica, who would be known as the “Mad Bomber” when he quarterbacked the Oakland Raiders, was the starer at the time. Lamonica’s talent got its first national airing when he won the most valuable player award, as he led the East team in the East-West all-star game after the 1962 season. The coach who turned him loose in that game was a young man named Parseghian, who then the head coach at Northwestern.
Fullerton’s Steve Beuerlein is still going strong as the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, in his 13th professional season. Beuerlein was the first four-year starting Notre Dame quarterback in Irish history.
Fullback is another position with strong California ties. Larry “Moon” Mullins, from Pasadena, was Rockne’s fullback on his final team in 1930 – a national championship squad. Larry Moriarty, of Santa Barbara, was the pile-driving fullback on the 1982 team.
Notre Dame has enrolled a powerful group of offensive linemen from the Golden State over the years. Sacramento’s Frank Geremia was a three-year starter in the mid-50s while Arcadia’s George Kunz was a co-captain of the 1968 team. Santa Ana’s Larry Willams, a 1984 co-captain, had a 10-year pro career before becoming one of South Bend’s top attorneys. Concord’s Aaron Taylor, a 1993 captain, has returned to his home state to play guard for the San Diego Chargers. Adam Walsh, arguably Notre Dame’s most legendary lineman, came out of Hollywood itself. Walsh once played an entire game at center and middle linebacker, with two broken hands.
Walsh was the center, and sole captain of the 1924 national championship team, which featured the Four Horsemen. Rounding out the line, for an all-time Notre Dame team of California lineage, would be end Bill Wightkin. Wightkin played opposite Leon Hart on the 1949 national championship team, after backing up the 1949 Heisman Trophy winner in ’47 and ’48. Wightkin went on to have a fine pro career with the Chicago Bears.
If the all-California team needed a sub end for a special play, the call could go to Johnny “One Play” O’Brien, of Los Angeles. O’Brien, who never rose above third string at Notre Dame, was the hero of the 1928 upset win over Army, when Rockne gave his “Win One For The Gipper” speech.
If defensive specialists are needed for the all-Californian team, Downey’s Tommy McDonald, a 1964 grad, could play cornerback. McDonald had a nose for the football, leading the ’62 and ’63 teams with nine and five interceptions. Santa Ana’s Eric Patton, a 1972 grad, Huntington Beach’s Rich DiBernardo, a 1986 grad, and LaVerne’s Kory Minor, who co-captained the 1998 team, could man the linebacker spots.
At least six Californians are expected to see playing time today for Notre Dame – offensive linemen John Merandi (Blue Jay) and Kurt Vollers (Whittier), defensive tackle Brad Williams (Orange), flanker Joey Getherall (Hacienda Heights), running back Mike McNair (Corona del Mar) and defensive back Shane Walton (San Diego).