Epic connection

Family, religious and immigrant history bind subway alumni to Notre Dame

Like many subway alumni, writer Greg Jordan’s love for a university he never attended traces back to youthful Saturdays watching football games with his father, the son of a coal miner in northeast Pennsylvania who called himself a “tunnel alumni.”

There was one game that stands out: the 1979 Cotton Bowl, the famous “Chicken Soup” comeback led by a flu-battered Joe Montana. But on-field heroics were only a backdrop for a moment that was more about family, religion and moral instruction, Jordan said.

“I was 9 years old, and you get these intimations of what your father admires, and what you should want to be when you grow up,” Jordan said. “The earliest memories are not about plays or games but around the iconography of the Notre Dame coaches. Parseghian, Leahy, Rockne. These names were like the names of the popes, and when you grow up in a Catholic household, there’s sort of a priestly or clerical dimension to the tone with which my dad would talk about these coaches.”

Jordan also recalled that a great uncle told him Jesus himself was buried on campus under the mural known as Touchdown Jesus — and he believed it for years. But beyond family ties and lies, Notre Dame came to represent something else, a primal need in hardscrabble coal country.

The miners, Jordan’s grandfathers and their friends, were largely Irish immigrants, and the mine owners were Welsh gentry who exploited cheap labor. “The notion that you had to fight to survive — to make your way in this immigrant experience — that definitely resonated with them,” Jordan said. “They could identify with the Fighting Irish logo.”

Old football program cover featuring two captains.Football Program Cover: Notre Dame vs. Army at Yankee Stadium, 1925. The cover features portraits of Army Captain H.R. Baxter and ND Captain Clem Crowe.

As Notre Dame gets ready to play again this year in Yankee Stadium, it’s an opportunity to take another look at the phenomenon of the subway alumni that began there. From 1925 through 1946, Notre Dame played Army at Yankee Stadium in an era when, according to a 1957 Sports Illustrated article, that rivalry “typified intercollegiate football to more people than any other annual contest in the history of the sport.”

Many of the iconic myths that put a small Midwestern school on the national map — from the Four Horsemen to “Win One for the Gipper” to the Game of the Century — derive from that 21-year run. The lasting power of these myths can help explain the passion of the subway alumni, taking their nickname from the throngs of Irish and immigrants who jammed the subway lines from the New York City boroughs to Yankee Stadium for those games. Most had little connection to the place other than an appreciation for what it symbolized. Many created their own family traditions to pass along as they spread nationwide.

During the magical 2012 season, Jordan wrote a story attempting to explain the symbolism that binds subway alumni to Notre Dame.

“Myth is imagination, storytelling exercised around some sort of ritual, and the Hail Mary pass and The Four Horsemen fit right in because the myths, alongside other, higher ones, were fed to us every day at school and every Sunday at church,” Jordan wrote.

“Notre Dame’s mythology both grows out of and further nourishes this craving for larger-than-life stories.”

Those who loathe Notre Dame call these myths self-serving promotion. But that too is an American tradition — or even older. “It is not that dirty-sounding thing called fabrication,” Jordan wrote, “but rather simple yarn-spinning no more morally reprehensible than the Greek oral tradition.”

Myths are how people define themselves, how a group of people structure the world to better understand and negotiate life. By sharing them, the group creates a sense of belonging, fulfilling a deep human need.

Origin Stories

The origin of the subway alumni has roots even deeper than Yankee Stadium. University founder Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., arrived in New York City from France before heading to Indiana with a vision of founding the greatest Catholic university in the New World. Sorin and six Holy Cross brothers celebrated their first mass in the United States at Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan during a three-day stay before starting the 24-day trip to Indiana.

The football rivalry with Army began in 1913 when a little-known Catholic school took advantage of an invention legalized in 1906 but rarely used: the forward pass. Quarterback Gus Dorais threw repeatedly to young team captain Knute Rockne, leading to a 35-13 upset of mighty Army on the West Point campus. The first chapter of Notre Dame football lore would be sensationalized in 1940 with the movie “Knute Rockne, All American.”

