by Chris Masters
As this year’s slogan “Nowhere But Notre Dame” suggests, there are certain elements that are unique to the Irish football program. A rich and vibrant history is one such feature, offering unprecedented feats that include 11 national championships, seven Heisman Trophy winners and the highest winning percentage (.750) in NCAA Division I annals. Legendary coaches also are interwoven in the fabric of this illustrious program, with names such as Rockne, Leahy and Parseghian harkening memories of unparalleled dynasties in college football lore.
However, one of the primary reasons why Notre Dame football has captured a special place in the American sports landscape is its adherence and respect for tradition. For decades, the Irish have maintained the link to their glorious history through particular symbols of excellence – their shimmering golden helmets, the “Play Like A Champion Today” sign, the Friday night pep rallies and the leprechaun are just some of these symbols.
This weekend, Notre Dame once again is paying homage to its legacy with the first Captains’ Weekend. Representatives from seven decades of Irish football teams are back on campus to celebrate their special place in the program’s history. For some of these men, it is their first pilgrimage back to South Bend since their playing days, and for most, it will be an emotional experience as they rekindle old friendships and recall their tenures under the Golden Dome.
“The biggest asset I see is the actual mingling with former and current captains in an atmosphere of one,” says former Irish defensive back and consensus All-American Mike Townsend, who was a tri-captain on Notre Dame’s 1973 national championship team.
“I know of no other time I have been blessed with such a group of individuals that have shared my frustration, my sense of accomplishment and my sense of strains on the family as I have with these men. Plus it gives each one of us a chance to gather again for another weekend under the mystique of Notre Dame football.”
“It was a great honor to be part of a great school and then to be elected by your teammates to lead them into battle,” adds Tony Furjanic, a linebacker and co-captain in 1985.
“I took my role as captain very seriously and tried to keep the team motivated even when we were not having a very good year.”
One of the highlights of the Captains’ Weekend will come at a morning breakfast and at halftime of today’s season opener against Washington State when each former captain is presented with his own Captain’s Pin, in recognition of his service to the team, the program and the University. Each pin features the interlocking ND monogram, the words “Notre Dame Football Captain” and the year the player served in that role.
The genesis of the Captain’s Pin tradition came from current Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham, who was seeking a way to honor the special contributions made by those leaders of the past. The first pins were presented at the 2002 Notre Dame Football Awards Banquet to last year’s team captains – Arnaz Battle, Sean Mahan, Gerome Sapp and Shane Walton – as well as the keynote speaker at the event, former Irish defensive end and 1984 captain Mike Golic.
“We are excited to bring back these former great players because it is my belief that you cannot be a great team until you become connected with the greatness of the past,” Willingham says.
“Just the thought of having those former captains here standing next to our team and passing on that great Notre Dame passion and spirit is tremendous.”
Serving as a captain of the Notre Dame football team is a privilege reserved for a select group of individuals. Often times, the title will supercede the glory of individual honors and accomplishments and can even transcend some of the social boundaries of the time.
Tom Gatewood was a standout wide receiver for the Irish from 1969-71. As a junior in 1970, he set school records for receptions (77) and receiving yards (1,123) while earning consensus All-America honors and helping Notre Dame defeat top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl. He also established a new Irish career record with 157 receptions and was a two-time CoSIDA Academic All-America selection. However, in spite of the considerable accolades he received, Gatewood still considers one of his greatest thrills to have been chosen as team captain for Notre Dame in 1971.
“It is an honor and a responsibility,” he says.
“It is part of a legacy that is bigger than any records a person holds as an individual because it can’t be taken away. When I became Notre Dame’s first African-American football captain in 1971, history was made. Being captain that year was bigger than ever before because it helped paved the way for more progress on our campus and other campuses around the country.”
Sometimes, ascension to the Irish captaincy is based upon an individual’s dedication, perseverance and loyalty to the overall success of the program. Two such players are former center Mike Oriard (1969 co-captain) and defensive end/linebacker Jim Stock (1975 co-captain). Oriard began his career as a walk-on freshman, working his way up to a starting role as a senior in front of All-America quarterback Joe Theismann and eventually playing four years in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Meanwhile, Stock was a three-year starter and played an important role on the 1973 title-winning team. Two years later, he served as a captain and mentor to numerous Irish players who would go on to highly-successful college and pro football careers, including Ross Browner, Bob Golic, Ken MacAfee and Joe Montana.
Both Oriard and Stock say being a captain was a humbling experience and remains firmly entrenched as one of the highlights of their lives.
“For me, it was part of a fairy-tale experience at Notre Dame – my rise from walk-on freshman to being captain as a senior,” Oriard says.
“Leading the team onto the field in my first game as captain, and then going to midfield for the coin toss before my last game, the 1970 Cotton Bowl, remain my most vivid memories of that time.”
“I have always felt honored to have been a Notre Dame football captain,” Stock adds.
“I wasn’t the most talented player, but I tried to play with a lot of intensity and lead by example.”
Through the words of their predecessors, Willingham is hoping to instill in his players the qualities that make up, in his words, “a Notre Dame man.” However, he points out that certain distinct characteristics exist to separate a captain from the rest of his teammates.
“Respect from his peers, unquestioned leadership and quality of play – those are the things that really earmark a captain,” Willingham says.
At the same time, the Irish head coach notes that a team will often have more leaders than captains. In order to spotlight those players who possess such leadership qualities during the course of the season, Willingham revived the concept of choosing captains on a game-by-game basis, with the team voting on season captains at the end of the year.
“I want the depth of our leadership to exist on many levels and in many forms,” he says.
“Sometimes, when you have three or four players already chosen as captains, the players will leave all the leadership in the hands of those three or four men. I want everyone to have a vested interest in what takes place on this team and with the leadership of this team.”
Former Irish tight end and NFL Hall of Famer Dave Casper was one of Townsend’s teammates (and a fellow tri-captain) on the ’73 Notre Dame squad. He agrees with Willingham that on great teams, leadership goes far beyond simply the captain’s title.
“Being the captain was not a service, but rather it was an honor,” Casper says.
“However, our team was full of leaders – Tom Clements, Gary Potempa and Greg Collins to name just a few. They all provided leadership on that team even though they were not chosen as a captain that year.”
With so many former Irish players returning to campus this weekend, Willingham is seeking to take advantage of the opportunity to tap into the wealth of knowledge that these men possess. Many of these players welcome that chance and offered some words of advice for the 2003 Notre Dame football team.
“Play each game like it is your last,” Furjanic says. “In fact, live each day like it is your last and never take anything for granted.”
“Seeing is believing,” Gatewood states.
“If you can see it, you can be it. Visualization is not a dream, but rather an attainable goal. To be a champion, you first have to see yourself as a champion. To be captain, you have to see yourself as captain.”
“Amidst all the huge distractions, play for yourselves and your teammates,” Oriard adds.
However, the simplest advice comes from Casper, who summed up his thoughts for the current Irish players in one word: