Since 1944 – when offensive guard and South Bend native Pat Filley served as a two-time Notre Dame captain, the first for the Irish in nearly a quarter of a century – only 12 young men have held the distinction.
One of the dozen over the last 70 years was offensive guard Ryan Leahy, who is distinctive not only because of the respect he earned from his teammates to earn a two-time captainship, but also because his grandfather – Frank Leahy – is one of the great head coaches in college football history with his 87-11-9 Notre Dame record, .855 winning percentage and four national titles.
Ryan Leahy was a 6-foot-5, 290-pounder out of Yakima, Wash. His father Jim was an offensive lineman on Ara Parseghian’s late-1960s squads. Ryan’s older brother Pat was a 25-game winner for the Irish baseball team from 1989-92. He arrived at Notre Dame two years before Ryan.
“I took visits to other schools,” said Leahy, 42, vice-president of Incapital in Chicago. “Being from (the state of) Washington, I visited the University of Washington. I also visited the University of Oregon and UCLA.
“But Notre Dame was the best place for me personally. Patrick was already at Notre Dame playing baseball, and I’d been back to visit him a few times. For me, it was like walking into my house. It was great. “
The Leahy name gave him no advantage between the white lines. He arrived in the fall of 1991 in the midst of Lou Holtz’s six-year run that saw the Irish go 64-9-1 with one national title, a couple other near misses, and winning streaks of 23 and 17 games.
When Leahy met legendary offensive line coach Joe Moore, his status on the team was clarified in short order.
“(Moore) started our relationship off by saying, ‘That’s great that you’re a Leahy. Now why don’t you crab another couple hundred yards,’” laughed Leahy, referring to one of Moore’s more infamous methods of training (or punishment). “He put that question and exactly what he thought of it in perspective very quickly.”
Leahy would go on to be a three-year starter at right guard from 1993-95, which covered the gamut of success/failure. In ’93, the Irish were oh-so-close to winning their second national title in six seasons; a year later, decimated by the loss of seven first-round draft choices over two years, Notre Dame went 6-5-1. Leahy’s second season as a captain ended with a solid 9-3 record.
After a brief dalliance with professional football – Leahy was a free-agent pickup by the Arizona Cardinals – Leahy returned to Washington for a couple years before settling in Chicago, where he earned his MBA at night from Northwestern while trading municipal bonds during the day.
Leahy and his wife of 14 years, Becky -- a former Central Washington University basketball player -- have two daughters: nine-year-old Reese and six-year-old Reilly.
“I love trading (municipal bonds),” Leahy said. “It’s like a locker room – a bunch of guys working with each other. A lot of the guys played college sports, be it lacrosse, basketball, or football. You’ve got to have thick skin and keep it moving.”
TIM PRISTER: Your grandfather Frank is a Notre Dame legend. Your father played football at Notre Dame for Ara Parseghian in the ‘60s. Your brother was a baseball standout at Notre Dame. What was the Leahy/Notre Dame experience like for you?
RYAN LEAHY: It wasn’t a burden. I grew up in a small town in Washington where people didn’t really know who Frank Leahy was. We were a long way from Notre Dame, and my grandfather Frank died when I was 13-months-old, so there wasn’t a lot of pressure or recognition of my family from others while growing up.
The first time I saw them play was against the University of Oregon in Oregon (a 13-13 tie in 1982). The first time I was on campus was the summer of that same year. We flew there for my cousin’s wedding. I was 13-years-old and I saw Brian Boulac, a Washington native and long-time Notre Dame guy who was my dad’s coach.
So I talked to him with my brother, and Coach Boulac said (to my brother), ‘We’ll see you in three years,’ and he said to me, ‘We’ll see you in five years.’ Lo and behold, three and five years later, we were there.
I went to the national championship game in Arizona with my dad when Notre Dame beat West Virginia (1988 season). I was 16. It was a lot of fun, but my brother was being recruited (for baseball) at the time, so Notre Dame had their hands tied in terms of getting us tickets to the game. My dad actually had to speak with NBC, told them the situation we were in, and they allowed him to purchase the tickets. So he and I ended up going to the Notre Dame-West Virginia national championship game.