By the early 1920s, Rockne was the Notre Dame coach and the team had gone from making a name for itself to a powerhouse. The annual game with Army created so much interest that it was moved from the military campus to the city — to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn in 1923 and the Polo Grounds in New York in 1924.

One man speaks to another holding a football helmet.
Pat O'Brien, as Knute Rockne, and Ronald Reagan, as George Gipp, in the movie "Knute Rockne All American," c1939.
Casual portrait of man in sweatshirt.
Football coach Knute Rockne, c1920s.

At the 1924 game, New York Herald-Tribune sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote his famous florid lines.

“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence, and Famine. But those are aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.”

Football team pose with a toy mule.
Notre Dame Football team with a toy mule, 1913.
Six men pose wearing old timey hats and long peacoats.
Coachmen's Dinner in New York - Glenn "Pop" Warner of Stanford, Knute Rockne of Notre Dame, Babe Ruth, Christy Walsh of the Walsh Syndicate, Tad Jones of Yale, and Fielding Yost of Michigan, in New York to select an All American Football team, 1925.

The reality is at least as interesting. George Strickler, a Notre Dame student press assistant, had recently seen the movie “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and suggested the image during a halftime conversation with several sportswriters. Only Rice took the bait, and his style was different from other writers of the time.

“Rice preferred to turn a ho-hum contest into a mythic struggle or an ordinary athlete into a Greek god or biblical archetype — or a backfield averaging 158 pounds into the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” wrote Murray Sperber in his history of Notre Dame football, “Shake Down the Thunder.” “Most sports fans, whether they like Rice’s overheated style or not, enjoy this passage. He uses the cadence of biblical verse, alludes to American history — the blue, gray and ‘bewildering panorama’ of the Civil War — and even includes a twenties’ gangsterism, ‘These are only aliases.’”

Strickler saw an opportunity and arranged for a photographer to shoot the backfield on horseback upon their return to South Bend, though they could only find work animals, not racehorses. The Rice story and photo built momentum slowly over time until it influenced other sportswriting in the era.

Four men holding a football, each on top of a black horse.
Football players "The Four Horsemen" posed on horses - Don Miller, Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden, 1924.

The Army game moved to Yankee Stadium in 1925 and quickly turned into a major draw. By 1927, ticket demand was so great that none went on sale to the general public, but instead were distributed to those with connections.

Military crew in front of a World War II Bomber that has a painting of a football player holding onto a bomb that says '1 [One] for the Gipper'.World War II Bomber "1 [One] for the Gipper" and Crew, c1940s.

“This social reality contradicts the myth that, as soon as the Notre Dame-Army series moved to New York, large numbers of poor Irish took the subways to the games — hence the term ‘Subway Alumni,’” Sperber wrote. “In fact, in the 1920s, these fans were first nicknamed ‘Curbstone Alumni,’ probably because many of them stood on the sidewalks and curbstones in front of the Gridgraphies [a play-by-play transmission] provided by various New York newspapers and from these ‘choice locations’ cheered on the Fighting Irish.”

The 1928 game added another chapter to the saga when Coach Rockne gave his famous speech. George Gipp had been a notorious rabble-rouser and star of the 1920 team who died of pneumonia six weeks after leading the Irish to a victory over Army. Whether or not Gipp asked Rockne to win a game for him has been a matter of intense speculation — since only Rockne was at his bedside at the time. With his flair for the dramatic, the showman Rockne reportedly held the request for the right moment.

Football game scene, marching band on the field.
Notre Dame vs. Army, 1928. View from the upper stands of the Notre Dame Marching Band in formation of the word "IRISH" on the field.
Football game scene, players running on the field.
Notre Dame vs. Army, 1928.

An upset of Army would redeem the worst year of Rockne’s career. Some say the speech preceded the game, but most credit it to halftime, when the score was 0-0. Notre Dame prevailed 12-6 when the ending whistle blew with Army at the one-foot line.

The writer who broke the story of the speech was Francis Wallace, a former Rockne student press assistant who went on to glorify Notre Dame for years as a columnist for the New York Daily News. The fame of “Win One for the Gipper” also grew slowly until future president Ronald Reagan immortalized the role in the 1940 movie.

