Steve Beuerlein started just one season at California prep powerhouse Servite High School back in the early ‘80s. He made it count, passing for more than 2,200 yards for the Friars en route to an 11-1 record, a CIF championship and the first of two state football championships in Servite history.
Servite’s only loss during Beuerlein’s senior season came against Cincinnati Moeller High School where Gerry Faust – by now the head coach at Notre Dame – had dominated the prep football landscape in the Midwest.
Beuerlein followed Faust to Notre Dame in 1983, and by the third game of his freshman season, he was taking snaps against the Miami Hurricanes. One week later at Colorado, Beuerlein was in the starting lineup.
Four seasons, three offensive coordinators and two head coaches later, Beuerlein embarked upon a 17-year career in the NFL, including a Pro Bowl season in 1999 with the Carolina Panthers when he threw for nearly 4,500 yards.
The following is a Q&A with Beuerlein covering his first three years with the Irish as the struggle to launch Faust’s dream job at Notre Dame finally came to an end with an ignominious 58-7 loss at Miami.
Part 2 will focus on the arrival of Lou Holtz prior to Beuerlein’s senior season. Part 3 will cover his incredible journey through the NFL, which crossed paths with names such as Mike Shanahan, Al Davis, Art Shell, Jimmy Johnson, Troy Aikman, Buddy Ryan, Norv Turner and George Seifert.
TIM PRISTER: You came out of a powerhouse program in the early ‘80s – Servite High School in Anaheim, Calif. Which schools made your final cut?
STEVE BEUERLEIN: It came down to Notre Dame and UCLA. (Former UCLA head coach) Terry Donahue still gives me grief about it when I see him. But I remind him, ‘Terry, if I would have gone to UCLA, you know that guy by the name of Troy Aikman probably never would have transferred to UCLA (from Oklahoma).’ I tell him, ‘Be careful what you ask for,’ although I think it probably would have worked out better for all of us.
But it was really Notre Dame-UCLA, and Stanford was in there as a third. They had a guy named John Paye, a local boy from up there, and he was one of the top quarterbacks coming out that year, too. He was considering Notre Dame and Stanford, but everybody knew he was going to Stanford, so it made it easy for me to narrow it down to Notre Dame and UCLA.
TP: What was your impression of Gerry Faust at that time? No red flags as to which way the program was headed under him?
SB: He was a great recruiter. He would come in and act like he was part of the family. Everybody that experienced that says the same thing. He’d come in, slap your dad on the back, hug your mom and give you a little noogie on your head like he was part of the family. He was very easy to like. The energy was so positive. He was only two years into it. The expectations going into that third year – Notre Dame was pre-season No. 1 with Blair Kiel as the quarterback – were high.
So everything was still pretty fresh and exciting. It started falling apart pretty fast, but the first couple of years, I don’t think anyone knew exactly what was going to happen.
Another factor was that I was an 18-year-old kid and my parents had never been through the recruiting process. So you don’t see things as readily as you would if you were more experienced in the process.
When Lou Holtz came in, it became very clear. Before that, none of us realized how tough we had it until we realized how things were supposed to be done.
TP: Did Notre Dame hold a special place for you growing up?
SB: My dad was from the Midwest – Missouri – and we had a very strong Catholic family with four boys. My dad had always been a Notre Dame fan, so by association, we followed Notre Dame, too.
I never imagined I would go there. I grew up loving UCLA. UCLA was my dream. I hated USC from the early days. I actually took a recruiting trip to USC because you almost had to being a local boy. I was nauseous the whole time I was there.
The real reason I took the trip was because Norv Turner was the guy that recruited me at USC. He was still cutting his teeth and learning about coaching football, but I knew right away that he was something special. He and I connected, so I took the trip, just because he intrigued me so much. He’s the reason I ended up in Dallas during my NFL career, so we had a good run together later on.
He tells a funny story from when I was playing for him with the Cowboys. One game in Detroit, he met some of my family members, and one of my great aunts was a nun. He said, ‘Well that explains it! You didn’t tell me you had an aunt that was a nun! If I would have known that, I would have known we had no chance at USC!’
TP: When you came to Notre Dame for your freshman year in 1983, Blair Kiel was a senior. I assume that was calculated on your part, although you probably didn’t expect to beat out Kiel when you were a freshman.
