Posted: 7:00 a.m. Friday, July 12, 2013
By Eric Murtaugh
In 1924 Notre Dame won its first consensus national title in football and over a series of months transformed the program from a rising powerhouse into America's most beloved gridiron team. This story is based on true events.
Saturday October 18, 1924 - West 155th Street & Eighth Avenue, Upper Manhattan
Just past 10:45 in the morning the clubhouse beyond center field of The Polo Grounds was coming to life with commotion. Team manager Leo Sutliffe carried large brown equipment bags in from outside with the help of some young excited boys from the street while the finest footballers Notre Dame had to offer slowly filed in wearing formal traveling dress of wool long coats and hats. The late-morning sun draped a cozy blanket of city heat inside the clubhouse and the open doors and shuffling bodies brought a nice early fall breeze through the confines directly outside the locker room. The players were noticeably restless, walking with purpose so they could get out of their heavy street clothes and ready for the game.
Ten feet in front of the double doors that led to the locker room stood Irish head coach Knute Rockne speaking with a pair of newspaper columnists. He was in good spirits, smiling often, and looking sharp as always in a cream colored three-piece suit. The Coach topped off his game day attire with a matching Homburg hat and black silk hat band. Although the coach looked confident and relaxed in the pit of his stomach he worried incessantly about facing Army in just a few hours.
The same insecurities always came to the surface for the Coach on the day of a big game which was a big reason why he was such a perfectionist in practice---it removed as much doubt as possible. Just a couple games into his seventh season as the head coach at Notre Dame and his dream of a national title could be derailed before the sun set. It concerned Rockne but in moments like this he liked to remember how far he'd taken the program over the years and how much success he had against the men from West Point.
"This may be Army's best team, but this may be my best team as well," he reminded himself.
Taking over for Jesse Harper---whom Rockne played under as a student---the program's record was terrific in previous seasons but the roster depleted in 1918 thanks to the World War, and the Coach had to scramble to fill his first schedule at the last minute. No one wanted to play at tiny Cartier Field but Rockne was at least successful in lining up road games with Michigan State, Purdue, and Nebraska and going 2 for 3 against those bigger teams. The Coach even got the Aggies from Michigan State to visit South Bend in 1919 and Purdue the next year but still the home dates still remained largely tame. Over the 1919-20 seasons Rockne's men traveled to Nebraska twice more, competed against Indiana at Washington Park in Indianapolis twice, increased their exposure with a trip to Northwestern, and defeated Army twice all without suffering a single defeat. Notre Dame was getting noticed and respected as a growing power ever since their shocking defeat of Army back in 1913 but not enough respect to garner national championship recognition from major selectors in the Coach's second and third untarnished seasons.
In the 3 years since Rockne's teams lost 1 game each season---an upset at the hands of Iowa in '21, a crushing defeat at Nebraska to end '22, and another loss at Nebraska in '23. With those losses and the way his team was treated in Lincoln, the Coach rarely stopped thinking about paying Nebraska back. However, today was the opportunity to beat Army for the fifth time in 6 years and get the ball rolling on another impressive campaign. Rockne hadn't lost to Army yet and wasn't planning on doing so on this Saturday.
The Fighting Irish opened their 1924 season two weeks ago against Lombard College on a stifling hot South Bend afternoon. As was his emerging strategy Rockne started the second string "Shock Troops" for the game and gave the opponent from western Illinois some mild hope. After 5 minutes of play Rockne signaled in the starters and the demolition began. The opponent was completely unprepared for the speed and skill of the starting '24 backfield from Notre Dame---most of whom had played key roles on the '23 team but didn't play much as a one cohesive unit---and before long they had broken the Lombard quarterbacks collar bone with a crushing hit. These teams met the year prior in a 14-0 win for Notre Dame but the Irish proved their offense was much more explosive this time around. When the final whistle blew the route ended at 40-0.
Despite longing for top teams to visit his campus the Coach liked opening the season with 2 easy opponents and a week later Notre Dame welcomed Wabash from a couple hundred miles south in Crawfordsville, Indiana. The script was much the same as the opener as the Irish rolled to a 34-0 victory. The competition was weak, but the margin of victory was impressive and there was plenty of talk in South Bend and Chicago that this was the best Rockne team ever assembled---especially with the Coach's disciplined and speedy backfield. Still, Notre Dame made the 2-day trip to New York City once again as underdogs to a formidable Army team who had also opened their season with a pair of shutouts of Saint Louis and Detroit.