Sperber summed up the magic of the Rockne legend:

“The immutable fact is that in the 1920s and subsequently no imitator could begin to match Notre Dame’s unique formula: a rich athletic culture, fan identification based on ethnicity and religion, an innovative and charismatic coach, a phenomenal won-loss record, powerful media allies, an immense and increasing number of supporters throughout the country, and most important of all, the invention of the formula.”

Top of Olympus

The first mention of the subway alumni in the Scholastic, the University’s weekly student newspaper, came in 1938 with a little jab at their unfamiliarity with school traditions.

“Beginning early Saturday morning, Oct. 29, Notre Dame’s famous ‘subway alumni’ will toss aside their traditional ‘Sidewalks of New York’ in favor of an off key chorus of the ‘Victory March,’” reads an Army game tidbit on Sept. 30, 1938.

Football program featuring a drawing of a game scene, a building, and Notre Dame's Main Building.Football Program Cover: Notre Dame vs. Army at Yankee Stadium, 1932. Featuring a drawing of a game scene, a building at West Point, and Notre Dame's Main Building.

By the 1940s, an Army team readying for war rebounded after a slight dip in the 1930s, while Irish coach Frank Leahy built a juggernaut equal to his former mentor’s. In that single decade, the two schools combined for six national championships, five Heisman Trophy winners and a following unrivaled across the country.

A few anecdotes illustrate just how momentous the ND-Army game had become.

According to a 2012 New York Times story, the big game provided the password to determine friend from foe during the World War II Battle of the Bulge. Surrounded by spies that winter, American GIs would ask what every true Army soldier knew: the score of the 1944 game, when Army pounded Notre Dame 59-0.

In 1946, the two teams’ top rankings led to what sportswriters hyped as the first Game of the Century. The Scholastic previewed the contest this way:

“To millions of Americans, subway alumni, kids in the sandlots, families by their radios, and sports fans everywhere, it holds more significance and is awaited with more nail-chewing anxiety than the Allies beach-party at Normandy on D-Day.”

Football player running with the ball with caption 'Mr. Outside [Gerry Cowhig] is stopped on his 17 yard line ... as Strohmeyer, Rovai and Skoglund encircle him.'
Notre Dame vs. Army, 1946. ND Football Player Gerry Cowhig running with the ball.
Football player running with the ball with caption 'Hard driving Bill Gompers drives for the goal line ... as Cadet Hank Foldberg closes in.'
Notre Dame vs. Army, 1946. ND Football Player Bill Gompers running with the ball.

An incident earlier in the year reveals the level of public interest. In Washington, D.C., for a game against Navy, Leahy called for a secret practice at Catholic University. The Scholastic reported that Leahy “certainly did not reckon with the local chapter of Notre Dame’s ‘National Sidewalk Alumni.’”

When the team arrived, more than 3,000 spectators filled the stadium, including “every kid from the northeast end of Washington” and “representatives from just about every religious community” from Jesuits to white-robed Dominicans.

West Point cadets lined up in ranks on the field in Yankee Stadium.
Dome yearbook 1947, page 211: Football Game Day - Notre Dame vs. Army at Yankee Stadium, 1946. West Point cadets in ranks on the field.

The conservatively played game ended in a deflating 0-0 tie, but it still produced an epic moment. After two years of being run over by the unstoppable Army duo of Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard, 1947 Heisman winner John Lujack made a rare open-field tackle of Blanchard to save the game and preserve a Notre Dame championship.

Football program featuring a drawing of an Army Cadet in front of an interlocking ND.Football Program Cover: Notre Dame vs. Army at Yankee Stadium, 1946 featuring a drawing by Lon Keller of an Army Cadet in front of an interlocking ND.

A 1957 Sports Illustrated article titled “The Subway Alumnus Rides Again” explained why that game ended the series at Yankee Stadium. The teams played the 1947 game at Notre Dame and then took a decade-long break for reasons vaguely similar to the end of the Miami rivalry in the 1990s.

