Irish Legends: A Subway Comes Home

As the seconds ticked away in the Irish's season opening loss against Georgia Tech, there was an emotional dark cloud hovering over most of the 81,000 fans in attendance. For one Notre Dame fan, however, not even the most disheartening of losses could ruin this Saturday. Sonny Yates, a Notre Dame fan for over 52 years, had finally made his way "home."

As a young boy, Sonny Yates began following college football through Stanley Woodward's Football, an annual publication by Dell. In 1954, a young Sonny picked up a copy of the magazine, whose covered featured Irish great, Ralph Guglielmi. picture
of a pumpkinHe had a new favorite quarterback. As Sonny thumbed through the pages of the magazine, he took a particular interest in Guglielmi and other Irish players like Dan Shannon and Frank Varrichione. Only a sixth-grader at the time, Sonny dreamed of one day attending a football game at Notre Dame Stadium and walking along the same campus sidewalks as his gridiron heroes.

As the son of an insurance salesman and an elementary school teacher, Sonny grew up in a small town located in the Florida Panhandle, known as De Funiak Springs, approximately 852 miles from the Golden Dome. His dreams of one day donning the gold helmet ended as a freshman in high school, when a bad case of Osgood Schlatter disease kept him from further participation in athletics. Still, his passion for football did not subside and with the help of his head coach, Mack Rooks, Sonny was able to land a job on a weekly radio show, covering high school sports. He went on to become a game reporter for three different newspapers by the end of his high school years.

As a senior, Sonny still hoped that someday he would end up at Notre Dame. However, when there was no response to his application, he would have to make other plans. Nonetheless, he promised himself that someday he would make it to Notre Dame. With encouragement from his parents, Sonny enrolled at the University of Houston, a school in a major media market, with two big-time college football programs, an NFL franchise, and a brand new major league baseball team, the Colt .45s.

During college, Sonny stayed active in the sports world, as he was named Sports Editor of the student newspaper. As a senior, he served as a staff member for the Houston Astros, working on their $2 Million Scoreboard Crew. The following season, he was named Stadium Public-Address Announcer. Sonny was moving up quickly in the sports world, yet Houston was still a long way from South Bend. Despite the geographic distance, he continued to follow the Irish, as they moved past the Kuharich years and into the era of Ara Parseghian.

As a young graduate, Sonny took a job working as Sports Information Director (SID) for New Mexico State University. He modeled his career goals after then SID of Notre Dame, Roger Valdiserri. Sonny recalled that Valdiserri had left his job with the Kansas City Chiefs to return to Notre Dame, his alma mater, because his children would be attending college soon. Sonny thought, "he has the greatest job in the country." New Mexico State may not have been Notre Dame, but he sure made a name for himself with a few memorable moments that people close to the program still talk about today.

Embarrassed by the facilities at New Mexico State, Sonny did his best to get funding for upgrades. When nothing else seemed to work, he had to get creative. A few hours before one particular game, Sonny showed up with a shoebox full of roaches and released them in the stadium press box. Unfortunately, even the cockroaches did not help his cause, although the stadium was eventually condemned due to faulty electrical wiring. A few years later in 1970, Sonny would be remembered for his activity leading up to the big game against SMU. Hoping to get a little inside information for the upcoming game, Sonny found his way into SMU's practice without being noticed. In fact, he probably could have watched the entire practice except that the tree branch that he was spying from, snapped off sending Sonny to the ground. Sonny wishes that the branch had held out a little bit longer, as SMU led by coach Hayden Fry, defeated New Mexico State 34-21.

As Sonny's career progressed, he was named Executive Director of the Sun Bowl in 1974 and then Associate Athletic Director at the University of Houston in 1979. Unfortunately, Notre Dame and Sonny never crossed paths, although they did come close a few times. Shortly before accepting the Associate Athletic Director job at Houston, the Irish had played the Cougars in the 1979 Cotton Bowl. The game, known to Irish fans as the "Chicken Soup Game," featured a 23 point comeback victory led by a nearly hypothermic Joe Montana. A few years earlier, in 1975, Sonny thought Notre Dame would be coming to the Sun Bowl, however, the ninth-ranked Irish lost a late season match up by 14 points to an unranked Pittsburgh team, and they decided to invite the Panthers to the game instead.

While the football team continued to evade him, Sonny was fortunate enough to meet a few Notre Dame people in his life. In 1968, New Mexico State hosted the NCAA golf championship. The event attracted many of the biggest names in golf, but the man Sonny wanted to spend time with was Fr. Clarence E. Durbin. Fr. Durbin was the Notre Dame Golf Coach, and served on a committee that week with Sonny. "I remember that I burned Father Durbin's ears with questions about the campus," recalled Sonny. There he was at the biggest event that New Mexico State would host during his tenure, and all Sonny could talk about was Notre Dame.

In 1981, Sonny left the University of Houston and started his own company, Radio Sports Network. Eleven years later, he returned homed to DeFuniak Springs, Florida and has since been working as a small-town radio announcer. Despite a career of over forty-years in sports, he had still never fulfilled his boyhood promise that he would one day step on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. All of that would change on August 31st.

