When elder Irish fans think of No. 20, the name Luther Bradley comes to mind. At 6-2, 200 pounds, Bradley was a big man for a cornerback. Bradley used his size and speed to dominate on the gridiron and was known as an intimidator on the field who played with a nasty disposition.
Bradley won two National Championships ('73 and '77) while at Notre Dame, and he also started as a true freshman—an impressive feat considering the Irish had championship-quality talent at the time.
Bradley was also a consensus All-American in '77, and was drafted in the first round by the Detroit Lions after his storied Irish career. The Muncie, Ind. native also owns Notre Dame's career interception mark of 17, and once picked off six passes in one game in the professional ranks.
Considering those impressive stats, It's somewhat ironic that Bradley lists one that got away as the single play he remembers most.
"You know what play I remember the most?," Bradley asked "My freshman year, first play of the game, first play I ever played in, and I was starting as a freshman….we were playing Northwestern. The quarterback threw the ball in the flat, the ball hit me right in the hands and I dropped it. There was nobody in front of me. I could've walked into end zone. I remember coming to the sidelines and the defensive backs coach said: ‘all you had to do was catch the ball.' That's what I remember the most," said Bradley with a big laugh.
That was about the only ball Bradley dropped in his Notre Dame career, and he quickly made a name for himself in front of a national TV audience. An older friend of mine described it as "one of the best hits I've ever seen." Bradley tattooed a Purdue receiver early in the game and kicked off his Notre Dame collegiate career in style.
"Yeah, I do remember that play," Bradley said of his big hit during the Purdue game. "I think it might've been the second game of the season at Purdue. I do remember I had a pretty big hit on a guy, but I didn't think that was my best play of my career," Bradley said with a laugh.
Bradley's career started and ended with the pinnacle of success—a National Championship, but Luther never thought he'd start as a true freshman when enrolling at Notre Dame.
"No I didn't," said Bradley when asked if he thought it was possible for him to start his first season. "There were a couple of older players in front of me, and they weren't terribly liked by the coaching staff, and I think I was probably a little bit better than they were. The coaches gave me an opportunity to play. Me, Ross Browner and Willie Fry were the three freshmen that played at that time.
"It was very exciting, but I had no expectation of being a starter when I got there. In fact, my dad even said to me: ‘this isn't a place where you're going to play right away. You might have to wait your turn for a year or so.' I surprised him when I finally told him that I was a starter.
"It was pretty incredible," Bradley said of his freshman season. "Everything I ever dreamed about with college football kind of came to fruition. I was a starter. I led the team in interceptions that year. We were the No. 1 ranked defense in the country that year.
"The final game we end up winning the National Championship by beating Alabama, 24-23, in what I think was the best played game I've ever been in or ever seen. It was back and forth, and nobody knew who was going to win the game until the end. My freshman year was a combination of everything I could ever ask for in college football."
So which team was better, '73 or '77?
"People always compared the two teams, ‘which team was better?' I think they were two different types of teams," Bradley said when asked the question. "The first (73) was big, strong, and very intelligent. The '77 team, we had a lot of speed. We were fast, we were much better offensively, and we had a lot more speed.
"But the common thread I think out of both teams was that we had great leadership from the captains and the coaching staff, particularly the captains. The other thing we had was that we had great talent. You can't take away from the fact that we had all these All-Pro and All-Americans on the field. We were loaded with talent from top to bottom."
With the Irish struggling in recent years, we asked Bradley how much he thought coaching impacted the championship teams he played on while at Notre Dame.
"I think it's big," Bradley said. "I think Ara (Parsegian) was probably the best coach I ever had no matter what level I was at. He understood players, he understood personalities, and he understood what we had. He kind of kept us together. He didn't let us get so far that we didn't think we could lose, but he always gave us confidence to say that it was going to be very hard to beat us.
"I remember playing my freshman year against Southern Cal. At the first practice for that week he said something like ‘we're playing a Southern Cal team that probably has more talent that we got at the skill positions, but I think we're smarter than them, and I think we want it more than them.' Yeah, they had all these superstar names, but we wanted it more than they did. He found a way to make it work for us.
"Dan Devine wasn't the articulator that Parseghian was, but he had good coaches around him, and some of the good coaches that Ara had were the same coaches we had on defense. It kind of gave us the stability we needed in '77."
Bradley's time at Notre Dame is what many would consider "the Golden Years" of Notre Dame.
"It was always exciting," Bradley said of his Notre Dame experience. "We never thought that we would lose. I want to say out of the four years we were there, we might've lost six games or so, but we always felt we were going to win. Even when we were away in a hostile environment, we always felt like we were going to win.
"The campus was always abuzz. It was constant --particularly my freshman year--because not only did we have a great football team, we had a great basketball team. They broke UCLA's 78-game winning streak. Our athletic teams were superior to everybody, so we had this swagger that we were the best university in the country. Plus, we had to work at it. We had to study, and we had to do everything that all the students had to do, which didn't always happen at other places."
Bradley also played in what is now known as the "green jersey game" in Irish lore. We asked Bradley what it was like to play in that game.
"The first thing was that the night before the game at the pep rally, Dan Devine told everyone to wear green the next day," Bradley said. "We didn't think any of it, other than the captains, they knew what was going on but didn't let anyone else know about it.
"Walking to the stadium I remember Willie Fry saying to me: ‘there's going to be a surprise today, we're going to surprise these people.
"I didn't think anything about it. I was just concentrating on the game. We went out for our warm-ups and we came back from warm-ups and they've got the green jerseys in our lockers. You should've seen it. It was like pandemonium in the locker room. People were up screaming and hollering. It was exciting. It lasted for about 10 minutes.
"I think it was a surprise. We thought we had an advantage. We just took it right from the locker room out on the field. We were ready to rock-n-roll.
"We just ran onto the field and we did a number on SC that day. It was one of the greatest feelings of my life."
And the player's reaction after the game?
"We were really excited because we knew that we did something that would go down in history, but we were still focused because we still had a lot of games left at that point," Bradley said. "We knew that was a major hurdle that we had to get over to get to the National Championship.
"I have one of my buddies who went to SC. He said when we came on the field, and they were watching us come out of the tunnel with these green jerseys on, he said to himself ‘we're in for a long day.' He knew they were in for a long day."
Like many Irish fans, Bradley feels that the green jerseys have come out far too often since then.
"I think you can do that once, maybe twice in a lifetime," Luther said when asked if he felt the tradition has lost something in recent times. "I think it's been done too many times. It just doesn't have the same passion and doesn't have the same feel. They probably should abandon that idea."
So what does it feel like being an Irish legend?
"It feels pretty good," Bradley admitted with a laugh. "I still get goose bumps going on campus. When I walk on campus I start thinking about my days there and how much fun it was to win so many games in that stadium. Every time I go there I want to get back on the field.
"I think we've kind of lost the swagger though. We're losing four games a year or five games a year--it kind of takes some of the luster off it. Personally, I think that is going to come back now.
"This coach Weis, he was there during our glory years. He knows what it takes, and he knows what Notre Dame football should be like and what it stands for."
Stay tuned for part II of our interview with Bradley to be published shortly.