Sept. 11, 2000

by Cappy Gagnon ’66

The Texas A&M Aggies made the 1,210-mile journey to Notre Dame Stadium today, bringing six dozen of the top football players produced by the state of Texas in tow. During the past three decades, the high school football power axis has somewhat shifted from Ohio and Pennsylvania to California, Florida and Texas. Both Texas A&M head coach R.C. Slocum and Notre Dame head coach Bob Davie have recognized this shift in power, loading their respective teams with the best Texas has to offer.

Traditionally, the major football colleges in Texas have a built-in recruiting advantage because there are so many Division I prospects within shouting distance. Most high school seniors have been reluctant to leave the state of Texas to play football, but over the years, Notre Dame has had great success in mining Texas gold as 79 players from the nation’s second-largest state, including Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown and All-Americans Dave Huffman and Bobby Taylor, have donned the gold helmets over the years.

The eyes of Texas started shining on the Irish all the way back to when Notre Dame first laced the shoes for three games with Michigan in 1887 and 1888. Joe Hepburn, of El Paso, was the right end on the team that suffered three straight losses to the Wolverines. Hepburn and the Irish, or the Ramblers as they were known to some back then, rebounded to beat Harvard Prep 20-0 in 1888, to earn the first Notre Dame football victory. Hepburn, joined by another El Paso mate, Stafford Campbell, for the 1889 season, became one of only three men (along with Frank Fehr and Edward Prudhomme) to play for the Irish in his first three campaigns.

A few years later, Angus McDonald, of Houston, played in the backfield for Notre Dame, serving as the starting quarterback in 1899. McDonald was also the star first baseman on the Irish baseball team. Once leaving Notre Dame, McDonald decided against pursuing a position on the gridiron or the baseball diamond, choosing instead a career in business, which eventually took him to the presidency of the Southern Pacific Railroad. McDonald also was a leader of the Notre Dame Alumni Association in its infancy.

Heading even further south, Port Arthur’s Christy Flanagan started at halfback for the Irish from 1925-27. He led the team in rushing all three years, compiling 2,097 yards during his illustrious career. Flanagan made it a little easier for the fans to forget legendary player “Sleepy” Jim Crowley, following the graduation of the Four Horsemen.

George Strohmeyer, of McAllen, Texas, located on the Mexico-United States border, was the Notre Dame center on Frank Leahy’s teams in both 1946 and 1947. Strohmeyer never lost a game in his starting role, as the Irish went 17-0-1 during that time and claimed two national championships.

Tackle John Dampeer, of Kermit, was a three-year starter for the Irish from 1970-72, captaining Ara Parseghian’s 1972 team. Houston’s Rob Martinovich played his first year at defensive tackle, before becoming a two-year starter on the offensive line a few years after Dampeer.

Bobby Leopold, also of Port Arthur, was a solid linebacker from 1976-79, with a knack for returning interceptions for touchdowns. Twenty years later, linebackers Bert Berry, of Humble, and Jimmy Friday, of Missouri City, had a nose for the ball as Berry has had a fine career with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, while Friday will forever live in the hearts of Irish fans as he made the crunching third-down, goal-line stop on Boston College’s Mike Cloud to preserve the 1998 Irish victory and a trip to the Gator Bowl.

The biggest player from Texas to suit up for Notre Dame was Wally Kleine, of Midland, located in west Texas. Kleine was listed at 6-9 and 274 pounds when he played from 1983-86.

The nation’s ultimate football city, Dallas, has been a hotbed for Irish talent. Beginning in the early ’70s, Dallas has sent a number of players who would make an extraordinary impact on the Irish program. Scott Smith and Joe Unis both kicked for the Irish in the ’70s, while the Huffman brothers — Dave, Tim, and Steve — all played the offensive line. The late Dave Huffman was a consensus All-American in 1978, and a member of the 1977 national championship team under head coach Dan Devine.

Robin Weber, also of Dallas, did not always start at tight end for Notre Dame, because of injuries and guys named Dave Casper and Ken MacAfee (MacAfee was a three-time first-team All-American and finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting, while Casper served as co-captain of the 1973 national championship team), but Weber left his mark at Notre Dame as Irish fans will never forget the 38-yard catch that he made to help the Irish clinch a national championship with a 24-23 win over Alabama in the 1974 Sugar Bowl.

