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.
play football?" I asked.
'46 and '47," he said.
collection of college football talent in history," I said. "How much
did you play?"
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
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."
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.