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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--or letter--at Notre Dame, but he played three years of pro football afterward.
"We had lots of Art Statutos," 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."
The players fought for positions, playing time, a monogram, a smile from the coach. "There have been great college teams through the years," says Leon Hart, an All-America end at Notre Dame and the last lineman to win the Heisman Trophy, in 1949. "But for a sheer collection of talent, nothing could match our teams of '46 and '47."
LEAHY'S BIGGEST PROBLEM was sorting out all the talent that came back from the war. So in '46 he played his first unit, on both offense and defense, in the first and third quarters, the second group in the second and fourth. "It was a tremendous advantage to play on that second unit," says George Ratterman, who split quarterback duty with All-America Johnny Lujack in '46. "The first unit would beat hell out of them. We'd come in against guys who were worn out. Look it up. We scored twice as much as the firsts did."
Sure enough, the Irish had six touchdowns in the first quarter, 14 in the second, six in the third and 14 in the fourth. If Ratterman had come back in '47, Leahy might have used the two-unit system again, but Ratterman was a gifted four-sport athlete and had had his fill of playing behind Lujack. At age 20 he signed a contract with the Buffalo Bills of the All-America Football Conference, a deal worth $11,000, including a $2,200 bonus if he finished among the league's top five in passing. He collected the bonus in a breeze, making second-team all-league. In South Bend he would have been second-team Notre Dame.