Bruce Matthews came straight down the line, just gaining the perfect amount of depth, as he always did. Then like the wide open locomotives that had brought Howard Jones' Thundering Herd teams here, it happened. He seemed to burst upon impact and planted Notre Dame's All American linebacker into the turf. I remember the name patch that said "Crable" seem to almost deflate like a child's blow up toy. How his legs went limp under the force of the blow. You could almost sense the surprise and the resignation contained in that glistening gold helmet just before it hit the grass. Yet as in any great player there was still the reaction. The reaction that had been pounded into every linebacker to ever take that field in front of touchdown Jesus. The reaction that was so instinctual, so necessary, so damned fundamental, yet now so futile. To always, always reach out and make the tackle. But as the Heisman Trophy candidate ran by untouched for 30 yards, in that instant, in that nanosecond, in that single defining moment, he had an epiphany. Early in the 3rd quarter, Bob Crable knew the game's outcome.
"Big Man on Big Man!" Coach Goux would yell. "You've got to be able to make that play if you're going to beat Notre Dame!" "Beat Notre Dame?!" we thought. " Its August! We don't play the Irish until October." Little does a whining freshman know that can't see past the next water break, that this grizzled man with the overpowering voice and odd bend to his back, would seem to be a soothsayer of immeasurable proportions just two years later. Little did that freshman know that the Irish caused that bend in his back.
"These are the games that you remember the rest of your life!" extolled the distinguished young head coach in a dank, cold, and not accidentally cramped locker room. It was exactly how you had pictured it, and then again not at all. It seemed almost medieval in its scope. Minuscule cramped quarters where you had to lean your bare skin against cold, wet, yellow brick walls that Rockne himself had designed. You knew the psychological effect that he was aiming for in this marvelously economical layout. But you just had to laugh as you looked at the assembling armada around the room. The walls reverberated with the coaching staff's last few words. It was unusual because this was not a group that lent itself to loud oratory.
You remember the little things, like trying to stretch out your jersey to get it around oversized shoulder pads. Every pull or tug was met with an equal push from your locker mates. Squeezed between Roy Foster's massive legs and arms and Don Mosebar's towering presence, it seemed like rush hour on the C train going into Grand Central Station. Even though he had been thrust upon a national television audience with a game winning touchdown grab against Oklahoma, (his only one, I might add) an engineering student who moonlighted as a tight end, was only too happy to provide the correct angle and coordinates at which one could get dressed in such sparse confines. That was the thing about Fred Cornwell. That was the thing about all of these guys. They never let it go to their head. But then again, how could you with the guys you were surrounded by.
In the 4th quarter, Chip Banks hit Greg Bell in the backfield, for a loss of two and the crowd let out a deflating groan. Number 51 didn't just hit you to tackle you. He delivered the kind of hit that made you want to go lie down and watch cartoons on Saturday rather than play College Football. I can recall the rest of the Irish offense turning away. I thought how the late afternoon clouds made the blue in their jerseys seem even darker, and now mirrored the mood of the home crowd. The proud fans that had finally come to grips with the reality that Bob Crable knew an hour earlier.
It's amazing how right the head coach had been on that cool fall day in Indiana. I can still see his graying temples, the black shiny coach's shoes. The well worn jacket with the bright gold "Southern Cal" stitched on his coat just above his heart. Those were the days that you never forgot. The Grass was dark green and smelled fresh and dewy. The leaves had turned. It felt like it was going to snow that night. It does always comes down to one defining and pivotal moment. Their All American had his administered by our All American wearing number 66. Then they both looked up and watched another pretty good ball player run by. A ball player who two months later would have his picture hung up in New York at the Downtown Athletic Club.
Ronald Reagan was in the White House. He had just fired the striking air traffic controllers. It's ironic to think how their punishment would lead to our bonding that night. It's funny the little things that you remember. Scott Tinsley and an average tackle were in charge of scouting out a place to meet. One must presume it was because of our rural upbringing that made people assume that we had developed some sort of backwoods scouting skills. Because of the strike, the team charter was delayed until late at night. The coaching staff continued with their unwavering leadership. "You can go anywhere you want! As long as it's not the hotel bar!" Undoubtedly they were having some late night strategy sessions with regards to Washington State the next week.
Oh, how I love the Midwest! Elkhart, Indiana on a Saturday night. Where else can you get chicken fried steak and Bratwurst on the same plate? There was plenty of extra gravy for the conquering heroes. Those waitresses must have set up an underground communications network unlike any seen since the French resistance in WWII. Soon seemingly every child within three counties was there. "Come on down and see the Trojans honey, and bring the kids." We laughed at him then. Now we have to think back and respect how Marcus signed every mom's piece of paper. Every dad's matchbook. Every kid's pajama top.
Someone asked me the other day, "Do you still think that the USC vs. Notre Dame Game is great?"
I only have three pictures up in my office. One of my wife and kids. One of myself standing in the Coliseum between Cornwell and Salisbury after a win. One of Notre Dame Stadium.
Mike Lamb can be heard each Saturday from 9-1 on Fox Sports Radio.