Harpo and the Fighting Irish

 

As the dawn of the new Millennium approaches, devotees of the sports pages on both sides of the Atlantic can expect to be showered with lists, rating the Greatest this and the Most Important that of the past hundred, or perhaps thousand, years. First-hand experience suggests that an immediate consequence of producing these arbitrary rankings is a marked upsurge in barroom arguments. Dare publish a list naming Muhammad Ali as the greatest heavyweight of the century and within minutes a devotee of Joe Louis or Jack Dempsey will be on the phone threatening to drop by the office and beat you with a cudgel in support of his position.

When it comes to American football, or at least the collegiate variety, one suspects that there will be no such debate. Thirty-three years after the fact, it is generally accepted that the epic contest played between Notre Dame and Michigan State in November of 1966 remains (as it was described in a book of the same name a few years back) The Biggest Game of Them All.

The late-season game matched two unbeaten teams, and the eyes of the entire country were riveted on East Lansing, Michigan, that Saturday afternoon. There were close to 75,000 in the stands, and - almost literally - every television set in America was tuned to the game.

"And remember, back then there was only one televised college game each weekend," Bob (Harpo) Gladieux recalled this week.

Gladieux, who arguably played the biggest role in the biggest game that afternoon, has been golfing in Ireland for the past week, and although he took to the links in Kerry and Wicklow wearing his trademark Notre Dame baseball cap, he managed to escape the attention of his fellow American tourists.

Gladieux's Fighting Irish team-mates, Terry Hanratty and Rocky Bleier, went on to collect a fistful of Super Bowl rings as members of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Michigan State quarterback Jimmy Raye became a successful NFL offensive co-ordinator, while Spartans' defensive back Jess Phillips became an All-Pro with the Oakland Raiders. Michigan State defensive end Bubba Smith enjoyed several All-Pro seasons with the Baltimore Colts before moving on to a career in Hollywood, where he starred in a recurring role in several editions of the Police Academy films.

Michigan State had thundered to a 10-0 halftime lead, but the Irish battled back to tie the score at 10-10. The lone Notre Dame touchdown came on a pass play from Coley O'Brien to Gladieux, then a 19-year-old sophomore.

"Coley was only playing because Hanratty got hurt in the first quarter, and I started only because Nick Eddy was injured," recalls Harpo, now a South Bend travel agent.

With the score knotted at 10-10, Notre Dame got the ball back with a minute and a half to play, but following one half-hearted pass attempt which resulted in a sack, Irish coach Ara Parseghian elected to run out the clock. The order to play for the draw, albeit on the road, in a contest of such importance was widely regarded by non-participants as somewhat spineless. "What people forget is that we were down to our second-string quarterback and third-string running back," says Gladieux, who still visits with his old coach several times a year. "I remember in the dressing-room afterwards, Ara told us, you can hold your heads up high. We didn't lose this football game. Nobody lost, and we have a chance to go out next week and show people who the real champions are."

Michigan State's season ended that day, but the Irish had one game remaining on their schedule. The following Saturday, in LA, they defeated the University of Southern California 51-0. The final post-season polls were split on the issue, with one favouring Michigan State and the other Notre Dame. With the passage of time, it became generally accepted that the schools were co-champions that year.

Although his credentials as a world-class hell-raiser were firmly established, Gladieux's NFL career was less than illustrious. He put in four years as a fringe player, mostly with the New England Patriots, although he briefly had a cup of coffee with the Buffalo Bills as well.

"I played against OJ Simpson in college and with him in Buffalo," he recalled in a Wicklow restaurant the other night.

His fearless (some would say reckless) comportment on the field made him as much a crowd favourite as did his off-field exploits. The team's management might have been upset when Harpo was arrested with a stash of marijuana in the boot of his car, for instance, but he immediately became a hero to the hippie population in Cambridge, who began flocking to Patriots' games in previously unheard-of numbers.

Each season brought a new battle just to survive. In his second season, for instance, Gladiuex was waived by the Patriots on the week of the first game of the year.

"I did what any reasonable man would do," he remembered. "I went on a three-day tear."

Despite a massive hangover, he decided to accompany a friend to the season opener against the Dolphins. They drove to Harvard Stadium, passing a bottle of home-made port between them in the front seat. Upon arriving, Harpo was able to talk his way past the ticket collector only after borrowing a programme from a fan and pointing out his picture in the programme.

His pal was charged with the obligatory trip to the concession stand, while Harpo made his way to the men's room. It was on his way back that he heard his name being paged by the PA announcer.

Unbeknownst to them, another mini-drama had been in progress in the Patriots' locker-room. Two Boston players, John Outlaw and Larry Carwell, had not formally signed their contracts, and the team's penurious management had presented them with "take it or leave it" offers moments before the game. When they balked, Charles and Carwell were cut on the spot.

This left the team two players short, and with an eye towards filling out the roster with special teams fodder, somebody had remembered that Gladieux had said he might attend the game. When he answered the page and arrived at the locker-room door he was hastily re-signed to a contract and issued a uniform.

His buddy, in the meantime, had returned from the concession stand to his seat, where he nervously balanced one large cup of beer on each knee as he looked around wondering what could be keeping Gladieux. Then came the opening kick-off. Harpo ran right over his old Notre Dame team-mate Bob Kuechenberg and nailed the Miami ball carrier.

When the PA announcer boomed out "tackle by Bob Gladieux", the friend in the stands was so shocked that both beers, his own and Harpo's, ended up in his lap.