Irish Legends: The Four Horsemen

This fall will mark 82 years since Grantland Rice immortalized four Notre Dame football players with the most famous post-game report in school history. Any Notre Dame fan that has walked through the school bookstore has undoubtedly seen the horsemen photo countless times.

Some fans can recite the names of all four horsemen, and some can even recite excerpts of the famous article. However, many fans know very little of the legendary backfield beyond their nickname. Do you know the real story behind the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame?

"Outlined against a blue, gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below."

This famous passage was written following the October 18, 1924 Army-Notre Dame game, which was won by Notre Dame 13-7. It was the smallest margin of victory for Notre Dame that season, as they cruised on to a 10-0 record and the National Championship.

When the story was published in the New York Herald Tribune, the nickname became an immediate hit with fans. The Four Horseman nickname is largely credited to Grantland Rice, the 20th century's greatest sportswriter, and yet the idea for the story was not even his. It so happens that Rice was covering the game and trying to think of a storyline. Notre Dame student, and Rockne's publicity aide--George Strickler, mentioned to Rice that the Notre Dame backfield reminded him of a Rudy Valentino film he had seen, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," specifically in the way they charged out of the dust to defeat their opponents.

As Notre Dame historian Murray Sperber said in an interview, "like most reporters, Rice shamelessly would steal anything at hand, because he has a deadline, so he headed to the typewriter and typed out ‘Outlined against a blue, gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again…." The rest is history.

While the story came first, it was what occurred back in South Bend that made the quartet national icons. Strickler, inspired by Rice's piece, arranged to borrow four horses from a local ice and coal business on LaSalle Street. He also brought in a man named Christman, to take a picture of the Four Horsemen on horseback. In the 1949 book, The Notre Dame Story, Strickler shared his recollections of the day:

"When I got back to South Bend on Monday afternoon, I dropped off and picked up the steeds. Practice was in session when I reached Cartier Field and the doors were locked. They were not going to let me in at first, but finally opened the gates and I rode thru, disrupting practice while Christman made the now well-known shot."

"Rock gave me hell in a polite way. He thought I had a swell idea. But he objected to the timing-or any timing for that matter, as you well know, that barged unannounced into his practice."

The picture hit the wire and became one of the most famous sports photos in history. As it turns out, Strickler went on to become the Sports Editor for the Chicago Tribune. As for the horsemen they didn't let fame get to their heads.

"At the time, I didn't realize the impact it would have," Crowley said later. "But the thing just kind of mushroomed. After the splurge in the press, the sports fans of the nation got interested in us along with other sportswriters. Our record helped, too. If we'd lost a couple, I don't think we would have been remembered."

Running behind Notre Dame's offensive line, known as the Seven Mules, the Four Horsemen went on to win the national championship in 1924. Together the four of them played 30 games together, winning 28 and losing only twice—both times to Nebraska.

When asked about the 1924 team, Rockne said it was his favorite team to coach.

"That would always be my favorite team," Rockne said. "I think I sensed that the backfield was a product of destiny. At times, they caused me a certain amount of pain and exasperation, but mainly they brought me great joy."

Years later when asked what he thought about the origin of the Four Horsmen, Rockne responded:

"How it came to pass that four young men so eminently qualified by temperament, physique, and instinctive pacing, complement one another perfectly and thus produce the best coordinated and most picturesque backfield in the recent history of football - how that came about is one of the inscrutable achievements of coincidence of which I know nothing save that it's a rather satisfying mouthful of words."

Here's a look at each of the four horsemen individually:

Harry Stuhldreher- The quarterback of the 1922-24 Notre Dame teams. Standing 5-foot-5 tall and weighing a mere 139 pounds, Stuhldreher is far from your typical quarterback of today. His height and weight were exaggerated in many Notre Dame records because he was so small. According to his son, Michael, the aforementioned measurements were correct. He was known as an accurate passer and athletic enough to be a solid return man. While Stuhldreher was best known for his speed on sweeps, his passing accuracy was very much underutilized.

"The forward pass was used on a very limited basis at that time," said Michael Stuhldreher. "He was considered a very, very accurate passer. Many years later, when he was a college coach, he would put a tire on a rope and could thread pass after pass through that tire from 40 yards away. That always impressed his players."

After Notre Dame, Stuhldreher tried professional football, trying out for the Waterbury Blues and Brooklyn Lions of the American Football League. However, it didn't take long for Stuhldreher to realize that coaching was his passion. He would go on to coach 11 seasons at Villanova (65-25-9) and 13 seasons at Wisconsin (45-62-6). After football he became vice president of US Steel Corporation and decided to write two books. Those books were titled, "Knute Rockne, Man Builder" and "Quarterback Play." In 1958, the three-time All-American was inducted into the College Football Hall. He died seven years later at the age of 63.

