"Heart alone," Leahy said. "He hasn't the speed or physique of a great halfback."
Then what about Sitko? Now there was a guy who could fly. "For 50 yards," Leahy replied. "After that his legs tighten up, and tacklers get him from behind."
"He ran well in one game."
And so on, right down to Leahy's announcement that Zalejski would be lost because of a knee injury. "A terrible blow," the coach said. Terrible. Only 15 backs left.
The start of the season revealed a new wrinkle in the offense. The Irish were opening things up. They were throwing the ball: 204 yards in a 40-6 win over Pitt, 184 in a 22-7 victory over Purdue, two teams that had loaded up to stop Notre Dame's fearsome array of runners. The Boilermakers' seven-man line held the Irish backs to 89 yards. That simply had to be addressed. The defense was not a problem. It never was.
What Leahy didn't see was that his team was wearing down. The two months of spring practice ("Goofy," says Brennan. "You started with snow on the ground, and you ended in June") and the brutal fall practices, with their two-hour scrimmages, had sapped the players' strength. "After the Purdue game there was almost a mutiny," says Brennan, who would succeed Leahy in 1954 and coach the Irish for five years. "Our captain, George Connor, went to Leahy on behalf of the team and said, 'Look, you've got to start backing off on the practices.' Then Warren Brown, the sports editor of the Chicago Herald American, told him the same thing.
"It had gotten to the point that all you wanted to do in practice was survive," says Brennan. "It didn't prove anything. This was a veteran team. Leahy knew who his best football players were, he knew who was going to play hard for him. He didn't have to kill them off on the practice field."
"The games were Cub Scout meetings compared to the practices," says Panelli, the fullback. "Boy, I'll tell you, we lost a lot of good people in those scrimmages."
"The amazing thing was that Leahy listened to Warren Brown," Brennan says. "This guy was not a friend, so he listened. Leahy wound up cutting back on the practices, and it saved our season."