Years ago, Sonny helped out the mother of one IrishEyes' own MobileIrish, after she suffered a car crash. MobileIrish, a 1971 Notre Dame alumnus, learned of Sonny's passion and wanted to help him find a way to campus. He invited Sonny to accompany him to the Georgia Tech game, which would finally help Sonny fulfill the promise that he had made to himself so many years before.

Leading up to his long-awaited pilgrimage to the Dome, Sonny explained that as a Catholic he has admired Notre Dame's long standing reputation for excellence in academics and doing things the right way on the football field. But the main reason that he has been attracted to the Irish for so long has been the storied tradition. "Next week, I finally get to check out those echoes," he said before departing for South Bend.

Friday morning, while most of the campus was still sleeping, Sonny was up bright and early, making his way around campus. The first stop, of course, the Golden Dome. With cameras capturing the momentous day, he was toured around the fabled campus which had only been to that point, a part of his imagination. After seeing every inch of campus, including stopping to read Dr. Tom Dooley's famous letter at the Grotto, Sonny finished his day off by attending the Friday night Pep Rally. His day kept getting better. Sonny sat and listened to the words of former Notre Dame greats, Chris Zorich and Joe Theismann, as they addressed the student body and fans. The energy and excitement packed into the building was none like he had ever experienced before. As the day came to an end, Sonny recalled that he had two very sore feet, but there was also a very large smile on face.

The busy Friday might have worn Sonny down a bit, but he was up and at it again on game day. At 8:30am, a full seven hours before kickoff, Sonny was introduced to Notre Dame tailgating. Eager to take-in the full experience, he mingled with as many people as possible, enjoying the Notre Dame hospitality and spirit: "The fans at the tailgating area were such class people." Sonny explained, "I also got to interview one of the yellow-capped parking lot attendants and learn how many of those retired guys have been coming back to campus for all home games for 10, 15, 20 years—and from all over the nation! I knew Notre Dame's pride was in its commitment, but that bowled me over!"

As Sonny finally entered the stadium, he made sure to call all of his children so that he could share with them his special day. "I had warned them that when they got the call, it would probably be much too loud and prevent me from hearing anything they would say. But the crowd noise was not a hindrance." The way the game was going probably had something to do with that.

While the game itself did not go as he had hoped, Sonny made the best of his time at Notre Dame, and had a truly memorable weekend. Taken back by the landscaping and beauty of the campus, he was amazed at how large and perfectly planned the campus appeared. "Nowhere on campus felt crowded."

Some of the other highlights for Sonny were the new Performing Arts Center, and seeing how the dorm system at Notre Dame replaces the Greek system at other universities. Sonny mentioned that he was impressed at the dorm unity and spirit, as he witnessed the pep rally chants and the game day individual dorm functions. He also marveled at the lack of air-conditioning in the older dorms on campus. Coming from the humidity of the Deep South, he thought air-conditioning was simply part of life.

While a Notre Dame win would have been the icing on the cake, Sonny said that the emotional high he received from visiting campus for the first time lasted well after he returned home to Florida.

"The two-day campus visit stands alone as a dream come true. The football game was merely part of it. I was fortunate to have a Notre Dame grad on the trip with me."

If he gets the chance, Sonny would like to return to Notre Dame someday, and he hopes that he can bring along a few more to share the experience with him.

"The campus experience that I had is now a constant incentive to assist my grandchildren to experience that same opportunity."

Sonny's story is a reminder that there are Notre Dame fans throughout the country, but not everyone can make it to Notre Dame, Indiana. Some are lucky enough to be exposed to Notre Dame at a very young age, while others, like Sonny, wait a lifetime to experience their first trip to campus. Still, others will only ever dream of Notre Dame.

Somewhere out there, there is a seven year old child, sitting in his or her room with posters of Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija, dreaming of one day sitting in Notre Dame Stadium. That day may be this Saturday or it could be sixty years from now, but that day will come if the dream is kept alive. The child was Sonny Yates, 53 years ago, and finally the day arrived when his dream came true.

For those of us fortunate enough to spend our college years at Notre Dame, or frequent the campus more often than most, let us not forget what a truly special place Our Lady's campus is. Consider that on any given football Saturday, thousands of people will be visiting Notre Dame for the first time, some having waited a lifetime. For each one of those new to Notre Dame, there are many more who are still waiting and dreaming. Maybe we know that young child or our own version of Sonny Yates. Maybe we can help make those dreams come true.

"Before joining the Notre Dame family, I heard a lot about the spirit of Notre Dame, but I wasn't sure what that meant. The people were spiritual, and the leaders of the university were driven by the Holy Spirit, of that I had no doubt. But I wasn't convinced the campus itself held anything spiritual. Then, in my first year, I made an interesting observation. I realized that if you don't believe in the omnipresent spirit of Notre Dame, you never feel it. I made up my mind that I was going to believe in this spirit. The moment I started believing, I started feeling it. And the feeling never left." ~Lou Holtz Top Stories