Notre Dame's Legacy Weekend bridges several generations of Irish football players
SOUTH BEND — Former Notre Dame quarterback Steve Beuerlein paused outside the Irish Athletic Center on a picturesque early Saturday afternoon and considered the question.
When was the last time this many former Irish football players had come back to campus at the same time? The 57-year-old Californian shook his head with kickoff for the Blue-Gold Game less than an hour away.
“I don’t recall it ever happening,” Beuerlein said. “I graduated in ‘87, so it’s been 35 years. I think all of us as former players want to feel involved and want to be back and part of it. This is a great way to get it to happen.”
The brainchild of rookie head coach Marcus Freeman, what was billed as Legacy Weekend brought back 297 former Notre Dame football players. Just three confirmed attendees had to cancel at the last minute.
“This is the first time that there’s really been a concerted, organized initiative to try to re-engage with the former players,” Beuerlein said. “Not to say that we haven’t been welcomed back, but this is a really concerted effort by Marcus and everybody involved to reach out to us and make us feel a part of it.”
Hunter Bivin, the former Irish offensive lineman (2013-17) now working as the director of football player development, coordinated the multi-day event, starting a few months ago with a broad-based invitation to more than 500 former players on his contact list.
“They reached out to everybody with an email,” Beuerlein said. “I knew Hunter Bivin. I knew about it. I knew it was coming. You can tell by the turnout the energy that’s here. We’re all hoping it translates onto the field, obviously, in the fall as well.”
Beuerlein, now working in risk management after a 16-year career in the NFL, could sense the momentum gathering as the date grew closer. He usually tries to get back for one or two games each fall, and was at Notre Dame Stadium for the USC and Georgia Tech games last season.
This was different. This was a circling of the wagons in the wake of Brian Kelly’s stunning departure for LSU after 12 seasons with the Irish.
With Freeman at the helm, this was a program reboot and a long-overdue reminder of the shared brotherhood that had grown a bit distant over the decades.
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“There’s been different coaches over the years,” Beuerlein said. “Lou (Holtz) always welcomed us back, those of us that played for him during those years. We’ve always been encouraged to come back and be a part of things. They answer the phone calls and take care of us.
“But to have a united, big effort to reach out and bring everybody back together? And it doesn’t matter whether you were a quarterback who played or a kicker who didn’t. If you wore the helmet and you wore the uniform, you’re all invited to come back. That’s really a cool deal.”
From 'Sugarhouse' to the house
Shortly after vaulting in for the winning touchdown in his home debut, freshman quarterback Steve Angeli was asked about the impact of playing in front of so many former Irish standouts.
“It’s huge,” he said. “It’s the reason why I came to Notre Dame. The alumni networking, you can’t put a price on it.”
Growing up in northern New Jersey, Angeli got to know future Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush as a self-described "waterboy" for St. Peter’s Prep, where Angeli’s older brother also played.
“When I was a kid on the sidelines, I always wanted to be like Brandon,” Angeli said. “Brandon definitely helped me a lot throughout the recruiting process. I have a personal relationship with him.”
Angeli’s great uncle, “Sugarhouse” Pete Berezney, played tackle at Notre Dame during World War II. Berezney, who died in 2008, was a reserve for the 1943 national champions and a seventh-round pick of the NFL’s Detroit Lions in 1946 before playing two professional seasons.
“The people that have played football here were first-round draft picks, won national championships, won Super Bowls and are now very successful in life and in business,” Angeli said. “To have them back here and be able to talk with them and spend time with them, it's really amazing.”
Former Irish running back Greg Bell (1980-83), founder of Athletes For Life Foundation and author of the 2017 book “Athletic Wisdom For Students: How to Manage Life’s Wins and Losses,” sat with Angeli for Thursday’s networking dinner and made a strong impression on a player whose college career is just starting.
“Just to hear his story, (about) how Notre Dame was like back then and what he was able to do here and then in the league and all the challenges that he went through,” Angeli said of the former Buffalo Bills’ first-rounder and seven-year pro. “Just how much success he's had in his life and just learning some of the life lessons he's taught me” has been beneficial.
Malik Zaire, who appeared in 15 games at quarterback for Notre Dame from 2014-16 before transferring to Florida for his senior season, was impressed at the timing of the gathering as much as the size of it.
“You could probably get 300 coming to a (regular-season) game, but a weekend dedicated to former players?” Zaire said as he walked to the stadium with his son Legend, 11; and 1-year-old daughter Haki. “When you’ve got Marcus Freeman in there, a fellow Daytonian, he adds something real special to the program and people are bought in."
Zaire held his daughter in his arms as he spoke and fans swirled around them.
