Any time Notre Dame comes to town to play football, it’s a big game for the home team. The Fighting Irish will be in Chapel Hill tomorrow, October 11, to take on UNC, so, ipso facto, it’s one of the biggest games on the Tar Heels’ schedule in years.
I was in the stands at Kenan Stadium when Notre Dame played Carolina exactly 33 years ago tomorrow, and it was a game I’ll never forget. The Irish had a young sophomore quarterback with one of the most colorful names I’ve ever heard. More about that guy in a moment.
Carolina came into the game with a record of 2-2, but the wins had come against the likes of William & Mary – not exactly a football powerhouse – and Virginia, which was the doormat of the ACC in those days. UNC would finish the season at 3-7-1. The Irish came into the game ranked 15th in the nation, and they’d finish the season 8-3. So the Heels really had no business being on the same field with Notre Dame.
But something strange and inexplicable happened that day. The game was scoreless at halftime. Notre Dame – the school of “wake up the echoes” where the so-called “Touchdown Jesus” mural overlooks the football stadium – had been held scoreless by a North Carolina defense that had allowed lowly Virginia to score four touchdowns a week earlier.
In the third quarter, what had been merely strange became truly bizarre. UNC scored twice. And somehow, the Tar Heel defense still held deep into the fourth quarter. With eight minutes left in the game, the 50,000 or so fans who’d crammed into a stadium with 48,000 seats were staring in disbelief at the scoreboard. It said, “North Carolina 14, Notre Dame 0.”
Then Notre Dame quarterback Rick Slagger threw a short touchdown pass to Ted Burgmeier. The Irish tried a two-point conversion but failed. So now it was 14-6.
Later, I realized that what happened next probably was inevitable. In addition to players and coaches, Notre Dame had priests patrolling their sideline. And they had nuns cheering them on behind the end zone. And they had a coach whose last name was “Devine,” for God’s sake.
I’m sure it would be improper to use the phrase “praying their asses off” in reference to priests and nuns, but I have no doubt that something like that was going on among Notre Dame’s sizable contingent of clerical supporters during the game’s final minutes. How are you going to beat a team that has that kind of pull?
Then Devine put in that quarterback who had the world’s most perfect name for a football hero. When his name was announced over the PA system, I remember thinking, No, that can’t really be that guy’s name. And then, in the blink of 100,000 eyes, the kid led the Irish to two scores, including a game-winning 80-yard touchdown pass with one minute showing on the clock.
Final score: Notre Dame 21, North Carolina 14.
It wasn’t until years later when that quarterback had become a household name among even casual sports fans that I realized that maybe Divine Intervention hadn’t been entirely responsible for Notre Dame’s last-minute game winning comeback. See, that Notre Dame kid with the perfect name for a football player was Joe Montana. And after that game in Chapel Hill, Montana made a specialty of pulling out games in the last minute during an NFL career that led him to the Hall of Fame.
So as I said, it was a memorable game – so memorable that I still have the ticket stub.