In his long and distinguished career, Ronnie Estay has been involved in a lot of memorable games.
But none are more indelibly stamped onto his memory bank than the night the Fightin' Irish of Notre Dame first invaded Tiger Stadium. "It wasn't just a game,'' Estay recalls of the Nov. 20, 1971 catharsis, "it was a crusade.''
The Tigers were knocked out of the Cotton Bowl – after LSU was assured it was in – when behind the scenes Notre Dame broke its long-standing bowl ban; and the '70 Irish beat the Bayou Bengals on a late field goal in South Bend – a game played so well and so intensely, Chicago Tribune sportswriter Dave Condon wrote the now famous observation that "If Notre Dame is No. 1, then LSU is No. 1-A.''
Estay thought back on those bitter pills and said of the '71 rematch, "We really wanted them. We felt like they were responsible for some bad breaks for LSU, and to be truthful we wanted some kind of revenge.''
Very few LSU victories were more satisfying than this one – a game in which Notre Dame led statistically in almost all categories. The Irish had 18 first downs to LSU's 14; had 323 totals yards to LSU's 299; and ran 84 plays to LSU's 60.
And yet LSU was way, way ahead in big, game-changing plays. The heroes were everywhere: Bert Jones completed seven of nine passes for 143 yards and figured in three Tiger touchdowns; Receiver Andy Hamilton caught seven passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns; Linebacker Warren Capone finished with two interceptions.
No statistic, though, stood out like Estay's 17 tackles, 14 solo.
"To this day,'' said Estay, who went on to a Hall of Fame playing career in the Canadian Football League, "sometimes I think of that game. I played in nine Grey Cups, and I may never have had more fun playing football than I did that night against Notre Dame.''
Without question that Notre Dame will be relived again and again before this June when Estay is inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. He was voted in, along with ex-LSU and New Orleans Saints receiver Eric Martin, former jockey Craig Perret, George Strickland, an ex-major leaguer, Orleanian Rick Robey, who played at Kentucky, former Grambling and NFL standout Frank Lewis, and Linda Thompson-Johnson, who played basketball at Louisiana College.
Halls of Fame are nothing new to Estay. He was on six CFL championship teams and is already enshrined in the CFL Hall of Fame and the city of Hamilton's Hall of Fame – a success level that wouldn't surprise his old LSU coach Charlie McClendon who saw his undersized defensive end (at 6-foot-1, 230-pounds) pull off a feat that would be difficult for anyone to equal. In the Tigers' 1970 SEC championship season, he nailed two Heisman Trophy contenders – Auburn's Pat Sullivan and Ole Miss' Archie Manning – for safeties.
"He is the finest defensive tackle we've had at LSU since Fred Miller (a 1962 All-American),'' McClendon said in the summer of '71. "There is no end to his endurance. It always seems corny to talk about ‘love of the game.' But no player I've ever coached found more enjoyment playing football than Ronnie Estay."
There was one other, Ronnie always insisted. His older brother, Maxie, who was a promising red-shirt defensive lineman preparing for his first varsity season at LSU in 1965 when he was killed in an auto accident.
Ronnie picked up the torch.
At the wake, Ronnie told McClendon that, "I'd be at LSU someday playing for him.''
He did, and, obviously, pretty well. It was a tenure highlighted by that zapping of the Irish. When it really counted, this is how dominating the LSU defense was: seven times on fourth down the Irish went for the yardage. The three times Notre Dame did so inside the Tiger 10 – once a foot from the LSU goal, once inside the LSU 10, and once at the LSU 3 – the Irish came up short.
The prime reason was Estay, a fiery Cajun playing the game of his collegiate life and in on each of those stops, including the stop of halfback Andy Huff inside the one, who was shot down before he could make any headway.
"I had to get high,'' LSU lineman Ronnie Estay recalled of the play that set the tone for the rest of the evening. "We stacked up their line and I hit the runner in the air.''
To use a boxing cliché to describe what transpired that night, Notre Dame, 8-1 entering the game, could run, but the Irish couldn't hide from the Tigers, 6-3 at kickoff.
They tried the left side, the right side and up the middle. They tried running at under-sized but super-quick tackle Estay, then they started running away from him. Everywhere they went, though, Estay kept stuffing backs almost as big as his own dimensions.
"Yes," Irish coach Ara Parseghian said in hindsight that night, "we did consider field-goal attempts, but the distances were so short that they were worth the gambles – and we didn't make it.''
Thanks in large measure to Estay, who still remembers that long ago game as a highlight of his football life.
Marty Mule' can be reached at MJM981@Bellsouth.net.
MULE': Irish Revenge
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