It’s been nearly two decades since Notre Dame met the Texas Longhorns on the gridiron, but their rivalry goes back much further than that. Back to the days of Knute Rockne…the playing days of Knute Rockne.
Their first meeting, in 1913, marked the final game in which Rockne would pull on a Notre Dame jersey. Earlier that season, Rockne and 17 teammates made an historic trip to West Point, N.Y., where they shocked the Cadets of the U.S. Military Academy, 35-13, in a game that changed the way football would be played going forward. For Notre Dame, still a small men’s school from the Midwest, to be taking on another major trip was remarkable.
Said a South Bend newspaper at the time: “That (coach and athletic director Jess) Harper is going to put Notre Dame athletics on a higher plane seems certain, and though nothing definite has been arranged, it is probable that the gold and blue will be marched against opponents of the first class in the near future.”
Here is how the season-ending trip to Texas happened:
“It was a two-game Thanksgiving week trip to close out the season and Rockne’s career. The squad left South Bend early on the morning of Friday, Nov. 21, to arrive in St. Louis on Saturday for a meeting with the Christian Brothers College, coached by Luke Kelly, star and captain of the 1911 blue and gold. With a heavy rain beating down on the players continuously, Notre Dame found itself scoreless deep into the second quarter. But Dorais came through with a 40-yard punt return for one score, Eichenlaub smashed through for another, and Dorais completed a long run for a third. Notre Dame won, 20-7. The team boarded the train with Austin, Texas its next destination. There, the Notre Dame squad had a friendly base of operations. St. Edward’s College, a school also run by the Congregation of the Holy Cross, opened its campus and practice field to its northern brothers. For three days, Harper’s men could recuperate from the battle of St. Louis and prepare to face a team, the Texas Longhorns, that claimed superiority in the southwest, having defeated Oklahoma and the Kansas Aggies in their previous two games. Overall, Coach Dave Allerdice’s team was 7-0 on the season, and supremely confident.
“The novelty of a strong northern eleven descending on Austin, and the unblemished records of the two teams, created tremendous interest in the game, and a large throng crowded Clarke Field on a warm, though sometimes rainy Thanksgiving Day. Notre Dame traveled with its own water, but at times the heat seemed like it would overwhelm them. On an early possession, Dorais faked a pass and ran 15 yards for a score. His kicking was a a factor, as he booted three field goals and two kicks after touchdown, for a total of 17 points. Notre Dame was never seriously challenged, throttling the Longhorns, 29-7. Rockne would tell this tale of his final game as Notre Dame’s captain:
A giant hunchback tackle had been treating me rough when he was sent in a s sub toward the end of the first half. He left me with a limp so that in the rest between halves, I dreaded returning, getting myself set mentally, for thirty minutes of hell. I’ve played against many strong linemen; but never against one as strong. This man was a murderer. In that – to us – terrific heat, he smashed into me like a ton of animated ice. I was glad when the half ended.
In the second half, a cool northerner blew in, and with the temperature comfortably reduced, everything was rosy. We scored two touchdowns and the game seemed in the bag. But the Texas coach returned the hunchback to the line, and the hunchback returned to me. He knocked my poor, sweating, ill-treated carcass sideways, backways and always. Suddenly I had an idea. Elward, my substitute at end, was just ten minutes short of the sixty minutes big-game play necessary to win a football monogram, emblem of team membership.
I called to the coach: ‘Send Elward in; he needs ten minutes for his monogram.’
‘Darned nice of you,’ said the coach as I hurried out of the game.
‘If that hunchback does to Elward what he’s done to me, he won’t think I’m so nice!’
It was a self-deprecating way for Rockne to describe the close of his playing career. But his teammates, and all observers, made no mistake about his contributions to the team, as a leader, as a fearless defender, and as a ground-breaking, long-distance pass receiver.
From that point forward, Rockne’s contribution to football would be not as a player, but guiding men with a relentless work ethic, creative genius, and indomitable spirit.
Excerpted from Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne (2013, Great Day Press), by Jim Lefebvre. All rights reserved.