Even with that success against Army and the belief this was his best team yet the doubt still gnawed at Rockne. His squad still didn't get enough respect even after defeating both Army and Princeton---the latter win yet another dent in Eastern college football supremacy---the prior season. As the Coach continued talking to the columnists and the game drew closer his nerves slowly eased in preparation for his final speech to his team.
"So Knute you've got to be pretty concerned about the size of Army," the one reporter said.
"Yeah, or maybe with the lack of size of some of your offensive weapons," the other reporter added.
"I don't think so gentlemen," Rockne replied. "Speed plus brains is our formula. It's served us well against these tough Cadets wouldn't you say?"
The Coach's response got a chuckle out of the reporters both of whom were smitten with Rockne. Like many who dealt with Rockne's personality and talked to him regularly they marveled at how much confidence and presence he exuded. If the Coach was worried about the Cadets he sure didn't show it to the papermen. With these particular reporters here Rockne had even less to worry about.
The taller reporter was Walter Eckersall of the Chicago Tribune and the shorter one Harry Costello of the Detroit Free Press. Both men knew Rockne well, especially Eckersall, and lobbied hard to be in New York for this game. Not that their papers wouldn't have sent them anyway but these men were not merely reporters but also paid publicists who officiated football games. Rockne had successfully placed Eckersall as the linesman for the afternoon's game and after much complaining from Costello he was also able to make the Detroit reporter the umpire.
"I don't know Coach, the Army line has nearly 10 pounds on your starters and I don't know if I've seen a smaller backfield compete against a team of this caliber and come out victorious," Costello said.
"Sure the speedy players like Miller and Crowley are effective against Wabash but can they get it done against the best West Point has to offer?" Eckersall interjected.
"Well," Rockne said feigning worry on his face and readjusting his hat. "Let's just say that I feel good because I see my boys in practice and I know that they have a superb and intelligent coach."
A couple hours later and game time drew near. Inside the Notre Dame locker room the players sat in silence, some staring at the ground others biting their nails. Some were slumped over on the bench, others leaning back against the wall. In the middle of the room team captain Adam Walsh paced slowly back and forth. At 187 pounds the center was the largest member of the starting 11, his pants didn't flare out at the thighs as much as the other smaller players, and his dark blue team sweater offered a stark contrast to his perfectly combed blonde hair. The Hollywood native looked like a movie star but played with a maniacal intensity that made him the rock of Rockne's team. He played hard, he played clean, and Walsh would be in another physical battle with rival Army center and captain Edgar Garbisch for the second year in a row. As he paced the floor with quiet intensity he paid no attention to the cast wrapped on his left hand for a broken bone suffered earlier in the season.
As both teams sat in their locker rooms awaiting pre-game talks with their coaches the marching of the 1,400 Army cadets and cheering of 55,000 fans could be heard through the clubhouse and up the stone stairs where the players would enter the field in a short time. Army was familiar with The Polo Grounds having played the Naval Academy there several teams in recent years but never before had they performed in front of such a large crowd. The military men impressed the sold out crowd as they marched in perfect lines to the sounds of the Army band. Dotted along the overhang around the stadium upper-deck were American flag banners in the newly renovated Polo Grounds.
The original Polo Grounds stood down by 111th Street and was built for the "Sport of Kings" hence the name. Four years after being built in 1880 the New York Metropolitans converted the grounds into a baseball diamond and their owner used players from that team to create the New York Giants in 1883, joined the National League that year. For 3 seasons, before the Metro's moved to St. George's Cricket Grounds in Staten Island, the teams played on a split field sharing TPG I. In 1889 the government of New York was in the process of extending the street grid and cut down the fences at TPG to extend West 111th Street. After a legal battle the Giants played at 3 different stadiums in '89 before settling at Manhattan Field further north, later re-named The Polo Grounds II. The next season a New York Giants team entered the Players League and built Brotherhood Park right next to TPG II. The Players League folded after one season and the NL Giants decided to move to the larger Brotherhood Park, later re-named The Polo Grounds III.
