Nov 22, 2013, 11:03 AM EDT
John Heisler is in his 36th year as a member of the Notre Dame athletic staff – including 16 years as sports information director at Notre Dame after spending 10 previous years as a member of the sports publicity staff. He added the title of assistant athletics director in 1995, and then was named an associate athletics director in 2001. Heisler was promoted to his current position as senior associate athletics director in October 2004. For each Notre Dame football game he pens a one-page article on the game. Here are his thoughts on the BYU – Notre Dame football game…
This afternoon University of Notre Dame football fans celebrate the final Notre Dame Stadium appearance of a senior class led by captains Bennett Jackson, TJ Jones and Zack Martin as they close out Irish careers that already have wracked up 35 victories over the last four seasons.
With a road test at Stanford and presumably a postseason bowl game remaining, that’s the best four-year win total by a graduating class since 1992-95 (36 victories).
Exactly 50 years ago today, none of those football details mattered.
The Irish were slated to take on Iowa on Nov. 23, 1963. It was late in a mostly forgettable football campaign that had produced only two victories, a low total reached only one time in the previous 70 seasons. The Hawkeyes were not faring much better, playing at a 3-3-2 rate.
The day before the game the Notre Dame team practiced on Cartier Field before its planned flight to Cedar Rapids, on the way to Iowa City.
“We were at practice and we all noticed a lot of commotion when some people came out and talked to Coach (Hugh Devore). He called us together and told us the President (John F. Kennedy) had been shot.
“We all felt like someone had kicked us in the gut. I couldn’t breathe. This is America. How can this happen.
“We walked off the field, half of us crying, at a very slow pace. We headed to the locker room, we got together and said a prayer for our president and then wondered off into the night.”
The mood now eerily flipped, the team headed to the South Bend airport for its late afternoon flight. By the time the Irish traveling party landed, the news was official. Kennedy was dead. Suddenly football didn’t seem to mean much.
Officials from the two schools discussed the fate of the game the next day. Later in the evening Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State released a joint statement announcing that their games would be played.
Notre Dame players were awakened in their motel rooms after midnight, informing them the game versus Iowa would not be played. By morning, the other Big Ten schools had reversed their field and followed suit.
Back on campus, Notre Dame freshman Mike Collins, now the public-address announcer for Irish games at Notre Dame Stadium, remembers the mood: “Given what had taken place, the overwhelming sentiment seemed that no one really cared whether the game would be played. We were in a daze, did not understand it. Several students in the hall who had tickets had already made up their minds not to go.
“We spent the entire weekend in two places, either at Sacred Heart or in front of the lone hall TV to watch the coverage. It is unlikely that a college dorm ever was or ever has been so quiet. We thought Notre Dame and Iowa made a very good decision.”
(Ironically, Kennedy had been in Iowa City four years earlier to see the Irish defeat Iowa 20-19.)
In Iowa City, the Irish football team still attended its scheduled pre-game Mass celebrated by University executive president Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., at a tiny local chapel. The players and coaches ascended two flights of stairs to reach the church, and as they came down those steps after the service a wire-service photographer snapped a photo that ran in many of the nation’s newspapers the next day.
The South Bend Tribune ran a photo of the traveling party standing in front of its United charter after the group returned to South Bend early that Saturday afternoon.
“This football game is really pretty insignificant compared to what happened yesterday,” said Irish coach Hugh Devore.
The game was not rescheduled—with Iowa’s season over and Notre Dame slated to play Syracuse on Thanksgiving Day in Yankee Stadium.
Wrote Joe Doyle in the Tribune on Monday, “Receipts for the game would have meant almost $100,000 for each school, but money at the moment meant little. It was a time for reflection in the world and for asking yourself in sports, ‘what is important?’”
A single copy of the official printed game program (54 pages with a 50 cents price tag) remains in the now-yellowed game folder in the Notre Dame media relations files. A college football historical Web site suggests that nearly all the copies were quickly destroyed and that originals are “among the scarcest artifacts in Irish gridiron history.”
The annual game-by-game football review published by the Notre Dame Scholastic included a single page devoted to the game that wasn’t played. In the center, surrounded by black, was a Wide World photo of Kennedy throwing out the first ball at a Major League Baseball game. Beneath the image were these words: “That Notre Dame chose not to play Iowa in football is a small but significant tribute to a man who loved sports, the late President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. May he rest in peace.”
As the first Catholic president, Kennedy was anything but an unfamiliar name on the Notre Dame campus. Kennedy at age 32 in 1950 had delivered the January commencement address. In 1961 the University awarded him its prestigious Laetare Medal, presented since 1883 to a noted Catholic layperson.
As the Irish battle BYU today, you’ll likely experience the gamut of emotions as you view seniors, for the final time in this venue, running out of the tunnel.
There will be plenty of plays worth your applause, thrown in with a spare incomplete pass or missed tackle here or there.
There will be cheers and, at least for the seniors, some sense of achievement and maybe a hint of sadness as they walk out of Notre Dame Stadium for the very last time.
It’s worth noting that sometimes the perspective is completely different.
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