Gridiron Greatness

College football made mighty contributions toward Yankee Stadium's place in pop culture history

December 2nd, 2016

A few weeks after Babe Ruth christened Yankee Stadium by propelling the New York Yankees to their first World Series triumph, the first of many college football games kicked off in the big ballpark in the Bronx.

On Oct. 20, 1923, Syracuse defeated Pittsburgh by a score of 3-0 in the first of 185 college football games at the original Yankee Stadium. Eight more games were played at The House That Ruth Built in its first year, including New York University's first two appearances: shutouts of Fordham and Boston University.

After hosting three games in 1924, Yankee Stadium opened its doors to Notre Dame for what would be the first in a long and storied history of classic gridiron battles.

In 1925, one year removed from its first national championship, the Notre Dame football squad took on Army at Yankee Stadium. The Fighting Irish were shut out 27-0, but the exposure that was gained by playing the Cadets in a part of the country that was unfamiliar with their program paid long-lasting dividends.

"Our tradition really began in Yankee Stadium," said the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who served as the university's president for 35 years and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. "We took a train from South Bend to play there. We only had 16 players on our team.

We were this small team that came to New York to play a perennial powerhouse. That's how we got to be called the 'Fighting Irish.' That game catapulted Notre Dame into national prominence."

Notre Dame avenged the loss the next season, with head coach Knute Rockne's hard-nosed team defeating Army 7-0. Two years later, on Nov. 10, 1928, Rockne orchestrated his defining moment from the bowels of a chilly Yankee Stadium. Notre Dame and Army were locked in a scoreless tie at halftime when he delivered his "Win One for the Gipper" speech.

George Gipp rushed for 2,341 yards and passed for 1,769 yards at Notre Dame before passing away in 1920 at the age of 25. In perfect sync with the drama of the day, Rockne told his players that Gipp, while on his deathbed,requested that Notre Dame rally for a big win in his memory.

"The last thing he said to me was, 'Rock, when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper,'" the coach told his team. While historians dispute whether Gipp actually uttered those words to Rockne, the speech worked. The underdog Fighting Irish beat Army 12-6.

"It's a phrase that has stood the test of time," said Brian Kelly, Notre Dame's present-day head coach. "It represents playing for each other and for the family, the Notre Dame family."

"Knute Rockne's speech tells you everything you need to know about attitude," said former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz. "It made those players understand what their purpose was. That pep talk gave all of us motivation, not just the people who were in the locker room that day."

Notre Dame's good fortune at Yankee Stadium continued into the early 1940s, as the Irish defeated Army in 11 out of the next 14 contests. But Army turned the tide in 1944, defeating Notre Dame 59-0 behind the running attack of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. Army trounced Notre Dame again in 1945 - this time by a score of 48-0 - en route to capturing a second consecutive national championship. "

Those games were the Super Bowl of that era," said Joe Steffy, who played guard for Army in the 1940s and who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

"There was no bigger rivalry in sports at that time." On Nov. 9, 1946, with Army riding a 25-game winning streak, the Black Knights took on an undefeated Notre Dame team at Yankee Stadium in what was dubbed the "Game of the Century." Tickets for the game, which were priced at $1, were being scalped for as much as $250 apiece on game day - the equivalent of about $3,000 today. The Fighting Irish came in to the game with a disadvantage.

"On the Wednesday before the game, we were doing a pass defense drill, and I stepped into a hole and turned my ankle badly," said Johnny Lujack, the< team's All-American quarterback and defensive back.

"We practiced at Bear Mountain that Friday, and I was still in a lot of pain. I didn't know if I would be able to play in very much of that game." Not only did Lujack play in the game, but he made the day's defining play. With the teams locked in a scoreless third-quarter tie, Blanchard broke free at midfield, and Lujack was the only defender between the halfback and the end zone.

"I was able to make a shoestring tackle," Lujack said. "Doc said that if his ankle had been better, I wouldn't have gotten near him. I say that if my ankle had been better, I would have caught him earlier." "When I saw Blanchard picking up speed, I never thought Lujack would be able to make that tackle," Hesburgh recalled. "That added to the lore of Notre Dame and Army."

