Denbrock was accurate in his assessment of the program's history of developing top tier college and NFL caliber tight ends.
But what he likely did not know, and what most don't realize, is that a near-four decade run of Irish tight end starters have graduated from the program and embarked on an NFL career.
LegacyIn the (relative) beginning there was Dave Casper. Casper begat Ken MacAfee; MacAfee begat Dean Masztak; Masztak begat Tony Hunter; Hunter begat Mark Bavaro; Bavaro begat Tom Rehder, Andy Heck and Joel Williams who were followed by Derek Brown.
Brown tutored Irv Smith who taught Oscar McBride and Pete Chryplewicz. Chryplewicz schooled Jabari Holloway and Dan O'Leary who tutored John Owens who gave way to Gary Godsey and Billy Palmer; then to Anthony Fasano whose knowledge of the craft was passed on to John Carlson who left the mantle for current junior Kyle Rudolph, perhaps the nation's best tight end as we enter the 2010 season.
After starting at left tackle for Notre Dame in 1972, Dave Casper – the first tight end selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame – made his initial move to the position for the '73 season. What followed was an almost seamless 37-year transition of starting tight ends, all but two of which (Dean Masztak, one of the most talented tight ends in program history who had his career truncated by injury; and Gary Godsey, a converted quarterback who started at tight end in 2002) played in the NFL.
Remarkably, including position changes: a tight end on the Notre Dame roster from 1971 through 1977; and again (including a red-shirted Anthony Fasano) from 1979-through the present, pending Kyle Rudolph's graduation, played at least one year in the NFL.
(For a good read concerning Godsey's NFL dilemma, check out Eric Hansen's book, Notre Dame: Where Have You Gone?)
Illustrating this select group's true versatility is Andy Heck: a tight end in 1986 who became an All-American left tackle and 1988 national champion, and then a 1st round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks.
Cream of the CropWhile the Irish NFL legacy begins with Casper, the position first officially appeared in a Notre Dame lineup in 1967: 6'4" 225-pound junior Jim Winegardner. The position continued to evolve (Winegardner moved to split end in 1968) and he was succeeded by Mike Creaney in 1970, a player skilled enough to allow Casper to begin his career on the offensive line.
Casper produced (unquestionably) the most decorated NFL career of the group, it is Ken MacAfee (1974-77) that remains the standard by which all Notre Dame tight ends are measured.
"Ken was a dynamic tight end," explained a former classmate of the Irish star. "For that time in football, he was a very big person. Usually the tight ends were smaller guys; he wasn't one of them. He almost looked like an offensive lineman.
"He was a big man but one with soft hands."
It should be noted that MacAfee's aforementioned, well-informed classmate is former Irish head coach Charlie Weis.
"And he wasn't just a blocking tight end because he had very soft hands. He was very productive at a time when tight ends really weren't utilized that much," Weis added.
MacAfee, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, was a three-time first-team All-American (75-77) – an implausible feat to be duplicated today. He finished third on the ballot for the 1977 Heisman Trophy and was named the Walter Camp Player of the Year during Notre Dame's '77 National Championship season (catching 54 passes for 797 yards and six touchdowns – each of which ranks as a single-season program record for the position).
"He was a star," Weis continued. And he was (Joe) Montana's security blanket."
The 6'5" 251-pound MacAfee finished his college career with 128 receptions for 1,759 yards and 15 touchdowns, all Notre Dame tight end records.
The 80s: An Unbroken ChainThe signing of consensus prep All-American Tony Hunter prior to the 1979 season served as a portent for the coming decade. Hunter, was a universally recruited athlete: the crown jewel of Notre Dame's recruiting class and a four-year starter at split end and tight end, bridging the Dan Devine and Gerry Faust eras.
Hunter's graduation after the '82 season opened the door for sophomore Mark Bavaro, who attained first-team All America status as a senior and won two Super Bowls while making multiple Pro Bowls with the New York Giants.
Also part of the Giants second Super Bowl victory was NFL neophyte Charlie Weis.
"Bavaro's one of my best friends," said Weis when asked about the continuing legacy of Irish greats. "And we drafted Derek Brown when I was with the Giants."
Brown was the nation's No. 1 tight end recruit from Merritt Island, Florida and one of the most heavily recruited offensive players in the nation heading into the 1988 season. The Irish beat college football's reigning bully, the Miami Hurricanes for Brown's services, then beat the ‘Canes on the field in two of three matchups with their hometown star suited in Blue and Gold.
Prior to Brown's arrival, Irish tight ends Joel Williams (the team's starter in 1986 and '87) and future offensive tackle Andy Heck both found their way onto NFL rosters after surviving the Faust era and eventually thriving under the reclamation project of Lou Holtz. Heck missed just seven games in 12 NFL seasons.