SB: I was at the bottom of the depth chart when I came in. Joe Felitsky and I were behind Kevin Smith, Todd Lezon, Scott Grooms and all those guys. I moved my way up to No. 3 by the end of summer, which is probably where they knew I was going to be going into the season. They wanted me to travel. Scott Grooms was the backup.
We opened with Purdue and I was holding for kicks. Blair had a great game. We blew out Purdue (52-6). Scott got in late in the game. He was a more athletic quarterback than I was, and on one of his runs, he broke his collarbone. So he’s out and all of a sudden, I’m No. 2.
We played at home against Michigan State and at Miami the next two weeks, and Blair struggled. In the first half against Miami (a 20-0 loss), he threw a couple of bad picks and they put me in the game in the second half.
Even though we didn’t score a point, I ended up winning the ABC player of the game because I was a true freshman and put some life into our team. We drove the ball up and down the field. We just couldn’t get into the end zone.
Gerry tells the story – I wasn’t aware of this – but a bunch of seniors came to him in his office and said, ‘It’s a whole different attitude with Steve out there. We need to play this kid.’ That’s when Gerry made the decision to go with me in the fourth game at Colorado.
TP: What are the lasting memories of that first year and being thrust into the starting lineup by the fourth game of your freshman year?
SB: I came from a very big program, Servite High School, which was a power back then. But I didn’t start until my senior year. I was supposed to come in my junior year and take over, but the senior -- Doug Butler -- had the first crack at it and he got the job. He played very well. He started at Princeton for three years and set a bunch of Ivy League passing records. In his senior year, we didn’t win a championship, but he played really well.
I played for just one year. I was really more of a basketball player back then. That was my main sport. I had many offers to play college basketball. I almost signed prior to my senior football season with Stanford to play basketball. There were several other schools I was considering.
I was being recruited for football because they had seen me in practice and knew who I was, but I had never played varsity football. So when I got to Notre Dame, things happened so fast that my freshman year was a blur.
I remember the Colorado game (a 27-3 win) and the reality hitting me that week. Gerry Faust, John Heisler, Roger Valdiserri…they really protected me and kept me shielded from the bright lights of the position.
I remember the magnitude of it all, and after Colorado, we went to South Carolina for a night game. South Carolina is a tough place to play. (Notre Dame won, 30-6.) The reality of how big it was hit me that night. Those fans were rabid. There was a lot of hoopla surrounding that game. I can remember walking onto that field and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what the heck is this?’ That was an eye-opener because that was, at the time, an incredibly difficult place to play.
TP: So a couple of weeks later, your fourth career start as a freshman is at home against your ‘favorite team’ – USC.
SB: It was the year after the Phantom Touchdown at USC in ’82. (Note: Michael Harper’s fumble prior to reaching the goal line was ruled a touchdown, giving USC a 17-13 lead/victory with 48 seconds remaining.)
I was at that game. I was on the field. It must have been as a USC recruit. I remember walking into the locker room that week and the picture of that fumble was on everybody’s locker. So that resonated with me in my first game against USC in ’83.
Obviously it was a big deal for me, and having the game in South Bend was a comfort factor because I didn’t have to worry about family and all that other stuff that comes with coming home. That was the first ‘green jersey game’ since the original ‘green jersey game’ in ’77.
We won that game (27-6), so that was a really big deal for me with my background with USC.
TP: You guys were 6-2 at the start of November – and you yourself were 5-0 as a starter -- but then you lost to Pittsburgh at home, Penn State on the road and Air Force at home by a combined 10 points to finish 6-5 in the regular season. Why did Kiel start the Liberty Bowl against Doug Flutie and Boston College?
SB: I struggled in those three games. Gerry was starting to feel a little pressure and decided to go back to Blair. Gerry came to me and said that as a tribute to Blair and out of respect to Blair, he wanted to let him start the Liberty Bowl to finish out his career on a high note.
Blair played the whole game. It was brutally cold in Memphis. There was an ice storm. The field was frozen. But we won the game (19-18).
TP: So you’re heading into your sophomore year as the undisputed starter in ’84.
SB: Yeah, and we had very high expectations, and then we lose to Purdue for the opening of the Hoosier Dome against Purdue.
TP: It wasn’t too long into your sophomore season before you suffered a shoulder injury that would haunt you for the better part of two seasons.
