Most remember Knute Rockne’s last game–capping off a 19-0 run to end his career–as taking place in 1930 at Los Angeles Coliseum against USC in one of Notre Dame’s most impressive victories in school history while bringing home the school’s second consecutive National Championship.
However, there was one final game that took place in December 1930 before Rockne’s untimely death.
The Young NFL
Okay, so to first understand how this played out we have to realize that the National Football League was in only its 11th season during 1930 and nearly everyone in America still believed the college game was better than the pro ranks. As weird as that sounds to our modern ears it was a common held belief back then.
A year into the Great Depression, soon-to-be found as corrupt New York City mayor Jimmy Walker formed the Committee on Unemployed and approached the NFL’s New York Giants about playing an exhibition to raise money for this fund.
The Giants were formed in 1925 but were quickly one of the best teams in the league. They won the NFL crown in 1927, finished 2nd in 1929, and would finish 2nd again in 1930. The NFL was still a weird place–teams didn’t play the same number of games, there were no playoffs, and there was some serious game congestion. The Giants played 3 games in 8 days in mid-October, 4 games in 11 days in late-October and early November, while finishing the season playing games on back-to-back days in early December.
Getting Notre Dame Involved
The story goes Northwestern approached Notre Dame in the fall of 1930 about playing the following year’s game at Soldier Field and if so the Wildcats would donate $100,000 to charity. This gave a writer in NYC the idea of pitting Notre Dame against the Giants to raise money for the Committee on Unemployed.
Knute Rockne–ever the showman–was immediately sold.
However, the logistics weren’t easy to pull off. When the sides agreed in principle undefeated Notre Dame still had 2 games remaining against Army and USC.
Nobody Freak Out
Rockne was concerned about the health and stamina of his players, especially with a National Championship on the line and a handful of crucial injuries piling up in South Bend. This is why Notre Dame’s coach came up with the idea of the Giants playing an all-star team made up of former greats coached by Rockne.
Apparently, Giants head coach Leroy Andrews lost his damn mind while preparing for this Notre Dame all-star team. The Giants lost 2 games in a row in late November and promptly fired the manic Andrews while replacing him with star quarterback Benny Friedman as head coach.
Notre Dame scraped past Army 7-6 on November 29th at Soldier Field, and despite being in the middle of an unbeaten streak stretching back to December 1, 1928 they traveled to USC in the regular season finale as underdogs. Notre Dame ended up winning 27-0 in perhaps Rockne’s finest hour in his final official game.
Notre Dame returned to South Bend, held a parade for the National Championship, and then began practicing on campus for the upcoming charity game that weekend in New York City.
Three players from the ’30 Notre Dame team would play as they were finishing their college careers: halfback Marty Brill, halfback Bucky O’Connor*, and All-American quarterback Frank Carideo
*The injuries for Notre Dame vaulted O’Connor into this story. Starting halfback “Jumping” Joe Savoldi was kicked out of school for being married^ (classic old-school ND!) and the backup got hurt in the Army game. Rockne told the media that Dan Hanley would start in the USC game. The team held a set of practices in Arizona before the game watched by as many as 5,000 spectators and even dressed O’Connor in Hanley’s uniform (classic Rock!).
^Actually, Savoldi got caught because he filed for divorce.
“They spose’d to be NFL!”
The headline grabber was that Notre Dame would be using the Four Horsemen in the game. Harry Stuhldreher was 29 years old and the head coach at Villanova, Elmer Layden 27 years old and head coach at Duquesne, Jim Crowley was 28 years old and head coach at Michigan State, and Don Miller was 28 years old and an assistant coach at Georgia Tech.
Rockne also grabbed 5 of the famous “Seven Mules” and brought on board several more players who were stars on his late 20’s football teams. This included 32-year old Hunk Anderson who was an assistant coach on Rockne’s 1930 team and was only months away from being named Notre Dame head coach.
A Rude Awakening
It was a curious thing to see Notre Dame go from underdogs against USC and then watch an all-star cast of Ramblers favored against the NFL’s second-best team.
New York Giants owner Tim Mara was quietly confident. Rockne was apprehensive at first but buoyed by a strong 4-days of practice with his players. In the locker room before the game at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan the Notre Dame coach told his players, “Go out there, score two or three touchdowns on passes in the first quarter and then defend and don’t get hurt.”
Rockne and Notre Dame were nearly run off the field. The Giants jumped out to a 15-0 lead and at halftime Rockne pleaded for the professionals to take it easy. They did just that, playing backups the rest of the way as New York cruised to a 22-0 win.
The loss was so bad for Notre Dame–they never even entered Giant territory with the ball–that this became known as a turning point for Giants football in the metropolitan New York area and for the respect garnered to the NFL. Afterwards, Rockne quipped, “That was the greatest football machine I ever saw. I’m glad none of you got hurt.”
The NFL was still 35 years away from the first Super Bowl and continued to face competition from rival leagues for the greater part of the next couple decades. Yet, this charity game did enough to open eyes that professional football could be played at the highest level.
Four days after the game a check for $115,153 was presented to Mayor Walker at City Hall. This would be the last major public appearance for Knute Rockne. He boarded an airplane 107 days after this game at the Polo Grounds and died tragically in a crash over rural Kansas.