In reply to: The broken link: What has ND's football tradition meant to you? posted by Board Ops
My favorite ND moment of all time doesn’t involve Johnny Lujack or Leon Hart. Nor Joe Theismann nor Joe Montana. The player involved wasn’t even an All-American. In fact even though the player only graduated a couple of seasons ago, I doubt many ND fans even remember his name. If they do remember him, it would not be for winning a big game or even making a big play. If truth be told, I'm not sure he ever did make a big play in a game.
So who is this mystery player? Why none other than Charlie Stafford. Charlie who, you ask? Has the Old Man truly lost it this time? Probably. But Charlie’s still an all time favorite.
Like most Notre Dame recruits, I assume Charlie was a big time prep star. Probably the biggest thing to ever hit his high school. Charlie was surely recruited by many of the very best schools in the country. And when he signed with ND he was undoubtedly dreaming big dreams. Tim Brown had just won the Heisman a couple of years earlier. Notre Dame had won a National Championship even more recently. Neither result was totally out of the realm for a super athlete with virtually unlimited upside potential.
As is often the case with freshman, Charlie’s hopes and spirit must have been crushed in his first brutal weeks of fall practice. The returning players were surely much larger, faster, tougher, and at ND even much smarter, than the best of opponents he had faced in high school. Even among the other freshmen, Charlie was quickly lost in the shuffle. I believe he started out as a tailback. But I’m not sure. What I do know is that he did not play at all as a freshman - a point that will turn out to be critical for the story.
So Charlie’s freshman year came and went with nothing to show for his efforts. But freshmen are usually able to chalk up such disappointments to learning experience, and I suspect that Charlie was able to do so as well. With a year under his belt and a strong summer of conditioning, he would undoubtedly be competing for playing time as a sophomore.
Unfortunately, Charlie’s sophomore year also came and went without fanfare. If he saw any playing time, it would have been on the scout team. Running the opposing team’s plays against the first team offense and getting his brain scrambled and his body mangled in the process. But surely with the valuable scout team experience plus another summer of even harder work, Charlie had to be optimistic about his junior year. After all, many of the big name running backs would be graduating, so it was only a matter of time before Charlie would move up.
But Charlie did not move up. In fact he moved back. He didn’t just slip down a few notches on the depth chart, he darn near slipped all the way off the depth chart. Even brand new freshmen had moved past him at tailback. So what was he to do? At first ND tried him at DB. After all, Charlie had good speed and Notre Dame was chronically short of fast DBs throughout Charlie’s term. Unfortunately, DB did not work out much better, and Charlie must have gone home after his junior year even more confused and more discouraged than after his first two years. Then again, the next fall he would be a senior. At long last one of the elder statesmen of the team. A role model for the younger players. Charlie would go home. He would work even harder. And he would return to show the younger players that working hard and waiting one’s turn were the keys to a successful career at Notre Dame.
Unfortunately, when Charlie returned to Notre Dame in the fall of his senior year, he was not able to assume a role as mentor for younger players. Despite his hard work, Charlie could not even hang on to his lowly spot as a back up DB on a team that was desperate for DBs. There were other younger plyers that needed to be tried in a last ditch effort to shore up the defense. So Charlie was moved again. This time to back up wide receiver which was another new position for Charlie to learn. In addition to being short at DB, Notre Dame had been unable to land a top receiver for a couple of years. Perhaps Charlie could help there. Of course, since he had never played the position before, it would take time for him to learn the intricacies of running precise routes. In the meantime, he would be a valuable addition to the scout team where he could simulate opposing teams star receivers which would allow the Notre Dame DBs and LBs to practice timing their vicious hits. Charlie could also help the first team defense get ready for option teams by throwing his body in front of huge DLs and LBs on the first team defense.
Charlie's hard work finally appear to be paying off in the spring following his senior year. Charlie had decided to return for a 5th year and was paired at WR with Derrick Mayes. Ron Powlus was the QB and, at long last it looked like ND was going to run a wide open pro-style offense. In the spring game Charlie was unstoppable. I think he caught something like 5 TD passes. He surely thought his time had come and undoubtedly worked harder than ever in the summer.
Yet in the fall Charlie's hard work actually proved to be his final undoing. He threw his body at a monster DL once too often and paid the price in the form of a badly damaged knee. Charlie still would not give up. And the coaches continued to count on him to block on running plays. But the coaches increasingly had to turn to other, younger WRs, notably Emmit Mosely, on passing plays.
As the season wore on, promise turned to frustration as ND suffered a couple of difficult losses. The team srtill managed to earn a first rate bowl against FSU and played them tough, only to lose in the end. After all he had been through, I could have understood and forgiven Charlie for simply slinking off the field in self pity. After all, Coach Holtz had already stated publically that the ND team that year had as much talent as any team he ever had, "except for one wide receiver and one corner back". One-legged Charlie was the "one wide receiver". I can only imagine how that barb must have felt.
And yet, at the end of the bowl game, when the team came over to the band and the ND faithful, Charlie was at the very front. He held his helmet high and thanked all who would listen. Even after the rest of the team had departed, Charlie remained. He had actually broken down in tears when asked why he remained. It was all he could do to choke out:
"Because I love this place so much, and I'll never get the chance to thank Notre Dame this way again."
Maybe not Charlie. But at least you made one old man's all time ND team.