Tom O'Toole
Rudy, the Gipper, and the Hesburgh Heresy: reflections on the (immortal) soul
By Tom O'Toole
March 4, 2015

    Dear Thomas: I really enjoyed reading your Scholastic article on the Michigan State well written it could have made the New Yorker, which isn't easy. Best congratulations. -from a letter Fr. Hesburgh sent to me when I was a senior at Notre Dame

    I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys – tell them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock. But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy. -George Gipp's last words to Knute Rockne

    May you live one hundred years, with one extra one to repent. -Old Irish proverb

With the Notre Dame deaths of the last few days still heavy on my mind, I viewed the plaque to the left this morning, and was almost instantly shaken with the fear that the soul of Father Theodore Hesburgh (who lived to be "only" 97 without publicly repenting of the "Land O'Lakes" statement) was in deep trouble. Then, after viewing the Gipper speech (while watching the movie Rudy) I gradually began to feel a glimmer of hope. Finally, when the memory of the kind letter Father sent me came to mind, I knew my course of action.

When I now recall Fr. Hesburgh, or as Michael Voris correctly calls him, "the single man at whose feet can be laid the destruction of Catholic education in America," I picture him as sort of a fallen-away Catholic version of Dr. Frankenstein, trying to create the perfect theologian for his new Church of Nice. Hesburgh thought he had created it with Fr. Richard McBrien, but sadly McBrien proved, like several other versions, still a little rough around the edges. But then he created Fr. John Jenkins, a priest who appeared nice even when lying through his teeth, and finally Fr. Hesburgh could rest in peace – or so he thought.

On the one hand, while the now dead Fr. Ted is being (almost) universally celebrated, the fact that George Gipp's legacy is being pushed to the background of Irish lore is not a coincidence. A star player who often skipped practice and hardly ever attended class, Gipp spent most of his spare time gambling, as his other famous but less publicized quote to Rockne, "Look Rock, I've got $400 bet on this game and I'm not about to blow it," seems to imply. In other words, Gipp is the exact opposite of what the modern ND student-athlete is supposed to be. But unlike Hesburgh and his creations, the understated deathbed convert Gipp (who reportedly gave much of his winnings to needy South Bend widows) had much concern for the salvation of his mortal soul ("I don't know where I'll be then...") and his humbled insight of his need for others, even after his death, gives hope even to the likes of Hesburgh, if not especially for him...

Make no mistake; when Voris called the lyin' McBrien and the heretical Hesburgh two "unfaithful priests hell bent on re-shaping Catholicism after their own ideas – raping the bride of Christ," he was only telling the half of it. After the rape, their theology helped slaughter thousands of would-be Domers, who due to the Hesburgh Heresy, never had a chance to go forth from their mother's womb, let alone set foot on Notre Dame's beautiful campus. Yet unlike his creations McBrien and Jenkins, and more like the rogue Gipp, Hesburgh did perform countless gifts of kindness toward strong Catholic Notre Dame teachers like Ralph McInerny and Charles Rice, not to mention would-be Catholic writers like me. Certainly, these acts alone won't save Hesburgh – but the prayers of those faithful Catholics to whom he was "nice" to might.

As my wife, Jeanette, a convert from Lutheranism, once stated, "[e]ven if Martin Luther escaped hell, he would have to spend an eternity in purgatory, since he told his followers it didn't exist and therefore they would never pray for him to get to heaven." Similarly, modernist friends of Hesburgh, who for all practical purposes don't believe in hell, let alone purgatory, feel little need to pray for his soul either. But I daresay if my experience the last few days is in any way inspired, those faithful Catholics who did see the good side of Father Ted while he was alive are praying like crazy for him now that he is gone, for we, along with his faithful departed friends like Rice (who no doubt did some 11th hour negotiating for Hesburgh) are the only friends he now has left. And as long as there is still even a sliver of hope, it is our duty to come to his aid, to fight for his soul even though he betrayed the University he led and the school we loved – and still love...

As a witness to that hope, I am re-running the story that Hesburgh (and many faithful Catholics too!) liked, "Reflections on the Game." Winner of The Indiana Collegiate Press Association Award for best sports column of 1980-81, I reflect on how much times have changed – but also how much things stay the same. Note that this story won against secular schools like Indiana University and Purdue – schools who would now no doubt consider such blatant statements of Faith to be hate speech. Similarly, Notre Dame would probably also now reject it as simplistic sentimentalism – preferring to enter a story of a student who watched the game on his iPod while hooking up a remote village in Tibet to the Internet instead. But far from just nostalgic pieces, stories like "Reflections" or "Rudy" will always remain popular, for even non-Catholics (or "nice" Catholics like Hesburgh) sense the need for Hope, and the quest for something real and eternal to place their hope in.

Reflections on the Game

by Tom O'Toole

Well, it happened again. This time the woe fell upon Bo and his Wolverines, and the doom was dealt by the terrible toe of our Harry Oliver. But the situation was nothing new. But why, one may ask, do the Irish win so many close encounters of the turf kind? Indeed, why Notre Dame? Why Our Lady? Why, OUR LADY! Of course! The answer's in the question.