SB: It happened in the second quarter of the Miami game (Game 5, a 31-13 home loss). Immediately, I knew something was wrong. I complained about it for the rest of the game, and in the locker room after the game, they took an x-ray.
Technology was a lot different back then. The x-ray did not come out clearly, and I played the rest of the year. They diagnosed the injury as some kind of a muscle tear. We had to try to get through the season with it and it would heal on its own after the season.
But I kept complaining that there was some grinding, clicking and popping in my shoulder that was constant. I couldn’t get comfortable, and as the season went along, I lost strength and range of motion in my shoulder. I kept saying, ‘It doesn’t feel like a muscle. There’s grinding in there. It just doesn’t feel right.’
When the season ended, the doctors told me to rest, let it heal and it should be fine come spring football. There was never another x-ray taken. I don’t think they had MRI’s yet, but the x-ray – eventually -- is what clearly showed the problem.
I wasn’t pushing it, but I also knew it wasn’t getting better. We go out for spring in March of ’85 and I dropped to my knees the pain was so bad. I couldn’t throw. The doctors were scrambling. Gerry was mad at them because they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with his quarterback. The doctors said they didn’t see anything wrong and Gerry took them at their word, accusing me of…not really faking it, but the doctors said there’s nothing wrong with your shoulder.
I played through it the whole ’84 season. I never considered not playing. I fought through it and gutted it out. To imply that I wasn’t really injured…I was very put off by that. I told Gerry, ‘I’m not going back on the field until I get another doctor to look at this shoulder because I can’t throw a football.’
So they sent me out to see Dr. (Frank) Job, a big shoulder/elbow guy who had risen to fame with his Tommy John surgery. Within five minutes of seeing him, he told me what the problem was. I had chipped my collarbone. A hit from the outside of my shoulder had driven my shoulder into my collarbone, which had a significant chip. The joint was compromised, and yet for the rest of the ’84 season, I played through it.
The grinding on that shoulder had taken a toll. Dr. Jobe showed me an x-ray of my left and right shoulders, and he circled the joints on both shoulders. My left shoulder looked smooth and everything fit. The right shoulder was all jagged and beat up in there. He said, ‘It will just continue to get worse unless you have surgery.’ This is April of ’85 before my junior year.
That surgery today is arthroscopic. They can shave down the collarbone and let the scar tissue fill in that joint and it becomes a natural joint. It’s still major surgery, but it’s not as big of a deal as it was back then. So they had to open me up, basically cut off an inch of my collarbone, and then let it heal.
When I told Gerry and the doctors that I had to have surgery, he said, ‘Come back here and let’s get you to play through it.’ I was like, ‘Coach, I told you I can’t throw! You saw me! I have an injury that will not allow me to throw! The doctor is telling me I have to have the surgery! And now you’re telling me not to have the surgery?’
So I said, ‘No. This guy is the best in the world. I’m at home. I’m going to have it done right here.’ I had the surgery done. Now do the math. Four-month rehab -- April, May, June, July, and now it’s August.
It should have been done in January after the season was over. But because I didn’t have the surgery until April, I was just starting to throw a Nerf football when summer camp started. I’d gained about 10 or 15 pounds because I couldn’t work out. My shoulder had to be stabilized. I couldn’t do anything.
Dr. Jobe felt I should be red-shirted because he said I wouldn’t be ready to play. But there was pressure on Gerry to win in his fifth year at Notre Dame. So as the only quarterback with experience, he wasn’t going to have that. They basically said we’re not going to red-shirt you and you’re going to play.
I had a horrific junior year in ’85 (13 interceptions, 3 TDs, 50.0 completion percentage). I couldn’t make any of the throws I had been making. I was not in any condition to play. Terry Andrysiak and I split time back and forth. It was a disastrous year. You’re seeing things and the reads are correct. But you just can’t get the ball there. It’s hard to play the game when you can’t get the ball to an open receiver.
At that point, Gerry realized it, but it was too late.
TP: The last game of your junior year was the 58-7 loss to Miami. What do you remember about that game?
SB: The game itself was the worst nightmare of a game anybody could possibly have. The magnitude of that game and what it meant for Notre Dame and Gerry Faust…To go out there and get hammered and embarrassed the way we did was just the all-time most difficult loss I ever had.
