Throwback Thursday: ND coach Frank Leahy's sideline scare

Leahy collapses, is given last rites at Georgia Tech game

Margaret Fosmoe
South Bend Tribune

The game on Oct. 24, 1953 wasn't supposed to be played in South Bend.

The Notre Dame-Georgia Tech game of 1953 was slated to be played in Georgia. But in the pre-Civil Rights era South, Georgia Tech wouldn't host the Irish because two black players — Wayne Edmonds and Dick Washington — were on the Notre Dame team.

So the game was moved to South Bend.

See the Tribune's front page from the game:

That fall, Frank Leahy was in his 11th year as Notre Dame's head coach. The Fighting Irish were ranked No. 1 going into the game, having already beaten Oklahoma, Purdue and Pittsburgh. The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets were ranked No. 4.

In the first four minutes of the game, the Irish covered 80 yards in 10 plays to score a touchdown.

There was drama on the football field, but there was more drama off the field.

See the Tribune's sports page from the game:

During the game, Leahy was stricken ill by a severe abdominal spasm. "Doctors feared a heart attack when Leahy became dizzy and lapsed into a state of semi-consciousness, complaining of severe chest pain," the Tribune reported the next day.

The Rev. Edmund Joyce, then in his second of 35 years as Notre Dame's executive vice president, administered the last rites of the Catholic Church before Leahy was rushed by ambulance to St. Joseph Hospital, the Tribune reported.

See the story: "Irish Rap Yellow Jackets 27-14"

The Irish players were told of Leahy's illness in the locker room at halftime. They returned to the field with tears streaming down their faces, the Tribune reported.

With Leahy gone, Irish captain Don Penza and assistant coaches Joseph McArdle and William Earley led the Notre Dame team.

Tech coach Bobby Dodd's team played a cautious game, punting in nearly every case on third down.

See photos from the game:

Still, the Yellow Jackets tied the score early in the third quarter. Then the Irish scored three times, twice on drives from near midfield and once on an errant snap from center on an attempted Tech punt.

The day marked Irish halfback Johnny Lattner's 21st birthday. The All-American back gained 101 yards for Notre Dame and scored the final touchdown as the the Irish student section serenaded him with "Happy Birthday." In the locker room afterwards, teammates gleefully poured soft drinks over Lattner to celebrate his birthday and the victory.

Lattner went on to win the Heisman Trophy that season, and he won the Maxwell Award twice, in 1952 and 1953.

"Irish tighten grip on No. 1," the South Bend Tribune announced in a front-page banner headline in the next day's paper. "Leahy stricken; back in action soon," declared another headline.

"Notre Dame's Fighting Irish, spurred on by a sudden but probably not serious illness of their coach, Frank Leahy, exploded savagely and ceaselessly Saturday to whip cautious and colorful Georgia Tech, 27-14, as college football's longest unbeaten streak ended at 31 games," Tribune sports writer Joe Doyle wrote.

Doctors termed the illness an acute attack of virus enteritis, the Tribune reported. (Years later, it was reported that Leahy had suffered from nervous tension and pancreatitis.) He stayed in St. Joseph Hospital several more days, watching his team scrimmage from his hospital bed with a special television hookup provided by WSBT-TV.

See the story: "Coach Leahy may be back late in week"

The Irish team finished the season 9-0-1, landing a No. 2 ranking in the final Associated Press poll after a tie against Iowa.

Leahy, 45 at the time, was a Notre Dame graduate. He played tackle on legendary coach Knute Rockne's teams from 1929 to 1930, and graduated in 1931, a few months after Rockne died in an airplane crash.

The 1953 season would be Leahy's last as Irish head coach. He resigned in January 1954, with a .855 winning percentage at Notre Dame. He never coached again.

Leahy served as general manager for the Los Angeles Chargers in 1960, and later moved to Portland, Ore., where he worked as an executive for a vending machine company. He died in Portland in 1973 at age 64.


When Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy was stricken ill during the Oct. 24, 1953 Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech game, it fell upon these three to guide the Fighting Irish to victory (from left): Irish team captain Don Penza, and assistant coaches Joseph McArdle and William Earley. They are shown watching the opposing team's play early in the fourth quarter. This photo ran on the front page of the next day's South Bend Tribune. SBT Archive photo
Notre Dame halfback Johnny Lattner, left, and team captain Don Penza, right, pour a bucket of water on fullback Neil Worden during a hot day at the start of fall team practices in September 1953. Lattner would go on to win the Heisman Trophy that year. SBT File Photo
From left, Georgia Tech coach Bobby Dodd and Notre Dame assistant coaches Joseph McArdle and Bill Earley, meeting on the field after the Oct. 24, 1953 Notre Dame-Georgia Tech game. The Irish won, 27-14. SBT File photo
An action shot of a play during the Oct. 24, 1953 Notre Dame-Georgia Tech game. SBT File Photo