That was the closest either team came to putting points on the board in the game, which featured a Heisman Trophy winner in Blanchard (1945) and three eventual Heisman winners in Davis (1946), Lujack (1947) and Notre Dame's Leon Hart (1949).

"That was the most fiercely fought game I ever played in," Steffy said. "The teams didn't have very many players back then, so we were in the game for almost every play."

After the scoreless tie, both teams held their positions in The Associated Press rankings until the final week of the season, when Army barely beat unranked Navy, which Notre Dame had defeated 28-0 earlier that year. The Irish defeated 16th-ranked Southern Cal 26-6 in their final game. That victory propelled Notre Dame (8-0-1) over Army (9-0-1) in the polls and made the Fighting Irish national champions.

Scheduling conflicts and other factors moved the Army-Notre Dame rivalry away from Yankee Stadium until 1969, when Notre Dame thrashed Army 45-0 in the last contest between the two schools at The House That Ruth Built. Notre Dame edged Army in all-time Yankee Stadium play, capturing 14 wins while only losing on five occasions. The series also yielded three ties. In 1963, Notre Dame lost to Syracuse in one of only two games that the Irish played at the Stadium against other teams. Even though that matchup didn't have the luster of Notre Dame's previousStadium tilts, it still was a proud day for the players who participated in that game.

"I grew up about 15 miles from Yankee Stadium, and my dad used to take me there when I was a young kid," said Tom Longo, who played quarterback for the Irish. "The first time I walked onto the field, I was just thinking about the guys who had played on that same field, like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio."

"There was more motivation and more pressure than there was for other games," said former Notre Dame offensive lineman John Lium.

While games that included Notre Dame or Army accounted for the most memorable moments in Yankee Stadium's college football history, there was no shortage of gridiron drama involving other schools. From 1923 through 1948, NYU used Yankee Stadium as a secondary home field, playing 96 games in the Bronx and amassing a 52-40-4 record in those contests. Nearby Fordham University compiled an impressive 13-5-1 record at the Stadium between 1923 and 1946. Fordham and NYU faced each other regularly at the Stadium between 1923 and 1946. The 1936 NYU team defeated a Fordham team known for its offensive line, which was nicknamed "Seven Blocks of Granite." Before

Vince Lombardi led the Green Bay Packers, he was part of that famed group of blockers. Also of note, the annual Army-Navy game was played at Yankee Stadium in 1930 and 1931 before being moved to Philadelphia. The House That Ruth Built hosted its one and only postseason college football game on Dec. 15, 1962, when Nebraska defeated Miami (Fla.) 36-34 in the Gotham Bowl. Only 6,166 fans were in attendance, as many were deterred by the frigid weather. A newspaper strike in New York City also didn't help in drumming up publicity for the game.

"It was 14 degrees when we got to the Stadium, and by kickoff, it was 9 degrees," said Don Bryant, who was the sports editor at the Lincoln (Neb.) Star. "They played on frozen turf and had to wear tennis shoes. But it was one of the greatest games ever. In the fourth quarter, I remember being on the sidelines and there was a garbage can with a fire in it where cheerleaders were trying to keep warm.

"They shut off the power after the game," said Bryant, who later became sports information director at Nebraska. "It was so cold in the press box that we went back to the hotel to file our stories."

In the late 1960s, Grambling State University publicist Collie Nicholson urged school officials to follow Notre Dame's lead in scheduling football games at large stadiums in big cities. Located in rural northwest Louisiana, Grambling played its home games in a 13,000-seat stadium.

Nicholson and legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson convinced Yankees officials that a black college football game would draw fans to Yankee Stadium. In 1968, Grambling played its first game at The House That Ruth Built in front of more than 60,000 football enthusiasts. Grambling was defeated by Morgan State 9-7 in that game, but emerged victorious in each of the following 10 contests between the schools at Yankee Stadium.

That 1968 matchup evolved into the New York Urban League Classic, which was established in 1973 and later renamed the Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Classic. The annual game raised funds for college scholarships for low-income students from New York. Save for 1974 and 1975, when Yankee Stadium underwent renovations, the game was played in the Bronx every year through the 1987 season. In the final Classic at Yankee Stadium - the final football event of any kind there - Central State University defeated Grambling 37-21.