TP: As the son of a former Notre Dame football player, how did your father approach the recruiting process?
RL: My dad was a lineman who played for Ara Parseghian. He had blown out his knee and didn’t play a lot. But he was always very prideful of Notre Dame. He didn’t push my brother or me either way. He supported us no matter what we did.
My brother played baseball; my sister did track. She ended up going to Chapel Hill on a track scholarship. So two of the three of us were doing something other than Notre Dame football.
I played baseball and basketball all through high school. In fact, I pitched nine innings the day before I showed up at Notre Dame. That’s how we grew up. My parents loved to have their kids in athletics. They didn’t push us, but they supported us. I love my parents very much and I was very fortunate to have two parents that supported us like that.
I used to ride my motorcycle before it was legal. No one stopped me because I had on my catcher’s gear going to baseball. So here’s a kid who’s obviously bigger than average with a bunch of gear and a huge Army bag on his back showing up on a little motorcycle.
My dad is in Washington – Yakima – along with my mom. That’s the hometown we all grew up in and where my brother lives. I’m lucky to have my parents and now I have my own kids. They have cousins that live around Chicago, which is my home away from home.
TP: What are your fondest memories of your time at Notre Dame?
RL: The things that jump out to me are the firsts and lasts. I remember the last time I donned the helmet, which was against Florida State in the Orange Bowl (on Jan. 1, 1996). I also remember being a (red-shirt) freshman (in ’92) and coming into Notre Dame Stadium as a player for the first time. I hadn’t been to a home game prior to that, so here I was a freshman on a bright sunny day and the helmets are shining gold and I was completely awestruck. I believe that was the first NBC game at Notre Dame. I think Irv Smith carried the whole Indiana defense with him to score a touchdown in that game.
My last game in Notre Dame Stadium (Nov. 4, 1995 vs. Navy) was a huge letdown coming off the field for the last time. You take off that gold helmet and you realize it’s never going to be the same, and it really wasn’t.
TP: You were a first-year starter in ’93 for the No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash with Florida State. What do you recall?
RL: That was actually my first game back after blowing out my knee against Stanford of that year. So when I got back in the lineup, we had a bye, which gave me a little more time to get ready for Florida State.
We were playing the No. 1 team in the nation. Tickets were hard to come by. The head usher, who used to mow my grandpa’s lawn in South Bend off of Miami St., ended up sneaking my brother into the game so he could see it because they had cut back on the player tickets. So I was very fortunate to have my dad, my grandfather – which would be my mom’s father – and my brother at the game. It’s one of those moments that you’ll never forget.
TP: Did you deserve a rematch with Florida State in a bowl game after falling to Boston College?
RL: I definitely think so. The idea of the bowl games was to have the two best teams playing against each other.
TP: The following year, you guys fell to 6-5-1. Was it simply a matter of losing too much talent from the previous two seasons?
RL : When you look at the people who walked out the door after ’93, it was tough. A lot of people forget that (cornerback) Tommy Carter and (running back) Jerome Bettis left early. They left after the ’92 season. How good would we have been in ’93 if those two guys had come back? They were first-round draft choices in ’93, along with (quarterback) Rick Mirer and (tight end) Irv Smith. And then after the ’94 season, we had (defensive lineman) Bryant Young, (offensive lineman) Aaron Taylor, and (safety) Jeff Burris go in the first round, too. You lose seven first-round draft choices…that kind of hurts!
I wasn’t the most talented, but there were some unbelievable guys there. Tim Ruddy was a helluva center…We had good cohesive line play, very physical players, good skill…When you’re running that offense of Holtz’s, he loved that option with a real strong defense. We had everything firing, in addition to special teams, and then a lot of talent walked out the door.
TP: Two words – Joe Moore.
RL: (Laughing) I was a big Joe Moore believer. I always liked him. I loved playing for him. Was he hard on players? Yeah, but he brought out the best in the players. After you graduated, he’d throw his arm around you and get you to wherever you needed to go.
