Ken MacAfee still happy he ended up in dentistry after his Notre Dame football experience

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Ken MacAfee was an expert multitasker before multitasking was really a thing, so taking away his 11-hour workdays was a cruel dose of culture shock as far as the former Notre Dame football All-American was concerned.

That’s even 43 years after balancing a pre-dental curriculum with the most serious run at a Heisman Trophy by a tight end in more than four decades.

“I feel like I’m on a forced vacation,” the 64-year-old dentist/oral surgeon said last week from his Needham, Mass., home, where he’s sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are able to treat emergencies, which I haven’t had much of. But the American Dental Association and Massachusetts Dental Association suggested all the offices close until May 4. So it might be another month or so. What a pain.”

That MacAfee is fighting off boredom as a working professional, with retirement nowhere on the radar, rather than a guy with a long and storied NFL career behind him at age 64 still feels right to him.

It was a matter of choice, not a shortage of talent, that truncated MacAfee’s pro football career just two seasons after the San Francisco 49ers made him the seventh overall pick of the 1978 NFL Draft, four months after he helped coax the 1977 Irish to a national title.

While at Notre Dame, the three-time All-American set the standard and remains the standard at a school that makes the claim convincingly of being Tight End U. In fact, in the Tribune’s ranking of the top ND players at the position in the era of two-platoon football (1964-present), the Brockton, Mass., product topped the list.

As a member of the 49ers, however brief, he was driven to put that kind of effort into his NFL career from July through December. But from January to June, he funneled his attention into dental school.

Bill Walsh was hired to lead the 49ers in MacAfee’s second pro season (1979), giving the franchise its sixth head coach in a five-year span. San Francisco went 2-14 during MacAfee’s rookie season and again in Walsh’s first year.

What made things worse, Walsh wasn’t a fan of MacAfee’s offseason multitasking, nor did he feel MacAfee’s best position was tight end, so the coach asked him to move to offensive guard.

“Bill Walsh said to me, ‘You’re a great blocker and you’re quick.’” MacAfee said. “‘I think you could be an all-pro guard, but we’re going to change the offensive scheme a little bit, and the tight end isn’t going to be utilized as much.

“I said, ‘Bill, I lost more games in my rookie year than I lost in high school and college combined. I don’t think I really want to go inside for this team. This team isn’t going to go anywhere too soon.’

“I told him, ‘I don’t want to get my head beat in for nothing. I’m just going to go back and finish dental school. Of course (two years later), they win the Super Bowl, so it shows you how smart I am.”

And yet without a regret about taking that fork in the road.

“Who wouldn’t want to have a Super Bowl ring?” MacAfee said. “It doesn’t come around that often, the opportunity. In looking back on it, who knows what would have happened? I could have gotten some injury — who knows?

“I can walk today. I don’t have to limp, and it makes me happy that I made that decision, because the (dental) profession has been very good to me and my family and it’s been enjoyable.

“I’m still doing it. And as long as I can do it, I’ll continue to get up every morning and continue working. Once the virus is over, that is.”

He did get to stay connected to sports over the years, including through his two children, both fairly recent college graduates.

Daughter Keeley was a standout lacrosse player at Harvard, a two-time Ivy League selection who led the team in scoring and served as captain her senior year. She’s currently working in Chicago as a financial analyst for the Kraft Heinz Co.

Son Dalton was a defenseman in hockey, starting his career at Boston University. He then transferred after his freshman season to Army, where he was a standout on power plays and served as captain during his senior season.

“He’s supposed to be in Oklahoma for Army officers training,” Ken MacAfee said, “but with the military’s ban on travel right now, he’s kind of in limbo.”

The elder MacAfee knows the feeling of limbo from his first impression of Notre Dame. He was convinced during his first few hours in the Midwest for his official recruiting visit in mid-January of 1974 that he’d never end up at ND himself.

“It was kind of the worst weather-wise,” he said. “They had about 20-25 recruits that weekend, and a bunch of us flew into Chicago. And we couldn’t fly from Chicago to South Bend, because it was snowy and foggy — it was just miserable. So we all had to get on a bus at O’Hare and drive to South Bend.

“We didn’t get in til midnight or 1 in the morning. Pulled into campus, took us to the Morris Inn. I didn’t know where the heck we were. It was all foggy. So I asked one of the coaches, ‘Is it like this frequently?’

“He was like, ‘No, it’s just a bad day. That’s all.’ But that was kind of a little harrowing beginning to it.”

During his first weekend in South Bend, though, the Irish hockey team took down a highly ranked Michigan Tech, 7-1; the men’s basketball team ended defending champ UCLA’s 88-game winning streak; and the Irish football team held its 1973 national championship banquet.

MacAfee was sold as he watched the ND students storm the court at the end of the UCLA game on Saturday that weekend.

“Mike Creaney, who was a tight end at the time, was my host,” MacAfee said. “At the end of the game, I said, ‘This is unbelievable — all the people running on the floor and going crazy.

“He said, ‘Multiply this by 10, and you have a football game.’

“I said, ‘Where do I sign up?’”

MacAfee went on to become a unanimous All-America selection in 1977. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting that season and became the first lineman to win the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award.

In 1997, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

MacAfee shares the Notre Dame record for catches in a single game (9) with Cole Kmet. With 128 career receptions for 1,759 yards (with 15 TDs), he’s No. 2 to Tyler Eifert in both those career categories and No. 2 in the corresponding single-game marks (54 catches, 797 yards) as well.

He keeps up with the Irish as much as he can, but admits his normally busy schedule doesn’t allow for him to drill down on the details as much as he’d like.

MacAfee, though, did have one distinct observation and suggestion about the way the game has been played in recent years.

“They need to throw it to the tight end more,” he said.

Former Notre Dame All-America tight end Ken MacAfee chose dentistry over a long career in pro football.