This was the stadium where Notre Dame and Army met for battle on October 18, 1924. The original grandstands were destroyed by fire in 1911 but quickly rebuilt that summer. For 10 years from 1913-22 the American League baseball New York Yankees played at The Polo Grounds with the Giants, but the prior summer before Rock's men trotted out to face Army the Yankees had moved into their new home right across the East River in the Bronx. The new spacious Yankee Stadium dwarfed The Polo Grounds and was the impetus for renovating the Giants home---the expanded TPG III capacity was completed earlier in 1924 and hosted the World Series just a couple weeks prior to the Irish visit.
Back inside the stadium the Cadets' marching came to a close and the gray uniformed men filed into the stands. A few minutes later the Army players came running out from the center field doors to loud cheers followed by the Notre Dame players and even louder cheers. Notre Dame poured 6 full teams of players onto the field and immediately burst into beautifully coordinated drill work as Rockne knelt on the sidelines barking out instructions and motivating players. The pre-game work by the Fighting Irish positively delighted the crowd as they were given a glimpse into the flurry of movement and orchestrated plays the team would run during the game.
Among the sold out crowd were some of America's most famous citizens. Down the Army sideline walked Secretary of War John W. Weeks with Major General Robert Lee Bullard, an assortment of prominent officers, and Dr. Hugo Eckener the manager of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin company. Across the field Notre Dame's cheer leader Eddie Luther strained his vocal chords with the team mascot, an Irish terrier named Clashmore Mike, barking away. Among the crowd sat numerous movie and stage stars, as well as the well-known members of Tammany Hall. Up in the press box sat some of the country's top writers with Notre Dame student publicist George Strickler nearby picking up on the conversations to report back to Coach Rockne.
The crowd reached a fever pitch as the ball was kicked off and Army took possession. Battling Rockne's Shock Troops the Cadets gained 3 first downs but were forced to punt after a stand by the Irish second team. For nearly all of the first quarter the teams gained little ground in a defensive battle punting the ball back and forth. Shortly before the second quarter began Rockne rose from his seat on the bench.
"First team, you're up!" he yelled taking his right hand out of his coat pocket and pointing to the field.
In a scene that would be replicated in a handful of other stadiums for the rest of the season the crowd let out a roar seeing Rockne's Rockets coming off the bench. They would not disappoint. Out came the soon-to-be famous backfield consisting of quarterback Harry Stuhldreher from Massilion, Ohio, halfback James "Sleepy" Crowley from Green Bay, Wisconsin, halfback Don Miller from Defiance, Ohio, and fullback Elmer Layden from Davenport, Iowa.
On the first snap Miller took the ball down the left edge of the Army for 8 yards and the Notre Dame attack was off to the races. Expecting the Irish to throw the ball a lot the Cadets were thrown off-balance when Notre Dame's coordinated motion backfield continually gashed them for big gains on the ground. Opponents complained about the pre-snap movements of Irish---and it would be years until the so-called "Notre Dame shift" became illegal---and Rockne's backfield ran it to perfection with tough blocking up front by the nimble 7 linemen. Before anyone could blink an eye the Irish had advanced the ball deep into Army territory and Layden rumbled up the middle for a 7-yard touchdown.
Army hit a brick wall for the remainder of the 1st half when they tried to move the ball, but the Irish continued to speed by the Cadets on offense. Miller and Crowley attacked the edge with success, Layden pounded the ball up the middle, and Stuhldreher distributed the ball in all the right places. Army refused to surrender anymore points before the break but once the Notre Dame first team hit the field there was no doubt who the best team on the field was. The Irish turned the ball over on downs deep in Army territory and lost a fumble just past midfield on another drive but when the halftime whistle blew Notre Dame's Wonder Team had gained 8 first downs in the second quarter to zero for Army.
Up in the press box George Strickler stood next to a group of journalists discussing the 6-0 Notre Dame lead that felt like a 24-0 lead following the daring and extraordinary second quarter brought upon once the top Irish players took the field.
"My goodness what a display!" said Davis Walsh the sports editor for the International News Service. "I've never seen such speed and coordination from a team."
"It's like they've been playing together for 10 years," remarked Damon Runyon of the New York American.
"Army must contain this attack in the second half or I'm afraid this may turn ugly for Coach McEwan," said Grantland Rice the syndicated columnist on assignment for the New York Herald Tribune.
