This Saturday we will witness the conclusion of a historic college tradition that has been played since 1887 as the Notre Dame and Michigan rivalry comes to an end with the 42nd meeting of he two teams. This game has been an occasion that always has served as the first true measuring stick for how good each team is and the first time fans are exposed to the pure agony and ecstasy of the college football season. Both programs are riding high coming off of lopsided wins to start off the 2014 campaign.
In today’s game, seeing a black quarterback is an afterthought. In fact, three of the top Heisman Trophy candidates heading into the season hold this distinction. And although current Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson was not considered to be in this mix, his stock has soared through the roof after accounting for more than 330 total yards and five touchdowns against Rice in week one. This performance comes after a missing the entire 2013 season for academic impropriety, which now appears to be in the rear view mirror for die-hard Irish fans.
Considered by many to be one of the top five greatest college football programs of all-time, Notre Dame has been on a roller coaster ride from hell since entering the millennium. From scandal, fraud and the hiring and firing of the first African-American coach in school history in Tyronne Willingham, there has been an urgency to return to the program's winning ways. Nothing captures this more than in the late 1980’s when coaching legend Lou Holtz was at the helm. With names like ‘The Rocket’ Raghib Ismail, and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown, ND was a powerful football institution. From 1987-1989, the Irish went an incredible 32-5 including an undefeated season of 12-0 in 1988 which ended with a National Championship. But there was one name that was the glue holding it all together, and that was the name of their quarterback, Tony Rice.
In 1986, Lou Holtz would land the star of his initial recruiting class in Rice, a mobile quarterback from South Carolina who was initially not so well regarded entering South Bend. Being the school’s first Proposition 48 player made him somewhat of a pariah before he even set foot on campus.
Some professors were outspoken in their displeasure as Notre Dame had admitted a player that had not met the same freshman eligibility standards as the rest of the student body. Prop 48 was like a scarlet letter. They were not allowed to practice, eat or train with the team. However, Rice did not let this deter him. He trained by himself. He played catch with other students in the quad, continuing to kill his critics and doubters with kindness despite all of the whispers of negativity that surrounded him. And while it certainly wasn’t an easy task, even asking his grandmother to help him come back home, Rice stuck it out, becoming the first African-American quarterback to start an entire season at Notre Dame in 1988, perhaps the greatest season in the history of Notre Dame football.
"Tony’s ability to handle the pressure was phenomenal” says Greg Harris who was one of Tony’s teammates during the 1986 and 1987 seasons. “His stats were not going to blow you away, but he was more like a point guard, and great distributor. He was the perfect guy in Lou Holtz's system because he (Holtz) wanted to run the ball almost every play of the game. And with players like Tim Brown at wideout and Anthony Johnson in the backfield, Tony was the key to making everything come together. He kept everybody honest as his running ability set him apart from all other quarterbacks.”
Rice remains the last quarterback to win a national title at Notre Dame. His efforts landed him a spot on the 1989 All-American team as well as the well-deserved respect from the Irish faithful. After graduating in 1990 with a degree in psychology, Rice spent three years playing professionally (one in Canada and two in Europe) before returning to the South Bend area to raise a family of five with his wife, Felicia.
Everett Golson has some pretty big shoes to fill if he would one day want to be compared to the likes of Tony Rice. The comparisons are very similar- both hail from South Carolina and both experienced academic setbacks, but it is now up to Golson to finish the story. The first item on the menu is to get a win for the Irish in the finale of one of college football’s most historic events. According to an interview in 2012, Rice believes that Golson not only possesses the tools to be great, but says that "Everett Golson is better than me." With all that has happened, and all that is in front of him, only Touchdown Jesus may have the answer to this one. For now, we salute the one who showed and proved, Tony Rice. #RESPECT