Like many other Notre Dame students, I had been a reasonably good high school football player with dreams of participating at a higher level. While on campus for placement testing the summer before my freshman year, however, I met Jeff Weston, whom I later found out was the starting defensive tackle. He was 6-foot-5 and weighed 245 pounds, a chiseled inverted pyramid of muscle. Every thought of playing football at ND immediately left my mind. It was a good thing, too, because pre-med studies ended up taking up most of my time in the next four years.
But my dream of being a varsity football player on display in front of more than 50,000 people at ND stadium lived on. My plan evolved as the 1978 season developed. Friends of mine on the Dillon Big Red interhall football team loaned me a gold helmet and pants and equipment and shoes. Dave Huffman, the starting center and All-American that year, let me borrow his #56 varsity green jersey. It was an original jersey from the 1977 Southern Cal game, when Coach Dan Devine first surprised the team and the home ND crowd with the new uniforms. I finally decided that I would get on the field during the last game of the season.
It became a group effort. I went into the stadium wearing the full uniform covered by blue jean overalls and an old football parka from high school. A friend went in a different gate wearing the helmet, and we met inside. By senior year we had all managed to get student tickets on the 40-yard line, but we instead made our way down to the freshman section near the band.
As the team lined up in the tunnel, I took off the parka and overalls and put on the helmet. When the team ran out and lots of students tumbled over the restraining wall to greet them, I slipped over the wall and picked my way through the band to the sideline with the team. As the kickoff occurred, I said hello to Huffman and one of the senior managers I knew and then tried to mingle at the periphery of the players on the sideline.
Halfway through the first quarter, a student manager asked me who I was and what I was doing there. In retrospect, I think the fact that my interhall helmet wasn’t newly painted shining gold was what gave me away. That, or the fact that all my friends kept running down the aisle yelling my name and taking pictures of me. I told him I was working on a George Plimpton first-person-type story for The Observer, which seemed to work for about five minutes. Rapidly after that though, a larger crowd started to surround me. One of the stadium guards seemed to accept The Observer story initially, then decided I should leave. Devine’s bodyguard, a not-too-tall but very wide and imposing man, walked by, and the security guard asked if he thought it would be all right if I stayed. “No,” he growled. “Coach Devine wouldn’t like it. Get him out of here.” I offered to climb over the wall and go up to my seat, but the security guard became alarmed at how that would look. I finally admitted that I wasn’t with the school paper and had done it as a hoax and for the experience. The more the guard thought about it, the more conspiratorial he became. He decided to escort me out along the sideline and into the main tunnel, and I could leave the stadium from there. He suggested that I should limp as I walked so it would look like he was taking me to the locker room for treatment.
One of the offensive coaches in the pressbox later asked Huffman if he knew anything about the #56 who went limping off. Huffman told me that he just smiled and said nothing, which is hard to believe because he liked to talk. I received a nice round of applause from the band and the student section as I was escorted off. The guard shook my hand at the outside gate and out I went, just at the end of the first quarter, my dream fulfilled.
In retrospect it wasn’t as thrilling as I had imagined it might be, mostly because I was scared to death of getting in big trouble the entire time I was on the sideline.
As I was running back to Dillon Hall, a child outside the stadium asked me for an autograph. I told him I was sorry but I couldn’t stop, that the urinals in the varsity locker room weren’t working and I really had to go to the bathroom.
After removing the uniform and changing in the dorm, I went back into the stadium. I had made a point of being on my best behavior the entire time and was unfailingly polite to the guard and everyone else I encountered, hoping no one would get angry and take what was intended as a playful prank to the administration for discipline. That included absolutely no tailgating or alcohol before the game, as I was sure that would have ended badly. At halftime, however, my friends and I all went to the old Senior Bar, where I was the happy recipient of many of my friends’ generosity. The Irish beat Tennessee 31-14 and went on to finish the season 9-3, winning nine of their last 10 games. I went on to medical school, the Navy and ultimately medical practice in Maryland. But on that November day in 1978, I had achieved my once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Mike Brooks, who left the Navy in 1990, is a family physician in Prince Frederick, Maryland.