“The game’s very bigness led to the end of the series,” wrote Tex Maule in the article. “Tickets became nearly impossible to get; scalpers sold single seats at Yankee Stadium for $100 and Notre Dame alumni—both real and subway—vied with Army brass to get them. One million ticket requests flooded the two institutions in 1946. The situation became so impossible that it was mutually agreed to discontinue the series.”

Subway of the Future

The annual pilgrimage was over, but the subway alumni rode on, spreading far and wide. In 1975, Notre Dame created the Subway Alumni Association, an experiment that lasted only a year. It was a Development program designed to transfer interest in Irish football to the University as a whole. It reached 3,600 members in its first year but was shut down after proving a financial wash.

A magazine full of text with a portrait of football coach, Ara.The first issue of the Subway Alumni News Magazine, 1975. The front page features a photograph of former football coach Ara.

Instead, subway alumni have been incorporated into official alumni clubs around the country. One of the best examples is the Notre Dame Club of Gettysburg, the home of the Civil War battle where two-time Notre Dame President Rev. William Corby, C.S.C., blessed the Fighting Irish regiment. That club counts only 13 graduates among its robust membership of 146.

Jim Conrad, the current president, sat in the club’s first organizational meeting with three graduates in 2003. “I told them if you treat us as second-class citizens, then we’re gone,” Conrad said. “One of the keys to our success is how we’re treated. [Alumni Club Director] Chuck Lennon at first and Dolly Duffy now, we were welcomed with open arms. They made us feel a part of the University.”

Conrad, 75, said his love for Notre Dame started with football but progressed over time. “Back in the day, Protestants and Catholics didn’t get along too well,” Conrad said. “And here was this university with the best football team in the country. We looked with great pride to that Catholic team on the radio every week.”

The “Rudy” movie — which both features and perpetuates the subway alumni connection — has a memorable moment when Rudy’s father enters the stadium for the first time and says, “This is the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen.” During Conrad’s own first trip to campus for a game, he said he had a similar experience: “It just takes you over.”

“I kept stopping students on the quad to say, ‘Do you know how lucky you are; I would kill to go here,’” Conrad said.

A group of people near the Corby statue at an annual Mass.
Gettysburg Alumni Club's annual Mass at the Monument of Rev. Father William Corby, C.S.C..

Now, Conrad says he’s proud of the club’s charitable work, such as raising donations for wounded veterans. To cull out those interested only in football, volunteer dedication is how they run the club’s ticket allotment. He said the Gettysburg club is one of a few that doesn’t pay members’ expenses to attend the Alumni Association’s leadership conferences, yet it sends a large group every year.

Greg Jordan, the subway alum from the other side of Pennsylvania, explains this devotion as the human need to belong to something greater than self. Now 49, he lives in Spain while writing his latest book and recently flew his ailing father there so the older man wouldn’t have to fear dying alone.

Jordan visits his father daily and they talk about the Notre Dame games on Sundays. After the Ball State game earlier this year, his father said “Remember that time?” and his son knew the “Chicken Soup” story was coming. With each telling, the comeback stretches in magnitude.

“I’m sitting there in a foreign country, an ocean and 40 years away, with a man with mild dementia but who’s still with it,” Jordan said. “The memory of that game comes up on a Sunday under the Castilian sun, and it was very moving to me. That’s the best that sports and Notre Dame offers — an enrichment of the human spirit.”

Jordan has already experienced that spirit in the next generation of subway alumni. After college, he taught for a year at Cathedral High School in El Paso, Texas. The school is about 90 percent Latino, he said, yet its nickname is the Fighting Irish, and the students don’t aspire to Harvard or Yale. More recently, he lived in Juarez, Mexico, for another book. He saw two boys there wearing Irish sweatshirts, and their mother said going to Notre Dame would be “like going to heaven.”

“I can’t speak to the Mexican-American immigrant experience, but the people I spoke with at Cathedral and in Juarez held Notre Dame to be an educational Rome, the place you go to become an American Catholic,” Jordan said.

“I think the Catholic capacity for iconography is what makes subway alumni such a big part of the history of Notre Dame.”