But the biggest Irish star from Texas, and Dallas, is still playing football, 17 years after he arrived at Notre Dame. Tim Brown ran with the ball, caught the ball and returned kicks and punts for the Irish. The flanker stands second on the all-time receiving list with 2,493 yards, trailing only Derrick Mayes (2,512). Brown won the Heisman Trophy in 1987, after ringing up 839 yards on 39 completion, and 1,847 all-purpose yards. Also, who can forget Brown’s scintillating punt return to spark Notre Dame’s comeback victory against USC in 1986?

Since Brown, most of Notre Dame’s Texas recruits have been defensive stalwarts. Bobby Taylor, of Longview, perhaps Notre Dame’s best cornerback since Luther Bradley, was a consensus All-American in 1994, and had a interception and fumble return for touchdowns in his career. Taylor has extended his football career, starring for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Since Davie’s arrival on campus seven year ago, the Texas pipeline has gushed even more so as over 40 players, including 18 on today’s roster, have played under the golden dome during his time. Davie had long traveled the recruiting trails of Texas before arriving at Notre Dame in 1994, as he served four years as the linebackers coach (1985-88) and five years as the defensive coordinator (1989-93) under Slocum at A&M. Also, Irish defensive coordinator Greg Mattison (1989-91) and assistant head coach Kirk Doll (1988-93) worked on Davie’s defensive staff with the Aggies.

In 1994, Dallas’ Allen Rossum, Notre Dame’s fastest athlete since Raghib Ismail, arrived on the Notre Dame campus. Rossum holds the NCAA record (9) for touchdowns on returns and led the nation in punt return average in 1996 (22.93 avg.) He also ranked sixth nationally in kickoff returns in ’97. He currently plays alongside Taylor in the Eagles’ defensive backfield.

Other notable players from Texas during the Davie era include safety A’Jani Sanders, of Houston, who graduated in ’99, and Sherman native Hunter Smith, who punted for the Irish from 1995-98. Smith may have been the best athlete on campus during his time as he made the All-Bookstore Basketball team, high jumped 6’10” for the track and field team, and, at various times served as a backup at quarterback and wide receiver for the Irish. He is now booming kicks in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts.

While watching today’s game, it is a guarantee that a player from Texas will make an impact just like Missouri City’s Mike Miller did when the Irish last faced the Aggies in the 1994 Cotton Bowl. Miller returned a punt 38 yards to the A&M 22-yard line, setting up Kevin Pendergast’s 31-yard field goal, giving the Irish a 24-21 victory.

When the Aggies have the ball today, look for Irish defensive end Grant Irons (The Woodlands), linebackers Tyreo Harrison (Sulphur Springs) and Anthony Denman (Rusk) and defensive backs Gerome Sapp (Houston) and Clifford Jefferson (Dallas) to make plays. They just might have a little extra motivation, when they face players they recognize, as all have played with or against at least one member of the Aggie squad.

The Irish won’t lack for Texas talent on the offensive side either with tackle Jordan Black (Rowlett), guard Mike Gandy (Garland) and wide receiver David Givens (Humble) trying to “gig” the Aggies. Other Texans on the Notre Dame depth chart are nose tackle Cedric Hilliard, kicker Matt McNew (Arlington) and tight end/long snapper Gerald Morgan (Mesquite).

There are several heralded Irish freshmen who made that long drive up from Texas and could see their first action against one school they spurned to come to Notre Dame. Players like running back Garron Bible (Kingwood) and cornerback Vontez Duff (Copperas Cove). Or bruising linebacker Derek Curry (Sealy) and speedy receiver Omar Jenkins (Dallas). Or the player who forgot the Alamo – freshman quarterback Carlyle Holiday.

Today’s game shapes up to be an emotional one for many players and coaches as they return to their roots. The Irish have won over 80 percent of their games against teams from the Lone Star State (28-6, .823) and it’s not unlikely that the star of today’s game will have been born and bred in Texas. Irish fans hope that player will be wearing blue and gold.