The first inexplicable factor behind the Fighting Irish's fantastic success is, of course, the fans themselves. Yet, as I watched them milling around the gates before the Michigan game, it almost seemed as if there were too many for the team's own good. True, the gaudy green-suited alumni whose greenbacks keep this place in business all have their tickets way in advance, but many of the common faithful flock here with no way of getting into the stadium, except on a whim and a prayer.

"The Pope can't help me, but maybe you can," proclaims one sign. "I need six tickets," it challenges, as it waves in front of the "All ticket peddlers will be prosecuted" sign at Gate 14. As I walk through the midst of the stalkers and scalpers, I see off in a corner an old man sitting on a parking block, his head in his hands. He is crying. As I approach him to see if there is any comfort I can lend, I see a sign by his side, "I desperately need 20 tickets," it reads. I turn away; no further explanation is needed.

But as I turn back, a more familiar sight strikes me, and it is infinitely more painful than the last. It is my folks. It is almost inevitable that my dad will come down for every home game, and he inveterately will have tickets for none of them. As I trudge toward him, I am aware of the futility of the forthcoming conversation, but after four years, I feel it is my duty.

"Hi, Dad. Bring any tickets this time?"

"Nope. But we'll find some," he promises proudly.

"Dad, tickets are going for fifty bucks apiece!"

"Well, we're not going to pay that much."

"But look at all the people walking around who need 'em!"

"Don't worry, Tom. We'll get some. I've done it this way for 25 years and haven't failed once."

It was no use. Domer alumni just have too much faith to face the facts. So I waved good-bye to Mom and Dad and my little brothers and sisters, and went in to claim my safely established seat.

Of course, a SEAT, per se, is a hypothetical concept in Notre Dame Stadium, at least in the student section. For even if you can get to your allotted two-foot block of bench, the only thing you'll be able to use it for is to stand three feet above the concrete. Now, there is no rule against sitting, and it is really a rather nice thing to do, if you like to look at legs. But if your goal is to see the game, about the only time you'll get to rest your toes is at halftime.

By halftime at this particular game, we had squandered a two-touchdown lead, as Michigan tied us and then passed us in the third quarter. But after Krimm picked off a pass and proceeded 49 yards to pay dirt, it looked as if we were going to even the score, only to have some chump named Oliver blow the P.A.T. The crowd's comments were predictable.

"That a – h – !"

"That point's gonna cost us!"

But the throng was finally calmed when, with but three minutes left, "Concrete" Phil Carter cracked over from the four, and we went ahead by five. Bo's boys had put up a good fight, but we had prevailed. Until an excellent return, an unexpected draw play, and a deflected touchdown pass deflated our dreams, and all but destroyed our team's hopes. As I looked down at the referee declaring our demise with outstretched hands, four men in identical T-shirts passed in front of him and then turned our way. The shirts had writing on them, and aided by binoculars, their simple, prophetic message became clear; "Never Doubt."

And yet, despite an interesting 30-yard interference call on Kiel's "alley oop" pass to Tony Hunter, and two short "quicky" completions, faces in the crowd still read, "too little, too late." For with four seconds and 34 yards to go, a 51-yard field goal loomed as our only hope. But as we looked up at the flags and realized the 20-mph gust that was making them flap, all hope was gone. With that wind, there was no way.

"What should I do?" pondered Harry Oliver at that point, quite new to this type of situation. Never before had he kicked a field goal of more than 38 yards in his life.

Kick the hell out of it," answered the practical Mr. Crable, "and kick it straight."

They lined up, and all was calm. The wind stopped, the blocking held, and the foot connected. "I knew I hit it good," Harry would say later, "but I didn't know if it was that good." It was that good. The ball fell through, and the place fell apart.

People were still floating on air when I met my family after the game.

"Did you get seats?" I inquired more anxiously than usual.

"Sure did," said Dad, the afterglow of the victory still very apparent in his smile. "Right after you left. Some guy with extra tickets walked right up and gave them to me."

"How much?" I grimaced, prepared for the worst.

"He gave them to us," he repeated. "Took one look at little Danny sittin' on top of my shoulders and said, 'Here. Take these tickets. I want the kid to see the game.' After that I knew something was going to happen."

Meanwhile, I found out my sister Kathy had devised her own plan. Persuading a young vendor to lend her his programs, she snuck in with a bunch of the other vendors when the guard wasn't checking so closely. But while her accomplice was having a hard time convincing the gate keeper that he was legit, my sister passed the time by selling his programs for him. She had already sold two by the time he got in and came to reclaim them. "So I made four bucks getting into the game!" she exclaimed deviously.

Soon afterward, we met up with members of the Taylor family. My dad had been a Domer with Hobie (or Mr. Taylor for the unacquainted), and our families now live in the same town, so we knew each other well.

"Some game!" Mom greeted them. "I still don't believe it!"

"Only nonbelievers don't believe," countered Hobie. "And we just saw 20,000 Michigan fans heading toward the Grotto. You can bet they're believers now. Hey! Look what Fitzgerald gave me."

"What is it?" asked Dad, as his friend pulled out a little plastic bag with something green inside.

