The Time Notre Dame Played the New York Giants (for the Unemployed!)

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"Knute Rockne's Notre Dame all-stars arrived in New York for their battle with the New York Giants pro team in a charity grid battle. They were received by Mayor Walker at City Hall in New York." © Bettmann/CORBIS

When the Great Depression started squeezing New Yorkers’ job prospects, the city got creative. In October 1930, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker organized the Mayor’s Official Committee for the Relief of the Unemployed and the Needy, and he was clever about finding funding for his relief efforts. Walker suggested that local sports teams hold charity exhibition games to help drum up some cash, and the Giants of the then-fledgling National Football League offered to do their part.

The G-Men were happy to play an exhibition game, but they needed an opponent. Pro football was still finding its footing, so the team decided to ask a college team to play instead. When it came to college programs in 1930, nobody’s reputation could top Notre Dame’s, so the Giants approached legendary coach Knute Rockne about coming to New York for a charity exhibition.

The notion of a college team lining up across from an NFL squad sounds absurd to modern fans, but in 1930 many football analysts still considered the college game to be far superior to the upstart pros. Sure, the Giants had gone 13-4 to finish second in the NFL’s standings for the 1930 season, but Notre Dame had gone undefeated in 1929 and 1930 against what many fans felt was stronger competition. For the Giants, a team that had only been founded five years earlier, taking on a juggernaut like the Fighting Irish had the potential to be a serious fiasco.

Luckily, Rockne was open to the idea of bringing his boys to New York for the game and scheduled a tilt for December 14th. There was one catch, though. The Irish had a road game against Southern California in Los Angeles on December 6 – a clash in which they pummeled the Trojans for a 27-0 blowout – and Rockne didn’t want to have his team play two games on opposite coasts in the span of eight days.

Getting the Band Back Together

As always, Rockne had a solution. Instead of bringing the whole 1930 Fighting Irish roster to New York, why didn’t he assemble an all-star squad of Notre Dame greats, past and present?

The Giants loved this idea, so Rockne set about putting together an unstoppable lineup that included a reunion of the famed Four Horsemen backfield that had dominated college football from 1922 through 1924. He managed to get five of the Seven Mules, the Horsemen’s old offensive line, on the squad, too.

It might have given Rockne pause that most of his players, including all of the Four Horsemen, were no longer active football players. All four of the Horsemen had college coaching gigs at the time: fullback Elmer Layden as head coach at Duquesne, halfback Jim Crowley as head coach at Michigan State, quarterback Harry Stuhldreher as head coach at Villanova, and halfback Don Miller as backfield coach at Ohio State. They weren’t exactly old men, but all four were in their late 20s.

New York baseball Giants owner Charles Stoneham donated the use of the Polo Grounds for the big game, and fans started buying up tickets. Field boxes fetched as much as $100 apiece, but it was hard to resist the draw of seeing all of these Notre Dame legends back on the field together. And it would be terrific to see them wallop an inferior pro team.

Giants Among Men

Over 50,000 fans turned out on a frigid day to watch the Fighting Irish decimate the lowly G-Men. In Rockne’s pep talk before the game, he told his stars that the Giants were too big and slow to handle them, and if his team went up by a touchdown or two, they could coast to an easy win.

Rockne may have pumped up his boys’ confidence, but once he laid eyes on the Giants he knew his team was in trouble. The pros may not have been as revered as the Fighting Irish, but they were much bigger and stronger. When Rockne shook hands with Giants quarterback Benny Friedman, the NFL’s first great passer and a future Hall of Famer, before the game, the coach made a simple plea: “For Pete’s sake, take it easy.”

The Irish were the heavy favorites in the game, but once the two teams took the field, it quickly became apparent that they were no match for the pros. The Giants’ hulking defensive linemen had their way with the much smaller Irish players. On the first drive of the game, the Giants pinned the Irish back against their own goal line and dropped Horsemen quarterback Harry Stuhldreher for a safety and a 2-0 lead.

The score never got any closer. Horsemen or not, Notre Dame couldn’t move the ball well enough to pick up a first down, much less a score. The Giants went into halftime with a 15-0 lead, and the game wasn’t as close as the score would imply. Rockne sent a message to the Giants’ locker room during the break: "For heaven’s sake, I came here to help a charity and at a lot of trouble. You are making us look bad. Slow up, will you? I don't want to go home and be laughed at.”

The Giants showed Rockne some charity of their own by benching Friedman and other top players for the second half, but the professional second stringers were just as effective as the starters had been. When the final gun sounded, the Giants had laid a 22-0 shellacking on the Fighting Irish.

The score wasn’t close, but the game’s stats do an even better job of demonstrating the Giants’ absolute dominance on the field. Notre Dame’s offense never advanced the ball into Giant territory, and the team only squeaked out a single first down in the entire contest. The Irish quarterbacks didn’t complete a single pass, but they put two interceptions in the Giants’ hands.

Rockne had been publicly boisterous in the buildup to the game and had a long history of being skeptical of pro football’s relative merits. After the thorough drubbing his all-stars received, even he had to tip his cap to the giants. "That was the greatest football machine I ever saw," he told his team at a gala dinner after the game. "I am glad none of you got hurt."

The only good news for Rockne was that the game had raised a lot of cash for the unemployed. A few days later the Giants handed Mayor Walker a check for over $115,000, which the Committee for the Relief of the Unemployed and the Needy used to fund handouts of food and clothing. (The trick worked so well that the following summer the committee put on a charity baseball exhibition between the Yankees and the baseball Giants.)

Football historians cite the high-profile exhibition as a turning point for the perceived legitimacy of the pro game, so in the end, everyone came out ahead. Except for the Notre Dame ball carriers. They were probably sore for days.

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September 23, 2011 - 10:39am
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