A Horseman Among Men

A bold invitation from a student led to an evening of cocktails and convivial storytelling with Fighting Irish legend Jim Crowley.

Author: John McCarthy ’75

My father owned one of the two “Catholic” funeral homes in Springfield, Illinois, and as such participated in various civic organizations. His favorite was the Sons of Erin, an Irish fraternal organization that hosted an annual gala to raise money for a couple of small local projects and one or two modest college scholarships awarded to deserving students of Irish descent. (The organization has since progressed to become the Sons and Daughters of Erin.)

My father died unexpectedly in 1966 but John Fitzgerald O’Brien, the president of the Sons of Erin Springfield chapter and a cousin by marriage, always gave my mother a couple of tickets to subsequent dinners. In 1974, while a junior at Notre Dame, I returned home for a quick visit and to accompany my mother to that year’s Sons of Erin dinner — appropriately scheduled for St. Patrick’s Day.

The featured speaker that evening was Jim Crowley, one of the Notre Dame’s football legends immortalized by Grantland Rice as the Four Horsemen way back in 1924, 50 years prior. Crowley mingled with guests during the cocktail hour and commenced speaking as dinner concluded. I recall he began by stating that his topic would be nothing serious, adding that he might, however, talk about football.

Crowley then doled out well-received reminiscences of playing at Notre Dame under Knute Rockne as well as his later experiences at Fordham, where he coached Vince Lombardi, among others. Well-practiced as an after-dinner speaker, Crowley was then in his 70s and I think he was still quite active on the “rubber chicken” circuit. He clearly enjoyed his cocktails and, as the evening progressed, it was plain to see he was at ease and relishing the festivities.

Crowley, second from right, could regale audiences large and small with tales of his Notre Dame playing days.

Near the close, I introduced myself to Mr. Crowley and we chatted for a brief time about my own Notre Dame experiences. It was obvious to me he was interested in extending the evening further. Downtown Springfield’s local watering holes were a bit down and out, so I thought I’d extend him an offer. My aforementioned cousin Jack O’Brien was hosting a few friends and relatives at his home following the festivities, so I asked if I could bring Crowley along. This option suited everyone.

For the rest of the evening, he joined our small Springfield group for a few more cocktails and more personal reflections of his playing and coaching days. He was a fabulous storyteller, very witty, happy to answer any questions. Everyone had an exceptionally fine time. I drove Crowley back to his hotel and we both went on our ways.

I wonder at times if I was foolishly brazen to invite him, or if Crowley was just happy to find something other than the usual empty hotel room. I enjoyed a little local notoriety afterward, especially among my extended Irish relations, as the young man who palled around with a Notre Dame legend.

More importantly for me, in the most un-legendary setting of a family’s living room, I passed a few hours with this legend, relaxed and clearly enjoying himself, in his element, as if he were a lifelong friend of the family.

The fraternalism of the Irish is a wondrous thing.

John McCarthy retired in 2016 with his wife to Chapel Hill, North Carolina after spending three-plus decades in New York City as a currency trader and manager of trading activities for various international banks. He also wrote for a short time at the Wall Street Journal and later served as executive director of a private school serving children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities.