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Notre Dame – Army: The Unbearable Lightness ofTradition

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How you respond to losing is as at least important as forging a winning attitude. Earlier this year the Black Knights had a tough overtime loss to Rutgers, who came back in the fourth quarter from fourteen point deficit in the fourth quarter. Fullback Jared Hassin, who had gained 117 yards averaging 7.4 yards per carry, reflected on the loss: "It’s difficult. But that’s just football. A lot of what we are feeling is just because we care so much about the game. We love each other and it’s a brotherhood. These are the things that hurt the most. Everyone wants to take a piece of this and say they are personally responsible because everybody can. It is taking ownership and I think that is important for us to do. At the same time, we have to remember that we are a brotherhood and we’re going to get through this."

The brotherhood of Army players cannot be separated either from their fellow cadets or from their proud history. The Corps of Cadets eagerly ask their brother cadets how they will win each game. After their Duke game, Army Senior Middle Linebacker, Stephen Anderson said of the five turnovers their defense caused: "The two goals we can go for every single game is win the next game and win the turnover margin. As a team when we win the turnover margin, we are undefeated. We were ball conscious on offense. We didn’t turn it over and we were ball conscious on defense. We stayed hungry. We knew our opponent wasn’t going to quit and we stayed on top of that. We swarmed as a defense and attacked as an offense."

"(We) Just play our defense, nothing special. Every man trusting his brother side by side, left to right and to go through your responsibilities. You saw today. We made big plays happen on defense."

The Long Gray Line that is Army embraces their fellow cadets especially before those special games - the other academies or Notre Dame once again in a new Yankee Stadium. A fellowship sprang up at West Point in 1913 between an Irish football team and the powerful Army team that would win two national championships in the next three years. The small, cash-strapped Catholic school could send eighteen players to West Point but only thirteen pairs of cleats. The Irish players ate sandwiches made for the trip and came into the Army dining hall through the side door hungry. The passing attack of Dorais to Rockne carved up the Corps that day and brought immediate East Coast attention to this game.

Players played both ways in those days with few substitutions, taking turns beating on their opposites when on defense. In 1915 the Center for the Irish was "Pepper" O'Donnell, who had broken a rib. He had been fitted with some padding to protect it before the game. Before the first play, his opposite, big John"Big Mac" McEwan asked him which side his broken rib was on. O'Donnell pointed to it and McEwan never touched that side. Hugh O'Donnell went on to become the first president of the Notre Dame Monogram Club and, after becoming a priest, later became one of Notre Dame's Presidents. McEwen would return to coach Army the first three years Army and Notre Dame played in New York City from 1923-25 - at Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium.

In 1924, the legendary Four Horseman game, Adam Walsh captained the team and anchored the line dubbed the Seven Mules at Center. He entered the game with a broken hand. Early in the game, Army's All-American captain, Ed Garbisch, jumped to avoid a block by Walsh. He came down on Walsh's other hand hearing "...the sickening feeling of cleat on flesh". While playing all the game that day, Walsh made 75% of the tackles for the Irish and caught a game-saving interception with two broken hands. After the game, Garbisch came to the Irish locker toom to see how Walsh was doing.

Years later, Terry Brennan would describe the Army-ND games: "When we used to battle Army, they tried to beat the hell out of us and we'd try to do the same, but when the game was over there was great respect between the two schools."

Rockne always enjoyed his trips to New York. He had a personality that appealed to the media as well as which touched his players and opponents. He would meet annually with Army friends and coaches to discuss football. The Army-Notre Dame game at Yankee Stadium had become the premier event in all of American sports.

Yet after Rock died, despite some success, a national championship had eluded the Irish. By 1940 when Elmer Layden resigned as Notre Dame's coach and athletic director, the alumni and fans were restless, vocal in their wishes for another national championship. Among all the possible candidates, Frank Leahy was chosen. Leahy had played in the 1929 Army game. After injuring his knee in 1930, he found himself learning football strategies and psychology at Rockne's side. Rockne, who was in ill health with blood clots, invited Leahy to come to the Mayo Clinic with him for his knee surgery. Lying next to each other, the young Leahy would pick Rock's brain. Rockne found a very apt pupil and was happy to oblige. Leahy was looking for a coaching job after that year. Rock let him choose among those schools who sent letters asking Rockne for recommendations for their head coaching positions.

Leahy entered Notre Dame's head coaching position in 1941 intentionally down-playing any Irish chance for immediate success. Yet the only mar on his record that year was a 0-0 tie with Army. Leahy was 24-3-3 in his three years before entering the service with his first national championship in 1943. Over that decade either Army or Notre Dame would win seven of the ten national championships. Five Heisman winners were produced by the two schools over that period. One of the greatest games in football history was played during that time.

More than half a century has passed since then. For some tradition is a weight of expectations unfulfilled that turns to bitterness. Some realize tradition is a connection to those past ghosts that have made college football what it is today. They will stand with them in a long gray line or once again in their green jerseys. In 2010, two past Heisman winners will be honorary captains - Johnny Lujack ('47) and Pete Dawkins ('58).

Manti Te'o said of this year's Irish football team, sounding very much like a brotherhood is forming: "We've been through a lot, but our team, we just stuck together. That's all we have to do is just stick together, and we have, and that's basically all we have to do is just stick together and rely on each other and be there for each other."

The Irish will face a confident Army team that relies on controlling the ball with an attacking offense and creating turnovers with an attacking defense. Army slotback, Brian Cobb, has said: "Every time, we step on the field we want to put it in the end zone. We had to focus, get our confidence, be crisp and precise in our assignment and just execute and run our offense."

Sean Cwynar said of this week game: "We're ready to get after Army. It's just a huge game. Everyone's really excited to get out to New York City and play them at Yankee Stadium."

We'll enjoy how each team responds and whose winning attitude pervails. I've no doubt that after the battle, they will share their respect for each other. These traditions lift all.

Game on. Go Irish!

Some quotes taken from Inside Army Football Blog by Sal Interdonato.

Weekend Calendar of Events from the ND Club of New York

See also:

Army vs. Notre Dame: The Big Game, 1913-1947 by Jim Beach and Daniel Moore.

Jim Lefeberve's excellent article on the history of Army-Notre Dame games - Notre Dame vs. Army - Renewing College Football History

Blue-Gray Sky's excellent article - Army Training, Sir