When Joe Theismann went to pick up his high school diploma he could barely lift it. At 5'11" and 148 pounds he looked like a strip of lean bacon wrapped around a long straw, and when Notre Dame invited him to come and play quarterback, he said, "No, sir, I'd rather live." He figured those Irish Catholics must be looking to wipe out the German Methodists, starting with the tall skinny ones. Lordy, he said, they want to put me in for the Gipper. Let's win one for the recent Joe Theismann.
Aw, come on out for a chat, said Ara Parseghian, whose ancestors used to sell rugs to the Persians. O.K. said Theismann, but if any defensive tackles from Purdue show up at the airport I'm not getting off the plane. He went and Parseghian chatted, and Theismann wound up buying a bearskin to throw in front of the fireplace and four years of football at Notre Dame. Back home in Northern New Jersey a local paper head lined a story: LITTLE JOE TO GET KILLED AT NOTRE DAME. "I've got to admit it," he told friends, "that story really ticked me off."
When Theismann showed up at Notre Dame in the fall of 1967 to report in as a freshman, two assistant coaches, Johnny Ray and Joe Yonto, were at the airport to meet him. As he stepped from the plane, Ray grabbed Yonto's arm and said, "Who's that skinny kid?"
"That's the quarterback Parseghian recruited."
"Oh, no," said Ray, closing his eyes. "They're going to break his neck."
And then even Parseghian began to have misgivings. The first time the freshmen scrimmaged the varsity the Notre Dame coach took another look at the pipestem he had recruited and he winced. Parseghian moaned, "He really is going to get killed."
But Theismann survived, of course, although at times it was a toss-up, and he grew one inch up and 29 pounds around, and the only people getting killed were those big guys from Purdue and Michigan State and, like last Saturday, from Missouri.
As Parseghian says, now that he is no longer having nightmares about being pressed into duty as a pallbearer, "Don't ever underestimate Joe. He can pass and he can run, he's a great scrambler and a great leader. I know other quarterbacks that don't have size, like Lenny Dawson and Johnny Unitas."
Just to name two.
Missouri's mistake apparently was scoring on the Irish early in the third quarter, putting the Tigers ahead 7-3 and Notre Dame behind for the first time this season. That, as Theismann said later, really ticked him off. Until that moment the Irish had been cruising along on the slim lead of Scott Hempel's 22-yard field goal while trying to establish a running game against Missouri's big and quick eight-man front. In the first half Notre Dame's ground troops had picked up 160 yards but no points, and that is not quite the way to win votes in the polls. So when Missouri punched over its score—on a pass yet, Mike Farmer 10 yards to Mel Gray—Theismann abandoned war in the trenches and began putting the ball into the air.
In the first half Theismann completed six of 10 passes for 42 yards. In the last 30 minutes he threw 14 and completed nine for 167 yards and two touchdowns. And he just missed a third score when Tom Gatewood, 210 pounds of prime split end, was hauled down two feet away from the goal after a 28-yard pass play. Then Missouri was penalized one foot for a personal foul, tying a record for the world's shortest penalty, and Ed Gulyas finally established the running game by scoring from there. That made it 24-7 with almost a full quarter to play, and the Irish offense figured that was enough. So did the Irish defense.
In steamrollering five opponents this year by an aggregate score of 187-31, the Irish are looking very much like the best of the Parseghian era, although the Notre Dame coach is the first to protest. "It's a bit absurd to say that," he said, and then pointed out that this year he had to replace his two starting offensive tackles, his center, tight end, two defensive tackles, two inside linebackers and a middle safety. The list included two All-Americas, Defensive Tackle Mike McCoy and Linebacker Bob Olson. As an argument, it has merit.
"On paper, yes," said Clarence Ellis, a junior defensive back who always draws the other team's most troublesome pass catcher. A preseason All-America selection, Ellis is the best known of the Irish defenders—and if you've never heard of him, he says swell, that's what makes this year's Irish defense Parseghian's best ever.
"Last year we had six sophomores starting," he said, "and with big-name seniors like McCoy and Olson there was a wide gap. A lot of us would make a big play and nothing would be said. But Olson or McCoy would make a big play and everybody would talk about it. It got where everybody was tight, was afraid to make a mistake. Like in the Texas game last year when Cotton Speyrer caught that pass on me. Even before I got up I looked and there was Olson staring at me. I felt like I had to ask forgiveness or something. This year we are a real union—I mean unit. You know everyone's doing the job for everyone else. You don't want to make a mistake, because you know everyone's depending upon you.