I ended up getting a job after getting out of football in like 2000. I had the great fortune of running into him in Iowa. He was friends with Kirk Ferentz at Iowa. You always hear about those players who are animals on the field and so nice off the field. That was Joe. When he had his coaching face on, it was time to play football. He was much different off the field.
So I’m in Iowa and I hadn’t seen him in about three or four years, and he’s having a coaching clinic. He doesn’t say, ‘Hey, Leahy, how you doin’?’ There were about 400 coaches around and he was helping coach Iowa’s offensive line. He starts screaming at me, ‘Leahy, show those centers and guards how to double team! They can’t do it for shit!’
I’m in a coat and a tie and he has me showing these guys how to step and explaining to them the message he’s trying to get across. Everyone’s looking at this guy – including me – thinking, ‘Is this guy serious? He’s crazy!’ And this was as a visiting coach!
He beat confidence into you. You had to have confidence if you were going to play for Joe Moore. That’s what it was about. He would tell you that football is not for everybody and if you didn’t like it, there’s the door. Even the walk-ons, he might give them a break once or twice when they were freshmen, but after that, he expected you to do the things you should do. He didn’t put up with someone being lazy and not playing up to his potential.
It’s like he always said: ‘I’m a football coach. You want a friend? Get a dog.’ We have all these sayings he had that we say, some of them you can’t write.
TP: Then there was Holtz, the hands-on CEO of the operation. What was your relationship with him?
RL: Holtz figured that the offensive linemen had their hands full with Joe Moore. I kept him very much in the ‘yes, sir; no, sir’ relationship. Very simple, concise answers because I think that’s the way he wanted it.
But it’s been great to run into him over the years at outings. I usually do my Holtz impersonation, which I had to do as a freshman because you had freshman entertainment night at the bowl games, and he knows I impersonate him. I’ve done it in front of him and he’d say, ‘Every time I hear Leahy impersonate me, I realize how bad my lisp is!’
I remember when he had (his grandson) Trey out there. To see him as grandpa was kind of neat. I never got to see my grandpa on the football field. So that was something pretty special with Skip and his son.
I don’t think (Holtz) gave much thought to me being Frank Leahy’s grandson. He said you’re still going to have to contribute just like everybody else. By the end of my freshman year, I knew I had a chance to play.
TP: After you graduated from Notre Dame, you had a brief pro football experience.
RL: I wasn’t drafted. I ended up getting a free agent signing with the Cardinals. I played essentially on the practice squad for one year, and the other year, I blew out my knee again. As a matter of fact, I had my knee replaced this past year. It’s not all that bad. I’m pretty active. I’m still able to play some basketball.
TP: How often do you get to the campus? Have you been around Brian Kelly and the program?
RL: I haven’t had a huge chance to do that. I went to practice a few years ago. I introduced Brian Kelly at an Incapital golf outing, which was great. It’s been limited, but as people have told me, once your kids get into high school and out of high school, you have more time to do things, and I want to.
TP: Who are some of your former teammates that you stay in touch with?
RL: Jeremy Nau. Jeff Kilburg. Chicago guys. Once in a while I see Paul Grasmanis. We’re all in the same boat. With kids and everything, we just don’t see each other like we used to. We all prioritize well. Once we go through this phase, we’ll get back together.
TP: Not only are you unique to Notre Dame because of your family background, but you also are a part of a rare group of individuals who have been two-time captains of the Notre Dame football team. What did it mean to you to not only be a Notre Dame football captain, but a two-time captain?
RL: For me, what it meant as a lineman was you do the coin toss, you represent your team when you speak to people, you try to make the right decisions, and you always should feel like you’re representing the school and your teammates. You don’t want to do anything to embarrass them.
I’ve always considered it a great honor because your teammates voted on it. That’s one thing I’ve always taken great pride in. It’s a little unusual to be a two-time captain and it’s humbling when you think of all the things my grandfather did at Notre Dame.