I met John O'Connor in the bar of San Francisco's Olympic club in the summer of 1967, and when he shook my hand, he almost crushed it. Big guy, size-18 neck, 46-inch chest, still an active AAU wrestler at 40. On the bridge of his nose was a telltale helmet scar.
"Where'd you play football?" I asked.
"Notre Dame, '46 and '47," he said.
"Greatest collection of college football talent in history," I said. "How much did you play?"
"Not at all—for the varsity," he said. "B team. Scrimmaged against the big boys every day." He paused. "The greatness of those teams will never be realized. You ever hear of Art Statuto?"
Sure I had. He was the classic example of the postwar talent amassed by Irish coach Frank Leahy. Statuto never earned a monogram at Notre Dame, but he played three years of pro football afterward.
"We had lots of Art Statutes," O'Connor said. "There were guys who'd been starters and then gone off to war and couldn't win a monogram when they came back. There were people who weren't even issued jerseys, but in high school their uniforms had been retired. There were guys no one ever heard of and were never heard of again. You ever hear of Chick Iannuccillo?"
No, never had. So he told me the story of Chick Iannuccillo. He was one of those prospects a coach glimpses once in a lifetime, if he's lucky. He was a fullback, 5'11", 225 pounds, a monster in those days. He had speed and a real killer instinct.
"He used to go, 'Vavoom! Vavoom!' when he was running," O'Connor said, "and he'd bring up a forearm and flatten guys. Leahy used to have this drill for backs, to see how tough they were: All the linemen would line up, single file, and the back would run at them, one at a time. The back got tackled by every one. The veterans lined up near the end so they could get the runner when he was tired. When Iannuccillo ran it, all of a sudden guys would start dropping out of line. One guy needed a new chin strap, another one would have something wrong with his shoelaces."
Late in the summer of '46, two men from the Department of Veterans Affairs paid a call to Iannuccillo. "He'd been in an infantry unit in Italy, and he'd caught a flesh wound in the leg," O'Connor said. "He was getting a full disability pension from the government. They let him know that playing football at Notre Dame would seriously compromise his disability benefits." The result: Chick Iannuccillo, ex-fullback.