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Notre Dame Football: History Comes Home

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A story of two remarkable men who helped Notre Dame capture the football history it never had.

Steve Boda
Notre Dame Fighting Irish Media

Notre Dame knows its early football history because of one dedicated fan.

It’s able to share that 84 years of research because of a second fan — and a Law School alum — who rescued it from a rain-soaked storage facility.

This is a story about these two extraordinary men.

“MY FATHER WAS UNABLE TO RAISE US”

Six-year-old Steve Boda didn’t know what compelled him to pack a notepad for his first Notre Dame game on Oct. 14, 1930. He used the pad to begin charting plays — “like, Savoldi...two yards” — and seeds of a lifelong obsession were planted.

Tragedy struck in November 1933, when Boda’s mother unexpectedly died.

“That just added to a very difficult time,” Boda told Notre Dame Fighting Irish Media in 2014. “We had relatives, but they had their problems too. My father was unable to raise us. And we went to this Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s Home.”

Notre Dame football was his sustenance, a welcomed weekly distraction from the reality of the Great Depression.

Boda compiled statistics off radio broadcasts and clipped newspaper accounts of the game. He grew up, took a job at an aviation company, fought in World War II and used the G.I. Bill to obtain a college degree.

His passion for Notre Dame never wavered. Boda took a job at the NCAA’s statistics bureau, where he would remain for 40 years. His knowledge of Irish football was so thorough that former Sports Information Director Roger Valdiserri would keep Boda’s home phone number handy in case he needed to quickly check a statistic or potential record.

In 1965, Notre Dame recognized Boda for his lifelong effort to compile their football history.
Ron Brown via CBS Sports

Boda’s personal archive was massive — and the statistician poured his energy into Notre Dame research following the death of Juanita, his wife of 50 years.

The collection represents untold hours — nay, years — of pouring over microfiche and dutifully cataloging every game Irish gridiron greats played from the team’s inception in 1887 to 1995, the year the Internet made most of that effort extraneous.

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director, said Boda “may have more historical records about Notre Dame football than we do."

A SAD ENDING TO A REMARKABLE LIFE

Steve Boda’s enormous — and invaluable — collection. Behind the banker’s boxes is a crumbling wall that allowed rain to permeate some of the materials.
Courtesy of Shane P. Holmes

Boda’s stated intentions were to bequeath the collection to the university upon his death. Unfortunately, Boda began encountering financial troubles near the end of his life. He knew his effort was worth money — but how much?

A memorabilia dealer near Boda gave the statistician a $3,000 advance to sell the collection on consignment. The 142 bankers boxes of files and assorted VHS tapes were stored in a barn in need of considerable repair.

Boda died Nov. 18, 2014, in Shawnee, Kansas at the age of 90. No obituary ran in the local paper. A local funeral home created a memorial page that contains just four comments.

Boda’s estate owed money for his cremation and Hospice care.

The following March, the dealer put most of Boda’s collection on eBay for $11,191.

ALUM ANGEL ARRIVES

Notre Dame officials asked Barry Toone how they could show their appreciation. Toone simply asked for a picture with his son next to the iconic “Play Like A Champion Today” sign.
Courtesy of Barry Toone

Barry Toone first learned of the Boda collection in a CBS Sports article about the statistician’s remarkable life.

“I was just frustrated frankly [by] the school and the lack of what I felt any kind of genuine response to this guy's life,” the 1997 ND Law School graduate told CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd. “It seems like he threw everything into this. To be honest, it was kind of an emotional knee-jerk reaction on my part.”

Toone, who practices in Salt Lake City, purchased the collection off eBay with the intention of donating it to the Notre Dame Archives.

It was the best possible result for the university. Boda repeatedly told Notre Dame it could have his vault; they merely needed to pick it up. But they never did. And he did not will it to them.

Officials were reticent to purchase the collection themselves because of two concerns. First, the price was generally agreed to be too high — an understandable position when the cost used to be “it’s yours for the price of a Uhaul.”

Secondly, Archives employees had copied game films as a favor to Boda. But the university retained the rights; they never intended for anyone to benefit financially from their generosity.

RESTORATION TAKES TIME

In June 2015, Shane Holmes traveled to Kansas to pick up Boda’s archive on Toone’s behalf.

Holmes, who was an acquaintance of Boda’s during the final decade of his life, brought the collection to Ohio.

"Barry recognized that his investment went beyond money,” said Holmes, a partner at Sports Data Research LLC. “Barry loves Notre Dame in the same way that Steve did, and Barry was not going to leave Steve's life work to rot in that barn. Barry agreed for me to purchase new boxes and to store the collection in an indoor climate controlled facility. The swollen, water-damaged files improved.”

Toone hired an investigator to track down dozens of items sold from the Boda collection before he obtained it.

“Some folks were demanding three to five times what they paid, so we are waiting for the right time to buy them,” said Toone in an e-mail interview. “When we obtain them, they too will go back to the school.”

Toone estimates he has spent between $24,000 and $26,000 in total on the Boda collection, including the cost of acquiring it.

“It was worth it to get it back where it belongs,” the attorney said.

HURRICANE-WEEKEND DELIVERY

Toone and his wife, Karen, had two objectives when they flew to South Bend on the weekend of Oct. 29.

First, there were there to oversee the transfer of Boda’s life’s work from Holmes to the University Archives. Second, they were going to watch the Irish beat the Miami-Florida Hurricanes.

Mission accomplished.

Steve Boda’s organizing system
Notre Dame Fighting Irish Media

Peter Lysy, senior archivist and records center manager, said the University Archives already had clippings about most Notre Dame games, “but Mr. Boda’s collection includes clippings from different newspapers and is more consistent over the years and more complete for each game. The statistics and game summaries he came up with are, of course, unique.”

During the restoration process, Toone told CBS Sports that “we are finding remarkable letters (to and from Boda and former Notre Dame players) that frankly send chills down one's spine when reading.”

This undated correspondence with Heisman Trophy winner Leon Hart regarding depth charts is just one of dozens of letters in Steve Boda’s collection.
Courtesy of Barry Toone

As university archivists anticipated, Boda’s stockpile included video cassettes of games copied for him by the Archives.

Lysy said employees will soon devise a plan for bringing Boda’s work into the voluminous Archives, which will probably take about a year. Although it’s currently stored “offsite,” the senior archivist said it’s available to researchers “who have questions which cannot be answered elsewhere.

“Although there are some very cool individual items in the collection, the real value of the collection is its historical synergy,” wrote Toone. “Pardon the threadbare cliche, [but] the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What Steve did is spend a lifetime accumulating information on every player, every play, every moment. You can look up a player, say, and find out how many plays he played in a given game back in 1962. And that info is there because Steve collected it, organized it, and kept it. All in the pre-TV, pre-computer era. It's nothing short of extraordinary.”

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