Friday, October 27, 2006

Notre Dame vs. Navy, 1967: A Respectful Legacy | by Pete

As a senior at Notre Dame last year, I wrote a column about the ending of the 2005 ND-Navy matchup, and the mutual respect that rightfully exists between the two programs, which you can read here.

The response was overwhelming; I received over 1200 e-mails about that column, mostly from Naval Academy graduates, current Midshipmen, and their loved ones. Messages from Mids came from as far as the Middle East and Tokyo, all reiterating the wonderful respect that exists between these two programs and reminiscing with stories of ND-Navy matchups from years past. One e-mail, from Lieutenant Gerry Motl, told his story of playing in South Bend against a Rocky Bleier led Notre Dame squad in 1967. With his blessing, here is that story:

(Click on any picture to get a larger version)

1967 Navy - Notre Dame Football Game

As background, I played defensive halfback for Marquette High School where we won the 1963 Milwaukee Catholic Conference Championship with an 8-0-1 record. I led the team with 44 1/2 tackles and tied for most interceptions.

Although not recruited by the Naval Academy specifically to play football, I did receive a football recruiting letter from Rip Miller, the Naval Academy Director of Athletics. Rip was one of the “seven mules;” the line that blocked for the famous 1924 Notre Dame “Four Horsemen.”

Marquette was rated the number 3 Catholic team in the state after tying Number 2 Prairie du Chien Campion.

Appleton Xavier was rated number 1 based primarily on the performance of Rocky Bleier, an All-Stater and, I believe, high school All-American. He was famous in high school circles and well known to me even then.

Shortly after arriving in Annapolis, I become friends with a classmate, Jim Rather, since we were both from Wisconsin. I learned even as a plebe that Jim had been Rocky Bleier’s Quarterback at Appleton Xavier during the 1963 season!

Four years later, I was a solid second-stringer on the Navy football team as we prepared for our game against Notre Dame.

The November 4th, 1967 game was the seventh game of the season for both teams. Navy’s record was 4 and 2 with victories over Penn State, Michigan, Syracuse and Pitt but losses to William & Mary and Rice.

Notre Dame, the defending National NCAA champion, was 4 and 2, boasting stars such as Terry Hanratty, Jim Seymour, Bob Gladieux and Rocky Bleier. Rocky Bleier from Appleton Xavier was now team captain and a star at Notre Dame!

As the Navy team left the Pep Rally in Tecumseh Court to head for South Bend, I bumped in to Jim Rather. He said to me, “Gerry, say hello to Rocky for me if you see him.” I told Jim that I would.

We flew to Indiana from Baltimore and ended up staying in Elkhart, Indiana. I remember that Elkhart was in a different time zone from South Bend. To be honest, I can’t even remember if we worked out in Notre Dame Stadium before the game. I do know that my entire family and all my Dad’s friends from Felty and Joe’s Bar would be attending after driving down from Milwaukee….a total of 12 fifty yard line tickets in Section 10.

On game day, we took a bus to the stadium to get ready for the game, missing all of the Notre Dame hoopla that I have since become familiar and learned to love. The game day program, as I was to learn later, featured Jim Crowley, one of the Four Horsemen, and Rip Miller on the cover! An interesting coincidence!

We went through our normal pre-game routine and I recall that we had called our first offensive play in the locker room…basically a pump-fake pass to Rob Taylor on a curl pattern, Rob’s favorite play. We were sure Notre Dame would commit on the fake and that Rob would turn up-field for the touchdown.

We entered the field to start the game before a sold-out crowd of 59,075. We lost the toss and Notre Dame elected to receive the kick. Since I was on the kickoff team, I would be on the field for the start of the game. As we huddled before the kickoff, I could see the top of Touchdown Jesus and thought how neat it was to be a Catholic boy from Milwaukee playing against Notre Dame!!

As we lined up for the kickoff, I counted up Notre Dame formation to identify the Notre Dame blocker assigned to block me…a jersey starting with a 6…a guard. As a defensive halfback, I didn’t worry too much about a guard!

A crescendo rose as we kicked off. I recited my normal Memorare prayer on the kickoff as had been my custom ever since high school. I raced down the field closely watching my assigned blocker. He was fast, much faster than I expected. He got into my body space despite my efforts to avoid him and he knocked me down. I got up quickly and saw the ball carrier approaching. I tackled the ball carrier who fell down on his back with me on top of him. We were covered with other players. I opened my eyes and found myself staring at the face of Rocky Bleier. As players un-piled, I said, “Rocky, Jim Rather wanted me to say hello for him.” He immediately replied, “Really, say hello to Jim for me.”

The game proceeded. When Navy finally got the ball, we executed the Rob Taylor pass play that we had pre-planned. Notre Dame was looking for this play, one of our favorite patterns. It was executed perfectly. The Notre Dame defensive back committed and then Rob turned up field…but the pass was overthrown by John Cartwright!

Navy got off to a good start with the score only 7-0 Notre Dame after the first quarter. In the second quarter, Notre Dame scored 28 points…which set the stage for us bench warmers to play in the second half!

I remember at least three plays. The first was a play where the Notre Dame back took a handoff and blew through the Navy defensive line. I came up to make a picture perfect tackle…until the ball carrier literally bowled me over backwards. He went down…primarily tripping over my body!

In the fourth quarter, it started to snow like hell. As my sister later told me, the crowd began to chant “Ara, stop the snow!” A wide receiver flanked out on my side. It was snowing so hard that I could hardly see the quarterback. There was no way he was going to throw my way…and he didn’t. As Notre Dame moved toward our goal line, I made a tackle and caused a fumble. We (Wade Roberts, I believe) recovered and avoided another Notre Dame score. As it was, in my first and only Notre Dame game, Notre Dame scored the most points against Navy since the series began under Knute Rockne in 1927!

After the game, I met my family outside the locker room. This was a short visit since we were flying back to Annapolis right after the game. We flew back to Baltimore, took a bus to Annapolis and even had a chance to go into town before returning to the comforts of Bancroft Hall late that evening.

In his book, Fighting Back, Rocky wrote, "Against Navy, I played the finest game of my college career - fifty-nine yards and two touchdowns rushing, a thirty yard kick-off return and a twenty-seven yard punt return."

In 2002, Rocky inscribed the following in a copy of Fighting Back:
Gerry - Here's to old times and some great memories - especially against Navy - just kidding.

There's a few things I remember in my life and the '67 Navy game is one of them - especially when you don't expect to hear Jim Rather's name in the middle of a pile up.
I hope life is treating you well.

Best Wishes Always,

Rocky Bleier