The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 7, 2013

A Mickey Zezzo column: Irish eyes a smilin’

With BCS title game at hand, memories of covering Notre Dame come flooding back

By MICKEY ZEZZO
For the Star Beacon

— When Notre Dame and Alabama line up for collegiate football’s Supreme Bowl tonight in Miami, it’ll revive a treasured trip down memory lane — or, if you prefer, Irish memoirs.

You can only imagine the thrill of a young sports writer who was a lifelong Irish fan having the opportunity of covering ND back in the mid-1950s.

For this scribe, it bordered on an uncanny experience that probably highlighted 60-plus years on the sports writing beat.

At the time, I was sports editor of the Niles Daily Star — a small neighborly community located exactly nine miles north of the Golden Dome.

Without fail, the topic in my Monday Star Gazing column was a follow on the Saturday home game action at ND.

My seat in the always bustling press box at the stadium was right behind the legendary Red Smith of the New York Times. He was always friendly and I remember hoping some of his great traits would rub off.

But the biggest surprise was the respectful treatment I received from Charlie Callahan, the then ND publicist. He had a knack for treating every writer equally and I’ll never forget him calling out to me while holding the elevator filled with writers heading down to the locker rooms.

And if you think this year’s miraculous revival of Notre Dame football fortunes is a shocker, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The year was 1956 and the big campus guru was none other than quarterback Paul Hornung, one of the all-time ND greats. When the blond, curly haired hero walked into the Sunday morning Mass beneath the Golden Dome, he was usually accompanied by teammates and it was a scene straight out of the Bible — like the Apostles following their Grid God.

Talk about a versatile quarterback, Hornung was in a class by himself. In that memorable senior season, he piled up 1,337 total offensive yardage. To boot, he handled most of the PATs abd split the uprights 14 times.    

How great was Hornung, who went on to become an NFL Hall of Famer with the Green Bay Packers? Nothing speaks better about his greatness then the fact that he was the coveted Heisman Trophy recipient in a very rare poor ND season: The Irish finished 2-8 — and that speaks volumns about his presence.

He’s listed as the only Heisman winner representing a losing team. The suffering coach that season was the always ambiable Terry Brennan — who was cool under fire and was always respectful with the press. Maybe the writers were in turn respectful, but you hand to hand it to Brennan, who ironically wound up being a tough Chicago lawyer.   

And among the most memorable times in Irishland, was an amusing incident that took place after a Hornung field goal nicked Iowa in the closing seconds. Naturally he was the target of the press corps afterward and after taking some notes I decided to use the same exit locker room door used by the players.

When I opened the door, a student body outside emitted a decimal-deafening roar.

Needless to say, I was at first flabbergasted! Surely they didn’t mistake me as a player.

Right behind me coming out of the same door was the Notre Dame Golden Boy, Paul Hornung.

I remember laughing to myself on that short ride back to Niles.

For a split second, I had felt the glory of heroism.

My column quickly brought me back to reality.   

Zezzo can be reached at mickeyz@zoomtown.com.