When the Four Horsemen, the seven mules and Knute Rockne’s other farm animals finished grazing, only Elmer Layden hung around the Notre Dame dining hall to bus tables. “He wasn’t asked to help, and he didn’t expect thanks,” wrote Red Smith, who knew because he was the student waiter on duty. “He just was, and is, that kind of gentleman.”
News of Layden’s illness in June of 1973 prompted Smith’s reminiscence in The New York Times. Layden died that month, fondly remembered but soon to fade into the sepia of Notre Dame football history. As the fullback in the quartet that Grantland Rice immortalized, he lived that kind of life, famous as part of a larger ensemble — and so unassuming that he could be mistaken for the help.
Layden probably would be the last to complain, but he deserves a more exalted place in the 125-year history of the program. Few people contributed as much to its rise and, perhaps more important in his case, its perpetuation.
If Rice’s famous metaphor correctly aligned Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen and their apocalyptic counterparts, Layden was death. Appropriate enough for the guy Smith called an “emaciated strip of gristle” who didn’t amount to 160 pounds.
Speed was his greatest attribute, but in the precise Rockne choreography he often went headfirst into the line for short yardage. A two-way player in the fashion of the era, Layden made his greatest impact in Notre Dame’s 1925 Rose Bowl win, returning two interceptions 78 and 70 yards for touchdowns.
His playing career alone would have been enough for Layden to mount a very high horse in Irish football history, but he contributed much more. Of the three Horsemen who became college head coaches, Layden’s alma mater hired only him. Just in time, too.
Rockne’s successor, Hunk Anderson, lasted only three mediocre seasons, leaving it to Layden to restore stability to the program. It seems impossible to imagine now (or maybe a little too possible), but a few more years like Anderson’s could have diminished Notre Dame football beyond repair. Enter Layden in 1934 as the crucial support beam in the program’s century-spanning rise.
He didn’t just warm the seat for Frank Leahy. Only Rockne, Leahy and Ara Parseghian have had better winning percentages. Over seven seasons and 63 games (47 of them victories) Layden won more often than Dan Devine. Without a national championship to show for it, though, the Irish Rushmore doesn’t make room for him.
Another reason it should: On November 2, 1935, late in his second season, Layden led Notre Dame into Columbus to play Ohio State. Both teams were unbeaten, but the predicted Buckeye blowout looked like a safe bet as the Irish fell behind 13-0, a deficit that lingered into the fourth quarter.
After Notre Dame’s abracadabra 18-13 win, the press went deep purple: “In the annals of gridiron lore are countless tales of famous rallies,” Wilfrid Smith wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “but no Notre Dame team ever has written a more brilliant page in football’s history than these boys today.”
Almost 40 years later, Smith wrote in his tribute to Layden, you could mention that game and “some old crocks will begin to babble incoherently.” In the palpitating hours afterward, though, Smith found the coach “sipping a light scotch and water, unflappable as a seal on ice.”
Layden stepped down after the 1940 season to become the NFL commissioner, leaving the much more flappable — and, ultimately, more successful — Leahy a better program than Layden inherited. He deserves more credit for that than he receives, but naturally the whole overshadows Layden’s part, like the Horsemen in which he was just one of four. In the full sweep of Notre Dame football history, there are more people than that — but not many more — at Elmer Layden’s level.
Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.