"I mean, guys will blow something and come back and apologize. I've apologized a couple of times myself."
So far, the Notre Dame defense has had little to blush about, giving up an average of six points a game. Before meeting Missouri the Irish were ninth in the nation in total defense, 12th in rushing defense. They held Missouri to 208 yards and only eight pass completions in 27 attempts for 80 yards.
Like Theismann, Ellis landed at Notre Dame more by chance than design. After his senior season in high school he was recruited only by Western Michigan. But one day a Notre Dame coach happened to be looking at a film of Mike Kadish, a defensive tackle. Ellis was on the other team. Notre Dame made Ellis an offer.
"Notre Dame?" he said. "Where's Notre Dame? They play Michigan State don't they? I always root for Michigan State."
Last week he sighed and said, laughing, "I'm here strictly by accident."
Well, so much for the luck of the Irish. Almost. Now try on Gatewood, who so far has caught 44 passes for 679 yards and five touchdowns. But that is only a half-measure of his worth. He never takes a step without at least two defenders dogging him, and at times there have been three. That leaves a lot of open space for the rest of the offense.
When Notre Dame offered Gatewood a scholarship he almost said no because he didn't think he was good enough. Then he decided that even if he failed in football, he would get an excellent education. He said why not. Today he has a 3.3 average in sociology.
"I never thought I'd play," he says. "I've always been pretty insecure. I didn't know if I'd fit in. I guess I just have a low-key psyche. For a while after coming to Notre Dame it worried me, seeing all those guys jumping around, banging lockers. I wondered if something was wrong with me. Like I sleep the night before a game just like it was any other night. I never think about it until I get in front of the crowd. And then, man, something pops. Most guys get excited by the game. I get turned on by the people. The more the better. That's the way I play. It's a release valve."
If Dan Devine, the Missouri coach, had known that, he probably would have slammed the gates at Memorial Stadium. More than 64,000 people, the most to see a sporting event in Missouri, turned out and turned Gatewood on. Against the Tigers he caught eight passes for 123 yards and a touchdown. "If there is anybody better than Notre Dame I haven't seen them yet," said Devine, shaking his head. "What we needed was a break—something like Theismann going off to the boys' room."
Two nights before the game Theismann and his pretty fiancée, Shari Brown, sat in The Wooden Keg in South Bend. After one bottle of Piper-Heidsieck had been thrown for a loss, a second was opened. Theismann had no more than a sip from the first, declined any from the second.
"Don't you want a few bubbles?" a waitress asked.
He grinned. "No, I'll get all my bubbles on Saturday."
"Oh," said the waitress, looking at Shari. "Are you getting married on Saturday?"
"Yeah," somebody said, "to a great big Tiger."
Late Saturday night, after the honeymoon, Theismann wrapped himself in a towel and rubbed an aching right elbow. "You know, this time I was really scared out there. More than ever before. For a long time I couldn't get going. We could get down there but we'd make a mistake. I just wasn't right."
Indeed, in the first half Notre Dame fumbled twice and Theismann threw two interceptions.
"Without him going well we are nothing," says Gatewood. "He's our leader. You know he's in there. He's got to get the ball rolling. We get our poise from his poise. I can't be a bold pass receiver if he's not a bold play-caller. We can't be a bold team if he's not a bold play-caller. And we can't be winners unless he's a winner."
The Irish want him good but not too cocky, and so two of the players, Guard Larry DiNardo and Center Dan Novakov, have nominated themselves to tame the quarterback's impetuous nature. Every so often in practice, while Theismann is kneeling to call a play, one or the other will stroke him smartly across the helmet.
"I'll look up and there will be DiNardo smiling," Theismann said." 'Just trying to make you like Joe Kapp,' he'll say. 'You know, hit or be hit.' "
"You've got to watch out for senior quarterbacks," DiNardo explained. "Sometimes they can get a little flaky. I just try and keep Joe in his place."
A few weeks ago DiNardo read an article on Lynn Dickey, the Kansas State quarterback who has taken to wearing white shoes. "If you ever get like Dickey," DiNardo said to Theismann, "I'll kick you in the tail."
"If I ever get like Dickey," Theismann said, seriously, "I'll let you." And then he grinned. "Besides, my feet look too big in white shoes."