"It's turf," he told us. "Fitz went down on the field after the game and dug up a square from the spot where Harry kicked the ball. He has turf from all the important games. Still has a patch from the '77 Southern Cal game growing in his backyard." Michael Molinelli, take note.

Although that all was only my observation of the game, other chroniclers were pretty much in agreement about the outcome. Though the Detroit Free Press admitted only a "near miracle kick" in "one of the greatest games in recent college history," the Michigan student paper was more adamant. "Michigan 27, Notre Dame 26, God 3 its headlines stated as the obvious fact. Bill Jauss of the Chicago Tribune said we "used a script too fictional even for the Gipper or Rockne," while Dan Devine, who has been known to repeat himself on certain calls, called it "the all time, all time, all time moment." Finally Father Ted, who is always the last word on such theological debates, simply called it, "a whole new chapter in an ongoing tradition." The tradition he was referring to was doing the impossible. Or as Harry Oliver would say, "not giving up."

But what does Harry have to say about all of this? Two weeks after the big event, the author of the latest chapter of Irish grid lore is still shaking his head. "I still can't comprehend the magnitude of that kick," he says softly. "It didn't seem like it was something that important at the time. But everyone keeps telling me differently."

Harry's story is not that of the average football hero, except perhaps at Notre Dame, where it fits in rather nicely. Harry hated football when he was young. He preferred basketball. When he tried out as a cornerback freshman year at Moeller High, it was solely because of peer pressure, and he was cut as being "too small." Then in a sophomore year soccer game his kicking ability was noticed by head football coach, Faust, not unlike Rockne's accidental discovery of Gipp, who was booting drop kicks at the time. Like the "Rock," Coach Faust was also successful in his recruiting, and Oliver came out as a placekicker his junior year. He was still only second string but the number-one man, who happened to be Junior Nabor (now a star at Stanford), helped Harry immensely. So, by his senior year, Oliver was ready.

That year, he performed well enough to catch Devine's eyes, and along with such Moeller greats as Koegel, Condeni, Crable and Hunter, Oliver came to Notre Dame. Then, after two years behind the likes of Joe Unis and Chuck Male, Harry felt that he was again ready, only to come out of spring sessions second to Mike Johnston. Even though he was extremely discouraged, he didn't quit. Instead, he kept working, and waited for a chance to redeem himself. Which, in a nutshell, is exactly what happened to Harry in the Michigan game.

Though a quiet soul six days out of the week, Harry will tell you he's as emotional as anybody the day of the game. And yet, despite his tremendous emotional intensity, Oliver, whose 37 of 39 set an Ohio high school record for extra point percentage, admits it was a simple lapse of concentration which made him miss one against Michigan and which almost cost us a game. But again, he prayed for a chance to prove himself, and miraculously, it came. Miraculously, too, in more ways than one.

"I didn't notice at the time that the wind had stopped, but so many people have told me so it must be true. I COULDN'T have kicked it that far against the wind," he confessed.

The secret of his success is much simpler. It's his faith. He prays constantly. He attends Mass daily. He visited the Grotto before the game, after the game, and probably would have snuck out at halftime had it not been for the gospel music the band played that day. And he says his Rosary always. Our Lady is truly his first love.

Yet, it would be hard for us to believe that all the hoopla has not changed his ways a little. "Well, a lot of girls call me up now," he concedes, "and I get a lot more letters." He received over 40 letters last week from all over the country, not to mention one from an alumnus in Argentina. (Father Ted would be pleased about that one.)

People who do not know him can't help view him differently. But Coach Devine's comment, "Harry's a heck of a nice kid; he was even before he kicked it," sums up the "change" perfectly. His teammates now playfully ask if they can kiss his left toe, and Harry recalls that the Monday after the game, just as he was coming out for practice, the sky turned from blue to grey to green. Immediately a storm which was to uproot trees and drench the campus fell upon them. "Gee, Harry, if you wanted the day off, why didn't you just say so!" they kidded him.

And yet, they are only half kidding. The kick has boosted his confidence, but has not shaken his foundation. When asked why he thought the Irish came away with so many last second wins, he looked around for awhile as if to think up some highly technical explanation, but finally just shook his head and shrugged.

"It has to be Divine Intervention," he said.

"That's spelled D-I-v-i-n-e, right?"

He laughed. "Yes, but it was Coach himself who said we owe this victory to one lady, OUR Lady."

"It's like the prayer goes, 'now and at the hour of our death,'" Harry continued. "And after that touchdown I thought we were pretty dead. Everyone did. But I also had the feeling something would happen."

"After the kick, do you think Coach will let you kick off?" I asked while leaving.

"Oh, Harry's above that," his roommate cut in.

"Yeah, he'd get creamed," offered another.

Nevertheless, Our Lady helped us again. And this time, Harry Oliver just happened to be Her instrument.

© Tom O'Toole


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Tom O'Toole

Thomas Augustine O'Toole was born in Chicago and grew up in a devout Catholic family with five brothers and two sisters. He was the sports editor of Notre Dame's Scholastic magazine, where his story "Reflections on the Game" won the award for Best Sports Feature for the Indiana Collegiate Press Association... (more)


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