About This Issue
The Mystique of Notre Dame Football
“Catholics who still felt like outsiders in American society, welcomed the regularity with which that small Midwestern school walloped the strongholds of the social elite.”
The Story of Catholics in America
Historians and scholars from other disciplines too, have been increasingly attentive to the popular culture as they try to understand the American Catholic experience, not just form the “top down” but also from the “bottom up” through what’s generally called “people history.” So it is that Notre Dame football has become an almost regular element in the study of American Catholicism.
Mark D. Massa’s Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Sheen , Dorothy Day and the Notre Dame Football Team brings the topic right in to the book’s title. In a key passage, Massa states: “Notre Dame’s ‘athletic tradition’ (as coaches and administrators in South Bend like to phrase it emerged in the era of rabid anti-Catholicism, so that the national prominence of Knute Rockne’s teams from an obscure and penurious Catholic school in one of the most Protestant states in the Union become a source of both price and group esteem for millions of American Catholics who never set foot on the campus.” And, of course, you didn’t have to be Irish to relish those victories. To cite but one timely example, Catholics from southern and eastern European backgrounds were particular targets of discrimination and discriminatory immigration laws. If your name ended in a vowel, the welcome mat was not for you!
Notre Dame football, especially under the guiding genius of Knute Rockne, was in one sense a defiant response to all of this. The fullest and most painstakingly accurate telling is founding Robert E. Burns’ Being Catholic, Being American: The Notre Dame Story in three volumes, of which two have now appeared.
The story, of course, did not end with Rockne’s tragic death in a plane crash in 1931. For one thing, the 1940 film on Rockne with Pat O’Brien in the lead, and a young actor named Ronald Reagan, playing George Gipp, is itself a legend. And Rockne’s influence spread to other schools. Harry Stuhledreyer, one of the Four Horsemen, came to Villanova as a coach. Jim Crowley, also of that most famous backfield, coached at Fordham, where he took an Italian-American would be fullback and turned him into a guard, one of the “Seven Blocks of Granite” at 183 pounds, who after many years f teaching and coaching in a Catholic parochial high school became a coaching legend himself, Vince Lombardi. But Notre Dame was unique. Its mystique is one that requires a sense of history, sociology, psychology, theology, and more for its full understanding. Notre Dame was also special in its ability to sustain its rich athletic tradition and to integrate it in its remarkable growth and development. Even in 2001, the mystique that goes back to the early passes caught by Knute Rockne in Notre Dame’s stunning defeat of Army in 1913 lives on. Notre Dame football’s lucrative TV contracts are a testimony to that!
Rodger Van Allen, Co-editor