At the time, I didn’t care that my shoulder was causing me problems. I just knew we weren’t winning. I wasn’t able to get the job done. There were no excuses coming from us. We’ve just got to win and get this thing figured out. I didn’t realize how limited I was until the following year when I was healthy again. But in the middle of it, it was disastrous, depressing.
On the plane flight coming home, we got detoured into Chicago because of a blizzard in South Bend. We tried to land, but we had to pull out of it twice. We had to divert to Chicago. We sat in the airport for four hours until they could get busses. Then we bussed back to South Bend and didn’t arrive until next morning. It was a complete disaster.
TP: What was your perspective regarding Jimmy Johnson piling it on that game?
SB: They’re blocking kicks and throwing bombs for touchdowns. His defense is they only had 10 guys on the field on the blocked punt.
For us at that time, he was the devil. We hated his guts for everything about Miami, and that’s where the rivalry all started. The previous games, too. We hated him.
TP: A few years later, you played for Jimmy Johnson.
SB: (Laughing) Ironically, I got to play for Jimmy in Dallas and had a chance to get to know him. When I met him for the first time, I was so relieved to get out of my situation with the Raiders and eager to resurrect my career. But I was going to play for the anti-Christ! So I was happy but disgusted at the same time.
When I met Jimmy, he had that big ol’ cheesy smile on his face. I shook his hand and said, ‘Coach, I’m glad to be here. But I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be playing for you.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Well, neither did I, Beuerlein, but Norv Turner thinks you can help us win a championship, so I’m happy you’re here.’ So I said, ‘Okay, let’s go!’
I got to know him and you start to see the other side of it. You start to see what motivates him and what makes him as great as he was that allowed him to win so many championships at different levels. He ran the show in Dallas and it was the same mentality. We go full speed, and as long as there is time on the clock, we don’t even think about having mercy. That’s just the mentality that he had.
TP: Faust had resigned during the week leading up to the Miami game. What was your mindset?
SB: I don’t remember talking about it with anybody because we were so scared. We were afraid to bring up the subject. I don’t know if the majority of the team wanted change because we didn’t know how bad our situation was. It was all we knew. You’re looking at it saying, ‘It’s not just Coach Faust; it’s all of us. None of us have done the job. It’s our fault.’ We had guilt that we weren’t doing the job well enough and he was going to get fired because of it.
We weren’t talking about it openly, but we all felt like we were underachieving.
TP: As you look back on your first three years at Notre Dame, with the injuries and the losses, you had to be wondering what the future held for you.
SB: During those three years, there was a constant change in the philosophy and the way Gerry wanted things done. It’s hard to get comfortable when there’s constant change. He was trying to figure out something that would work. The intent was wholesome and right, but the experience factor of not trusting yourself to stay the course was what caught up with him.
TP: How would you summarize your relationship with Faust?
SB: I get along with Coach Faust now and I did then, other than the stress of my junior year when everything kind of fell apart. There are things that happened that year that both of us view as a byproduct of the situation. He was not trying to cause me problems; he was trying to win football games.
The first three years, we were 18-, 19- and 20-year-old kids that wanted to win so badly and we wanted to win for our coach. We wanted to help him achieve his dreams, too. We all felt like we were underachieving and not playing up to our abilities. There was a tremendous amount of guilt.
None of us knew why it was so difficult, why we were playing so poorly and why things were going the way they were going. We didn’t realize there were some things out of our control and we really didn’t have a chance with the way things were being done.
There were bad decisions that affected me significantly. It almost cost me my career. If it wasn’t for Lou Holtz having confidence in me my senior year and letting me get healthy and encouraging me and telling me I’d get the first shot at it, my career would have been over. I would have never played again. That was a godsend for me.
TP: Did you know anything about Lou Holtz when he was hired?
SB: I just knew he was at Minnesota and that he was a character. I knew he always had running quarterbacks, so my assessment immediately was my career was over. I never thought I’d get a chance to play at Notre Dame again, No. 1 because of the junior season I had just had, and No. 2, I didn’t know if I would ever be able to play again at the level I expected to play because my shoulder still wasn’t where it needed to be.
They hired Lou Holtz and I thought, ‘I’m done. I’ll never get a chance to play.’ I thought I was going to be one of those guys that they say, ‘Thanks for your leadership. Thanks for gutting it out here, but we’re going to go with a younger, more mobile guy and build for the future.’
Thank God it worked out differently.