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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs Syracuse Orange Week

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“The Wayward Train”

A page from the Joe Ceryak Scrapbook with newspaper clippings regarding the controversy of the replayed field goal attempt in the ND vs. Syracuse football game, 1961.

My dad graduated from Notre Dame in 1965, and over the years, I have heard countless stories of his adventures as a Notre Dame student. But the one I think I’ve heard the most, is the trip made (by train) his junior year, to New York City, to see the Notre Dame Fighting Irish face the Syracuse Orange at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. But before I get to that story, I wanted to share another story that he and I talked about this week, and that is the Notre Dame vs. Syracuse game from 1961.

We all know that Notre Dame is no stranger to controversy. If you are a follower of college football today, you probably know that when the defense commits a penalty, the offense is usually compensated with either a replay of downs, or gained yardage. But prior to this 1961 match-up between Notre Dame and Syracuse, this was not the case. The rules were especially unclear in terms of how to handle a defensive penalty when it occurred at the end of the game, and with no time remaining on the clock. In the 1961 Notre Dame vs Syracuse game, this lack of clarity meant the difference between a win and a loss that wouldn’t be resolved until months afterward.

As detailed by Notre Dame Archives, “Trailing 14-15 with only a few seconds left on the clock, Notre Dame sent in kicker Joe Perkowski to attempt a 56-yard field goal. He missed soundly as time expired, but there were flags on the field. Syracuse player Walt Sweeney was called for roughing the kicker, a penalty that carried a charge of fifteen yards. The gained yardage would put Perkowski in better position, although it would not be easy. Since time had expired on the previous play, it wasn’t obvious Perkowski would even get a second attempt. The Syracuse fans had already started to rush the field to celebrate their victory.”

“The officials had to make an on-the-spot decision about how to handle the foul, and they decided to enforce the standard penalty for roughing the kicker. Even though time had expired, Notre Dame kicker Joe Perkowski was given fifteen yards and a second attempt, and he kicked the game-winning, 41-yard field goal.”

ND vs. Syracuse, 1961/1118. Kicker Joe Perkowski (#38) kicking a second attempt field goal and George Sefcik (#22) holding the ball with no time left on the clock. Perkowski made the 41-yard field goal to win the game 17-15.

“As can be imagined, not everyone was happy with this impromptu decision. The legality of the extra play was shortly afterwards contested by the Big 10 and Eastern College Athletic Conferences, who supplied the officials for the game, and the NCAA rules chairman General Bob Neyland. Review of the game film and the rules books led many to question the referees’ decisions. Did Walt Sweeney really rough the kicker and place holder? Since the initial kick was far from its target, which team actually had possession when the foul occur? In the end, neither the conferences nor the NCAA had the power to overturn the Irish win, leaving the game officials with the final say and the Irish with a win for the record books. The rules were changed in 1962 to prevent any future confusion should a similar circumstance arise.”

Now, on to my dad’s “Wayward Train” story from 1963. My dad had never truly experienced the Notre Dame “Subway Alumni” until he made the trip by train to New York City for the Notre Dame vs Syracuse game in 1963. 1,500 Notre Dame students made the trip from South Bend to New York City, with the majority of them staying at the Commodore Hotel. As written in The Voice, Notre Dame student newspaper, “the grand old myth about the public irresponsibility of Notre Dame men was finally exploded in New York. Contrary to expectation, the Commodore Hotel was still intact after the last student-tripper had departed - there wasn’t a single instance of major damage.” Man, that writer must have known my dad and his friends. I jest.

My dad didn’t even stay at the Commodore Hotel. One of his fellow engineering classmates, Mike, was from Long Island, and so my dad stayed with Mike at his house on Long Island, and then went to the game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. The Irish had hoped to squeeze the Orange that Saturday in the Bronx, but sadly Syracuse was victorious over the Irish by a score of 14-7. My dad said he had never experienced the Notre Dame “Subway Alumni” until that game, and was completely in awe of the huge following that Notre Dame had, so far away. As told in The Voice, “Notre Dame’s Subway Alumni witnessed an event that they hadn’t seen in eighteen years at Yankee Stadium. Not since Hugh Devore’s 1945 team fell to Army 48-0, had the Irish been a victim there.”

But the most exciting part of trip wasn’t the game, it was the “Wayward Train” ride home. The two trains, listed as the Blue circle Honor Society Specials 1 and 2, carrying 1,500 Notre Dame students, left New York’s Grand Central Station Sunday afternoon. As told in The Voice, “before they completed the trip to South Bend 24 hours later, 9 hours behind schedule, they each had been up the Hudson River, re-routed because of two freight train derailments, gone through two countries, three states, and through customs. They lost two complete crews at the borders, swarmed over a town (Jackson, MI) for food and were nicknamed the ‘Wayward Train,’ sleeping by day and running wild over the countryside by night.”

The photo which accompanies the story in The Voice, is a photo of none other than my Dad, with the caption, “You put your feet on the headrest and your head on the floor and try to sleep. This was only one of countless, odd resting poses used by students to and from New York City, especially on the 24-hour return trip. Others were in luggage racks, along lavatory benches, under tables and on the floors of the club cards.” After a little searching online, I found the story. Which took some digging, because my dad thought the student newspaper was called The Observer back then, but the newspaper was originally The Voice, before it changed over to The Observer in 1966. The funniest thing about the photo is this: he didn’t even know they had taken his picture until he saw it in the student newspaper the next week!

Photo from “The Voice,” December 5, 1963. My dad, Frank Kirner, sleeping on the “Wayward Train” on their way home from the 1963 ND vs. Syracuse game.

I am excited beyond words to make the trip to Yankee Stadium this weekend. Not only have I never been to Yankee Stadium, ever, I am thrilled to see a ND vs. Syracuse game at Yankee Stadium just like my dad did in 1963. So, are you traveling to the game? What are you most excited about? And what are you most worried about? NYC OR BUST!!

Cheers & GO IRISH!