"This is not the same Army team I saw last week against Detroit," Walsh said. "The Catholics have completely thrown them off their game."
"I've never seen the Cadets so flustered," chimed in Jack Kofoed from the Evening Post.
"We're you expecting this Strickler?" Runyon asked turning to George knowing he was Rockne's ears and eyes.
"I know their first 2 opponents were nothing but a speck of dirt compared to Army but if you'd seen us play before today you'd know we have something special," George replied.
"Indeed," Runyon said taking a drag of a stubby cigar and blowing the smoke down the corridor leading to the press box where they stood.
"How do you explain such a frightening backfield?" Rice asked.
George looked back toward the field and thought back to the movie he'd watched for the fifth time back on campus before the team left for New York on Thursday. "It's like they're the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," he said.
"It looks like Rockne is headed for another successful Eastern trip if things keep up in the second half," Rice said.
"Indeed," Runyon said again driving his cigar into the glass ash tray on the counter next to him. Most of the fans had made it back to their seats and the teams were about to come back out for the second half so the group of reporters broke up and made their way to their respective tables. George took his place behind Runyon standing with his right leg propped up on an empty chair ready to hear any chatter between the columnists.
When Army kicked the ball of to Notre Dame to start the second half the Irish picked up right where they left off. Lining up quickly and shifting to the left and right the Notre Dame backfield continued picking up big chunks of yardage. The Cadets were saved by a missed Irish field goal and another stalled Notre Dame drive deep in Army territory but they simply couldn't make any good adjustments. Worse still, All-American linemen Ed Garbisch and August Farwick were unable to open holes for the speedy Penn State transfer Harry "Light Horse" Wilson and the Army offense was being met with stiff resistance by Walsh, Noble Kizer, John Weibel, and the rest of the prideful Irish line. At one point Army attempted a rare pass but the Irish captain leaped into the air and knocked the pass down. When he fell to the ground he landed awkwardly, breaking his other hand. Walsh would stay in the game.
Shortly before the third quarter came to an end "Sleepy Jim" Crowley would thrust the dagger in the Cadet's heart. Sweeping from his left halfback position he took a pitch from Stuhldreher just inside his own 35-yard line and swung out to the right edge of Army's defense. Running out of room by the sideline Crowley somehow shook off a tackle around his head, spun around, dodged another tackle at his knees and continued down field. Pinned in near the sideline a great block by Layden allowed Crowley to cut back inside as the crowd rose to their feet in awe. A short sprint later and Crowley crossed the end zone for the 63-yard touchdown. After a successful point after Notre Dame enjoyed a seemingly insurmountable 13-0 lead.
In the fourth quarter Army finally adjusted to Notre Dame's attack and got something going on offense behind the elusive Wilson scoring a touchdown on a short run with a couple minutes left following a Notre Dame turnover, but it was too little too late. As the game came to a close the New York skies were overcast and both teams near exhaustion. The final whistle blew in the middle of a Notre Dame drive and the Irish added a 13-7 win to their season total.
Following the game the praise for Army's effort was effusive and it would turn out to be the lone loss on the season for a team that had national championship aspirations. Yet, as much respect as the Cadet's received the acclaim for Notre Dame burst on to the pages of newspapers all over the country, and especially throughout New York City.
Later that night there was a festive atmosphere in New York as the team stayed in Manhattan overnight prior to leaving for Indiana in the morning. Tagging along with the team after watching a movie George Strickler ambled slowly back to the Belmont Hotel where the team was staying and talking to Joe Rigali one of the backup linemen. Walking down 41st Street and turning north up Park Avenue the team walked proudly in the New York street light. Approaching the hotel George saw the bulk of the team crowded around a newspaper stand on the corner.
"Hoo, boy look at that!" one of the players yelled.
"Not too shabby Donny looks like you've finally arrived!" another player cried teasing Don Miller and knocking his hat off his head.
Intrigued, George jogged towards the group and made his away around the back of the newsstand away from the swarm of players. Coming up behind a pair of players they laughed manically, shoved a newspaper in Strickler's chest, and took off for the hotel lobby. George unfolded the paper and turned it over to read.
"Notre Dame Triumphant over Army," the headline of the New York Herald Tribune read. Moving his eyes lower George saw the article was written by Grantland Rice and then he felt a shot of electricity crawl up his spine.
"Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again."