Ian Book has been cleared to practice, Notre Dame Insider Mike Berardino relays, and why FSU win might not be the ‘final chapter’ for Brandon Wimbush
Mike Berardino, IndyStar
SOUTH BEND – No one is quite sure who should get credit for the concept of Notre Dame’s Subway Alumni, a term used to describe football super fans who hold no official affiliation with the landlocked university in northern Indiana.
“Oh, it’s real,” Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly says. “Those that love Notre Dame and have never been here.”
It might be an alumnus named Joe Byrne, who as early as 1915 reputedly started organizing train trips from New York City up to West Point, N.Y., so rabid fans could cheer on the Midwestern upstarts as they took on mighty Army.
Perhaps more credit should go to Knute Rockne, the legendary football coach from 1918-30 who intuitively recognized the exponential benefits of boarding trains each fall and bringing his rising power to the media capital of the world.
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Later, such figures as Francis Wallace, another Notre Dame alumnus who would become sports editor of the New York Daily News, would whip readers into a frenzy with a steady stream of copy on either side of the annual showdown with the Cadets, aka the Black Knights of the Hudson.
It was Wallace, most historians agree, who popularized the phrase “Fighting Irish” during those depression-era trips to the Big Apple. Once the Notre Dame-Army game moved to Yankee Stadium, where it was played without interruption from 1925-46, fans would pack the No. 4 train on crisp fall Saturdays for the short ride up to the Bronx.
As the third-ranked Irish prepare to face No. 12 Syracuse on Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, a Shamrock Series meeting that was originally scheduled for Notre Dame Stadium, there is no denying the historical significance of an Irish visit to the New York Metropolitan Area.
“When we talk about Subway Alums, your first thought is New York City, New Jersey,” Kelly says. “But it’s everywhere, obviously.”
The tradition continues to this day with regular watch parties at the Public House in midtown Manhattan, where a season-high 367 Irish fans watched the win over Stanford on Sept. 29 as part of the Notre Dame Club of New York City.
“People are packed like sardines in there,” says Kelly McKenna, president of the NDNY club, which celebrated its centennial in 2016. “It’s still very vibrant.”
Total reach for the club is more than 8,000, with 720 dues-paying members currently paying at least $35 a year for benefits that aren’t limited to those with degrees from Notre Dame. Those dues help fund an annual scholarship program and community initiatives in the New York area, but it’s on football Saturdays when things really take off.
Public House provides a disc jockey and outfits all wait staff in Notre Dame gear.
“We don’t have a band but when in town, the Notre Dame band has made appearances,” says McKenna, a 2010 Notre Dame graduate who works as a consultant for IBM. “We hear the fight song at every commercial break that there is.”
Brian Kelly makes an annual speaking appearance in the New York area, and perhaps the most popular is at the Notre Dame Club of Staten Island.
“I remember doing it there a few years back,” Kelly says. “We were doing a poll: Raise your hand, how many Notre Dame graduates are in the room? There were 250, maybe 300 (in attendance), and I think there were a half dozen Notre Dame grads in the room.”
He shakes his head and smiles.
“It just goes to show the support for the university and for the values of Notre Dame,” Kelly says. “Especially in places like Staten Island, New York City, Jersey City and all the areas that have been staunch supporters.”
Adds McKenna: “Staten Island has an incredible Subway Alumni presence. When you’re talking about people that are go-getters and really hard workers and passionate, it’s Staten Island.”
That tradition of Subway Alumni has paid off handsomely over the years when it comes to football recruiting. Backup quarterback Brandon Wimbush is one of four current Irish players from St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City.
He’s joined by a trio of freshmen on the defensive side: linebacker Shayne Simon and the Ademilola twins, Jayson and Justin.
There’s also senior linebacker Devyn Spruell from Warren, N.J. In addition, a pair of four-star commitments from the 2019 recruiting class, defensive end Howard Cross (Montvale) and offensive tackle John Olmstead (Metuchen), hail from the Garden State.
“Pretty good football in that area as well,” Kelly says. “So, it helps us in recruiting too.”
Perhaps the most famous photo in college football history owes it inspiration to a Notre Dame football visit to the old Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan, just across the Hudson River from Yankee Stadium.
None of Notre Dame’s famed Four Horsemen were from the New York area – Harry Stuhldreher and Don Miller were from Ohio, while Jim Crowley (Wisconsin) and future Irish coach Elmer Layden (Iowa) were Midwestern kids as well – but that didn’t keep Grantland Rice, the famed sports columnist of the New York Herald Tribune, from immortalizing them on Oct. 18, 1924.