"It’s good to see when the base is bought in because that makes this the special place that it is," he said. "It’s really good to be back.”
'Football is a people game'
Before he was honored on the field as a 2021 inductee to the College Football Hall of Fame, Aaron Taylor made the rounds.
“I’m looking forward to being back with my friends,” said the former Irish offensive lineman (1990-93) and Joe Moore Award founder, named in honor of his college position coach. “That’s what this is about. Football is a people game. We’re really excited about the direction of Notre Dame football, but what we’re excited about is coming back together. We all live across the country, and it’s a good reunion for us.”
Taylor, a two-time All-American and Super Bowl champion with the Green Bay Packers, hosted Notre Dame’s season-ending awards ceremony during the Kelly era. Seeing Freeman kick off his tenure with such a well-received idea left Taylor and his fellow football alumni encouraged.
“It’s amazing,” said Taylor, 49 and a CBS Sports football analyst since 2008. “It is, I think, overdue and very welcomed, and I think everyone is responding accordingly. So far, so good. I think we’re very optimistic about next fall and moving forward.”
Another Holtz-era legend, former All-American linebacker Wes Pritchett, echoed those sentiments.
“We were just having a conversation about it,” said Pritchett, leading tackler on the 1988 national champions and now an Atlanta-based financial adviser. “I think it’s incredible. There’s just a lot of synergies with the current players, guys in the league, kids in school and the ex-players.”
As the Friends of the University of Notre Dame (FUND) collective launched recently, gatherings such as Legacy Weekend can serve to make up precious ground in the race to maximize Name, Image and Likeness potential.
“We wanted to know from the current players: How can we help them with their life after football?” Pritchett said. “How can we put all our synergies together to monetize Notre Dame and to help kids in the business world? And they’re thinking they can help us, too. It’s a mutual understanding and a huge exponential synergetic kind of situation.”
Over a three-day weekend that included an alumni golf outing, Pritchett had a chance to speak with incoming freshman tight end Holden Staes, a fellow product of The Westminster School in Atlanta.
As he made the walk past the Guglielmino football building to an appearance at a members-only event for the Irish Players Club, Pritchett, 55, expressed appreciation for the chance to connect with a new generation of Notre Dame football talent.
“It makes too much sense,” Pritchett said. “We all went through similar experiences. Now it’s (about) how do we connect with each other out in the world and do something great? I’m excited about it.”
'Blood, sweat and tears'
In the wake of Kelly’s abrupt departure and Freeman’s more welcoming approach to former Irish players, a false narrative has seemingly formed.
In short, it holds that somehow this is all about righting the wrongs of the prior administration, one that perhaps felt threatened by the unspoken demands from Irish loyalists for a 12th national title that has yet to happen.
Mick Assaf, a walk-on running back under Kelly from 2016-19 and a budding entrepreneur, bats down that characterization.
“I don’t think it was just coach Kelly,” Assaf said at the IPC event he sponsored. “Most guys haven’t been back since they played, period. Guys from the ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s, they’d never been invited back. It wasn’t even just one regime. I think it was just the program never made a concerted effort to do so.”
Under Freeman, the dam has broken.
“For the first time they did that, and the former players feel super excited, “Assaf said. “People love to feel welcomed, especially to a place where so many people gave so much blood, sweat and tears to make this place special.”
Weekly meetings with Jerome Bettis, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who returned in January to complete work toward his bachelor’s degree, only solidified Freeman’s belief in the concept of unification across the eras.
“When you see guys that have done everything you aspire to do that are wanting to come back and love this place and then come back and be with their brothers?” Freeman said. “To me that's powerful, and that's why. There's no other reason. I just want those former players to come back because this is their home. They built Notre Dame football to where it's at.”
At a four-hour outdoor event just a few hundred yards from the Hesburgh Library, Assaf and former teammates such as Nic Weishar, Cole Kmet and Ian Book met players from prior generations as well as fans eager to bathe in the program’s unsurpassed nostalgia.
“From the ‘50s and ‘60s to my class, people gave so much to the university,” Assaf said. “Just a simple, actual, extended invite means a ton. I think it’s just a little bit goes a long way, and that creates a ton of excitement and buzz around the program.”
As Pritchett noted as well, connecting players across generations also imbues a well-worn recruiting pitch with a more tangible context.
“The networking opportunities,” Assaf said. “If you bring back former players, you make ‘Four for 40’ way more real than it’s ever been. It becomes so, so real. That’s why I’m so excited about it. So much of Notre Dame’s promise comes to life when you let the former players be involved.”
Staff writer Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for the South Bend Tribune and NDInsider.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.