Notre Dame’s “Watch Charm Guard” Was a Man Among (Much Bigger) Men

If there was one thing Michael Metzger was comfortable around, it was dairy cows.
After all, he had grown up dirt-poor on a farm near Junction City, Ohio. He wanted to go places in life, so as a young man he headed west to Chicago around the turn of the 20th century. There, he used his farm background and a tireless work ethic to achieve a series of promotions with the Bowman Dairy Co., the largest dairy serving Chicagoland. He eventually earned a sizeable chunk of ownership in the company.
Michael and wife Emma raised their six children—three boys, three girls — in a fine home on North Ashland Avenue. The Metzgers were able to send their sons to prestigious Loyola Academy. From there, oldest son Walter attended the University of Notre Dame, and middle son Lou headed off to Georgetown. After college, they joined their father in working for Bowman.
Their youngest son, Bertram, had a passion for sports. He loved to compete, loved to be challenged. There was only one problem – he was literally the “runt of the litter,” with barely 140 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame.
Not only that, he played in the line. But size didn’t keep Metzger from competing – successfully – against fellows much bigger. In 1925, he helped Loyola Academy win its first football championship in the rugged Chicago Catholic League.
After high school, Bert Metzger also headed to Notre Dame, where Knute Rockne had established a football juggernaut, with the 1924 national championship on the shelf and a beautiful new stadium on the drawing board. Talented football players from across the nation were drawn to South Bend, and the chances for a 5-9, 140-something lineman to gain playing time were slim indeed.
But Bert Metzger had something special – an irrepressible drive to excel. Combined with supreme quickness, agility, finesse and footwork, it allowed him to constantly overachieve. He made the varsity of the Fighting Irish as a sophomore in 1928, then played a major role for Notre Dame’s undefeated national champions in 1929 and 1930.
“It was (line coach) Hunk Anderson who saw the potential in my Dad,” says Bert Metzger Jr., himself a 1955 Notre Dame grad and now a retired attorney in Seattle. “Hunk really pushed for him, and told Rockne ‘This man can play.’”
Bert Metzger got involved in wrestling at Notre Dame, and his son said that was a key to his success in football. “It taught him how to twist and turn bodies, to get an advantage over the other person. Footwork and positioning were essential.
“Plus, he was tough as nails mentally. The guy lining up against him never expected what he would get from him,” said Bert Jr.
Rockne, who loved finesse and quickness, would have several undersized players in key positions. The members of his famous backfield, The Four Horsemen, were quite small for the period. He took to calling Bert Metzger his “watch-charm guard.” Rockne would later call Metzger the best guard he had ever seen.
Metzger’s six linemates along the Notre Dame line of 1930 averaged 191 pounds; Metzger rarely reached 150.
As a senior in 1930, Metzger was a consensus first-team All-American selection, providing the blocking and tackling that helped ND to its second straight national championship. In 1929 and 1930 combined, the Irish outscored their opponents, 410-112. They played in front of some of the largest crowds in college football history at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1929, then christened Notre Dame Stadium in 1930.
And, sadly, Metzger played on the last team coached by Rockne, who died in a March 31, 1931 airplane crash.
Metzger did a little coaching in the fall of 1931, then joined the “family business,” starting out at Bowman Dairy as his father and brothers did, delivering milk in a horse-drawn wagon. Reporters of the day were apparently unaware of the family background.
“It was the Depression,” Bert Jr. reminds us. “They were darn fortunate to have work, let alone a business they could advance in.”
Bert Metzger advanced to an executive position within the company, as a division manager overseeing several plants. And though his football days were over, they were never forgotten. In 1982, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
“He didn’t talk much about football, but certainly his days at Notre Dame were some of the most wonderful moments of his life,” says son Bert Jr.. “He was treated as a celebrity whenever he returned to ND, but he was very modest. To us he was just Dad. He was always there when you needed him.”
A big man, indeed.