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"Just look at the guys from those teams who never did much at Notre Dame but played pro football," Ratterman says. "I'd say the pros are pretty good judges of talent, wouldn't you? There's no question in my mind that Notre Dame would have beaten any team in professional football except the Cleveland Browns."
Forty-three Notre Dame players from either '46 or '47 (or both) played in the NFL or the rival AAFC. Yes, there were two leagues, but the total number of teams was only 18, or 56% of today's total. And squads were about 30% smaller.
Guard Bill Fischer was one of six members of the '46 and '47 squads who would make All-NFL. Nine players on the '47 Irish team were All-America at some point in their careers; two of them, Lujack and Hart, won the Heisman; two more, Fischer and George Connor, earned the Outland Trophy. Seven would be chosen for the College Football Hall of Fame. Who were the superstars? Hart, of course, a 6'4", 252-pound end who made All-Pro with the Detroit Lions on offense and defense, just as Connor did for the Chicago Bears. And Lujack, the Bears' All-Pro quarterback who was equally gifted at defensive back. In his first NFL game, in '48, Lujack picked off three passes, tying a Bears single-game record that still stands. He finished his rookie season with eight interceptions, equaling a club record that would stand until 1963. "When I was at Notre Dame, everyone went both ways," Lujack says. "I loved defense."
Connor, a member of the NFL Hall of Fame, was the finest interior lineman in Notre Dame history, a demon blocker with enough speed to make All-Pro as a linebacker. The other big stars were Marty Wendell, a short, blocky guard and linebacker with a devastating initial pop, and Jim Martin, an end with an interior lineman's body. (In '49, his senior year, Martin switched to tackle and made All-America at the new position. He followed that with a 14-year NFL career as a linebacker and a kicker.) And, of course, there was Leahy.
Almost everyone on the team could do a passable Leahy imitation--his habit of calling each player by his full name, his formal way of speaking. His practices were no joke, though: mean, grueling affairs, heavy on full scrimmages, born out of Leahy's years as a 185-pound tackle under Knute Rockne, and reflecting Leahy's boyhood in Winner, S.D., as the son of a freight handler who taught his four boys boxing and wrestling almost as soon as they could walk.
"What I remember is that we fought every day--fought to win a job and then to hold it," says Martin, who went to Notre Dame after serving as a Marine in the Pacific, where he was decorated for swimming ashore and doing reconnaissance work before the invasion of Tinian. "I was a mature 22-year-old freshman. You had guys like me, and then you had the older service vets, and practice was tough on them. They'd had enough of war, of guys beating the hell out of each other, but that's what practice was every day, a war."
Notre Dame corralled many of the best high school recruits, of course. But World War II scrambled the process, as many blue-chip recruits joined the service. And Leahy, a Navy officer in the Pacific with the assignment of organizing and supervising athletic and recreational activities for submarine crews returning from the Far East, did some serious recruiting among servicemen.
"I was stationed at Pearl Harbor," says Connor, who had been All-America at Holy Cross in '43, "and one day a command car pulled up and a guy said, 'Ensign Connor, Commander Leahy would like to see you at the Royal Hawaiian.' He talked me into coming to Notre Dame. He said we'd win the national championship, and I'd make All-America. It all came true."
THE 1946 SEASON was Leahy's first one back after two years in the service. The Irish had been nationally ranked in '44 and '45, but two lopsided losses to Army, and another to Great Lakes in '45, had marred those seasons. The word got out early that a mighty collection of talent was gathering at Notre Dame in 1946. Phil Colella, the second-leading Irish ballcarrier in '45 and a Navy vet who had been on two ships sunk by Japanese torpedoes, came out to preseason practice, took one look at the backs Leahy had stockpiled and transferred to St. Bonaventure.
"Our paper strength still has to transform into playing strength; we could lose three or four games," said Leahy, whose legendary pessimism was part con, part paranoia. Notre Dame's first opponent was Illinois, which had opened its season with a 33-7 win over Pitt, a game that Leahy had scouted. "It's an awful assignment," he said, "the toughest any Notre Dame team has ever tackled in its first game. Their line is the biggest I've ever seen in college. Their backfield is two- and three-deep, and with Buddy Young it has tremendous speed."