Don Miller- Known for his blazing speed, Rockne called Miller the greatest open-field runner he had ever seen. Opponents had a difficult time tackling Miller because of his high-knee pumping running style. More than just a football player, Miller came to Notre Dame with academic aspirations. As one of five brothers to play football for Notre Dame, Miller made the most of his time at Notre Dame. In addition to playing football, he lettered in basketball and graduated as president of the senior class. Like the others, Miller gave professional football a try, but decided against it. In those days, professional football was not as lucrative of a career as it is today with giant contracts and large signing bonuses.

Miller tried coaching as well, accepting jobs at Georgia Tech and Ohio State, but his real passion was law. In 1932 he decided to devote the rest of his life to law. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Miller as U.S. district attorney for northern Ohio. Later he became national president of the United States Attorney's Association. Noted as the best of the horsemen statistically, Miller took his place in the Hall of Fame in 1970. Don "Midnight" Miller, the sensation from Defiance, Ohio, passed away in 1979 at the age of 77. He spent his final years as a judge in Cleveland, Ohio.

Jim Crowley- "Sleepy Jim," a name Rockne gave him for his droopy appearance, was anything but slumberous on the football field. Crowley grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he learned to play the game under his high school coach, and former Notre Dame fullback, Curly Lambeau. Crowley was an All-American halfback at Notre Dame and averaged over six yards per rush over his college career. Rockne knew from early on that Crowley would eventually make a good coach, citing his quick wittedness. Upset after Crowley missed a block, Rockne shouted, "What's dumber than a dumb Irishman?" Crowley chimed back, "A smart Norwegian."

After a brief stint in professional football, Crowley accepted a line coach position at Michigan State. Four years later he accepted a job at Fordham, where he coached Vince Lombardi and the famous "Seven Blocks of Granite." After a very successful coaching career in which he amassed 78 wins, 27 losses and 6 ties, Crowley left coaching to become the first commissioner of the All-America Football Conference in 1947. Crowley would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1966. He retired to Scranton, Pennsylvania and in 1986 he passed away at the age of 83.

Elmer Layden- They called him the "Thin Man," yet he was the heaviest of the horseman, weighing approximately 162 pounds. Rockne loved Layden's ability to hit the hole hard, and would use him in short yardage situations. In the 1925 Rose Bowl, the final game for the Four Horsemen, Layden plunged into the end zone on a three-yard dive, but it was his defense that changed the game. Layden intercepted two Stanford passes and returned them for touchdowns of 78 and 60 yards. The Irish went on to win the game and the national championship.

After graduation, Layden decided to try coaching as well. After a brief two-year stint with Columbia College, Layden was hired as football coach at Duquesne. In seven seasons, Layden posted 48 victories. In 1933, Notre Dame asked Layden to return as both head football coach and athletic director. Layden coached for seven season at Notre Dame, winning 47 times. In 1940, Layden left Notre Dame to become the first commissioner of the NFL. The position, which was held by three others before him, had been renamed on Layden's arrival. With the NFL losing many players to the War, Layden did a fine job of keeping the league together, despite second-rate players. In 1946, Layden retired to the business world of Chicago, where he had a very long and successful career. In 1951, the "thin man" from Davenport, Iowa, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He died in 1973 at the age of 70.

While all four men lived successful lives on and off the field, it is what they did together at Notre Dame, that changed the landscape of college football forever. Prior to the Four Horsemen, college football was best classified as "four yards and a cloud of dust." There was very little skill involved. It was simply a 100-yard arm wrestling match. With the innovation of Rockne, and the athletic ability of the Four Horsemen, the game became very different. They were the first backfield to use multiple shift formations, and really utilize the full width of the field. Plays were actually designed and executed instead of the backyard brawl that had been college football in the early years. With the emergence of the Four Horsemen, football became a game of strategy, intelligence, and athleticism. With none of the Horsemen even six feet tall or 160 pounds, they became the pioneers for future generations of football. They paved the way for guys like Reggie Brooks, Rocket Ismail, Tony Rice, and every other football player that may not have been the biggest or strongest players on the team, but possessed speed, quickness and agility. While many have surpassed these men in individual statistics, it was their team play that made them truly special. Consider these words from Grantland Rice:

"Pound for pound, they stand alone. What they lacked in poundage, they more than made up for in speed, spirit, smartness and driving force. They worked with a rhythm that was unbelievably beautiful to watch, whether or not football happens to be your favorite game. If you consider such assets as speed, brains, heat, alertness and rhythm important, they had no equal."


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