All it took was the most famous lead paragraph in sportswriting history:
“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence, and Famine. But those are aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice … “
That 13-7 upset victory sent the Irish on their way to an eventual Rose Bowl win over Stanford and the first of their 11 national championships.
George Strickler, then a Notre Dame sophomore serving as Rockne’s publicity aide in the days before sports information departments, not only coined the “Four Horsemen” phrase that Rice, uh, borrowed, he added the stroke of genius to pose the four football-toting players on horseback upon their return to campus.
That photo soon went viral, at least in the context of the day.
Strickler, who went on to become the NFL’s first publicity director and later served as sports editor at the Chicago Tribune, made an offhand comment at halftime of the Army game while chatting with Rice, Damon Runyon and two other writers.
Three days earlier, at Washington Hall on the Notre Dame campus, Strickler had, for perhaps the seventh time, watched Rudolph Valentino in “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” an epic silent war film. When talk turned to Notre Dame’s backfield, Strickler reputedly volunteered, “Yeah, just like the Four Horsemen.”
In a later interview, Strickler would claim Rice acknowledged first hearing the “Four Horsemen” line from the young intern. That conversation, according to Strickler, took place at the Oliver Hotel in South Bend before a 1952 game against Oklahoma.
Rice died in July 1954.
“If that game doesn’t happen in New York – if it happens in South Bend or someplace in the Midwest – maybe nobody pays much attention to that,” says John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at Notre Dame and formerly the school’s sports information director for 16 years. “Certainly the New York part of it is where the phrase (Subway Alumni) came from, with the idea that, ‘Hey, people jump on the subway …’ to go watch Notre Dame football.
The following year, the Army-Notre Dame game was moved to Yankee Stadium with the visitors receiving a $60,000 guarantee for their trouble. It was a whopping sum, even in the Roaring Twenties and amid the Golden Age of Sport.
All of it could be traced back to 1913, Rockne’s senior season on coach Jesse Harper’s final team. The Irish, traveling widely for the first time in program history, survived a November gauntlet with wins at Army, Penn State and Texas.
Five years later, when Rockne took over as Notre Dame’s coach, he didn’t have to be convinced of the value of playing in New York. The 1921 game against Rutgers (a 48-0 win) was moved to the Polo Grounds, just four days after Notre Dame thumped Army 28-0 at West Point.
When the Irish returned home to defeat Haskell 42-7, it meant they had won three times in a span of eight days by a cumulative 118-7.
“I don’t know how you do that physically,” Heisler says.
By 1923, the Army-Notre Dame game having outgrown tiny Cullum Field in West Point, was played at Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Notre Dame also played in 1923-24 at Princeton, a short ride from Manhattan.
“Give Rockne credit for his marketing genius,” Heisler says. “It helped they were good football teams, but it also helped they were coming to New York back when there were (a dozen) newspapers in New York. Rockne was smart enough to understand that was going to help his football team go from being this place in the Midwest to something bigger than that on a national stage.”
Aside from a 1949 meeting with North Carolina, Notre Dame would visit Yankee Stadium infrequently over the ensuing decades.
The Irish would close out a 2-7 season there in 1963 with a 14-7 loss to Syracuse. It would be the final game under Hugh Devore before Ara Parseghian was hired away from Northwestern.
Notre Dame played Army at Shea Stadium in 1965 and again at Yankee Stadium in 1969 but that would be the last trip to the Bronx for the Irish until 2010, Kelly’s first year.
A 2013 win over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl took place there as well, and along the way there were 13 visits to the Meadowlands (both Giants and MetLife stadiums) in northern New Jersey. Opponents included Syracuse, Virginia, Army and Navy.
While Notre Dame visits to the New York Metropolitan Area are no longer an annual event, the Subway Alumni concept lives on.
“These game watches at Public House are our best venue and our best channel to reach these fans that are truly engaged and truly want to be part of the Notre Dame culture and the Notre Dame fan base officially,” McKenna says. “Although it may not be as prevalent as it was back at the turn of the 20th century with Babe Ruth and everything else, people are still passionate here and they still want to be part of the tradition that goes along with Notre Dame.”
In addition to a longstanding Irish-Catholic background, the New York area has other traits that have made it a natural stronghold for the little school from South Bend.
“New York City was started by a bunch of immigrants,” McKenna says. “If you’re moving away from your home and your original culture, you need something to cheer for and hang on to. I think the Notre Dame culture honestly represents a lot of that and I think that resonates with the New York fanbase. I do think we’re different. We are the Fighting Irish.”