The Philadelphia Archdiocese is populated with 1.4 million Catholics. The area hosted the church’s “World Meeting of Families” this September, featuring a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis, drawing a crowd estimated in the hundreds of thousands. So it’s really no surprise that the first Notre Dame football game in Philadelphia since 1993 is a huge draw.
“It’s a really big deal in the whole tri-state area, of Philly, New Jersey, and Delaware,” says Jim Murphy, football coach at Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High School. “It’ll be bonkers.”
Of course, Temple being 7-0 for the first time in its football history, and ranked No. 21 in the nation, has added greatly to the intrigue of the matchup. “It’s really a good thing for Temple and college football,” Murphy said. “Of course, we’re all Philadelphia Eagles fans. But this season, there’s a lot of excitement among Temple fans. And then there are tons of Notre Dame fans here. And everyone is excited about Will Fuller coming home to play.”
Oh, yes. Will Fuller. Notre Dame’s wide receiver is having an All-American type season, three years removed from starring at historic Roman Catholic High. Murphy, currently in his second stint as RCHS head coach, was an assistant when Fuller starred there in 2010-12. He remembers well how Fuller stood out.
“He had ridiculous body control, like a gymnast,” Murphy recalled. “And add to that the speed and the hands, and he was a one-of-a-kind talent. Plus, he had the right kind of attitude. No talk, just went out and did what he needed to do, at practice and in games. Just a really good guy.”
Fuller keeps in touch with former Roman Catholic teammates and coaches. “He’ll text us regularly,” says Murphy. “He doesn’t forget where he came from.”
Roman Catholic High, located at Broad and Vine streets, just a few blocks from the iconic Philadelphia Museum of Art, is celebrating the 125th anniversary of its founding in 1890. And there are Notre Dame connections in its history – leading back to the days of Knute Rockne.
Rev. John F. O’Hara spent decades at Notre Dame, and as prefect of religion in the 1920s, saw the benefit of promoting a positive image of Notre Dame students (Rockne’s players) far and wide across the U.S in 1924. (We tell this story in detail in our award-winning book, Loyal Sons.) O’Hara served as Notre Dame’s president from 1934-45, and was Archbishop of Philadelphia from 1951 until his death in 1958. He was the first member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross to become a Cardinal.
While Father O’Hara was early in his career at Notre Dame, the Irish had a quarterback named Stan Cofall in 1914-16. It was the same time Knute Rockne was an assistant coach to Jesse Harper. After Notre Dame, Cofall became football coach at Roman Catholic High, and in 1922, Cofall coached his squad to an Eastern prep-school championship.
Cofall wrote Rockne, then the successful head coach of the Irish, about three superb players from his Roman Catholic team – quarterback Vince McNally, end Joe Maxwell and tackle Joe Boland. On a cold winter night in early 1923, with Rockne in New York City speaking at a banquet, Cofall drove his Model T with the three as passengers, to meet the great coach.
Boland, in his biography, recalled the impression made by “the flat-nosed, square-faced dynamic Norwegian who lived football, but who talked about education; the discipline of the Hoosier campus, and how valuable both would be to all of us in later life. It wouldn’t be easy, he said. We’d have to work for what we got. Jobs as dining-hall waiters would be ours, as long as we maintained a high level of scholastic achievement, steered clear of trouble, and did good work in the dining halls.
“It would be worth it, Rock explained, for nothing is gained in this life without sacrifice and work.”
The three needed little prodding, as they had lived with Coach Cofall’s glowing descriptions of campus and life as a Notre Dame student and football player. They became the first Philadelphia high school stars to head to Notre Dame to play football. And by 1924, they were members of the varsity that included the Four Horsemen and the Seven Mules.
On Jan. 1, 1925, the undefeated Fighting Irish played in the Rose Bowl against Stanford, coached by the legendary Pop Warner and featuring Ernie Nevers. Early in the game, Irish tackle Joe Bach was injured, and Rockne sent in Boland, who played the remaining 57 minutes. Boland and the rest of the Irish line took a terrible pounding from Nevers, but prevailed, 27-10, to wrap up a perfect season and ND’s first consensus national championship.
Boland went on to a career in coaching and broadcasting. From 1942 until his death in 1960, he had daily sports shows on South Bend’s WSBT radio (and later TV) and did play-by-play of Notre Dame and high school sports. He was instrumental in forming the Notre Dame radio network, which reached nearly 200 stations nationwide.
Vince McNally had a notable career as a sports executive, rising to the position of general manager of the Eagles, from 1949-64. In 1958, he hired veteran college coach Buck Shaw, another former Notre Dame player under Rockne, to be the Eagles head coach. McNally is credited with building the Eagles team which won the NFL championship in 1960, handing Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers what would be their only post-season loss. Shaw retired after that game, and the Eagles have not won a championship since.
But this Saturday, there should be a championship-like buzz when the hometown favorite Owls clash with the iconic vising Fighting Irish.