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Irish Insider: Reggie revisited

Mike Gilloon | Friday, September 8, 2006

They don’t have names on their jerseys. They lack logos on their helmets. Their coaches are cranky, Catholic and East Coast.

As programs known for their often-boring, always-traditional styles, it surprises some that games between Notre Dame and Penn State are usually dramatic.

It doesn’t surprise Reggie Brooks.

Today, the former Irish running back still works in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus. It’s just that the Hesburgh Library now blocks light from a different angle than when he starred at running back for the Irish from 1989-92.

An employee in the campus’ Information Technology Center, Brooks works in an inconspicuous office, three floors up and down a long hallway, in a building next door to the library.

It’s a much quieter life than he led in 1992 when, as Notre Dame’s leading rusher with 1,343 yards, Brooks finished fifth in Heisman Trophy voting.

In 1992, the last time Notre Dame played Penn State, Brooks was just a couple hundred yards from his current office, laying on the ground in the corner of Notre Dame Stadium’s south end zone. He earned bruises to prove it.

“It was one of the more physical games I’ve ever played in,” Brooks says.

With the Irish at No. 4 in this week’s AP poll and the Nittany Lions at No. 19, more than a few bodies will be bruised when Saturday’s game ends.

Blue with tradition

Notre Dame has played Michigan dozens of times, USC almost every year since Rockne was around and Navy is a schedule staple.

But, though they’ve met just 17 times in over 100 years of football for each school, it’s difficult to find a more dramatic matchup than Notre Dame vs. Penn State.

Seven Irish players have won the Heisman Trophy and, while Penn State has just one, the Nittany Lions’ sole winner gave the greatest acceptance speech when 1973 honoree and Penn State running back John Cappelletti spoke of his cancer-stricken little brother Joey.

Cappelletti received college football’s biggest award but State College is more known for its linebackers. Eight Nittany Lion linebackers – including current starter Paul Posluszny – have been named All-American, almost a quarter of the school’s total All-American count of 32.

Notre Dame has more than double – 79 – with the most recent, Jeff Samardzija, being Irish coach Charlie Weis’ first All-American.

Joe Paterno has guided 26 such honorees since taking over as the Nittany Lions head coach in 1966. Not counting George O’Leary, Paterno has outlasted six Notre Dame coaches who have come and gone in South Bend since Paterno took Penn State’s top job 41 autumns ago.

The 17-game series is currently knotted at eight apiece, plus a scoreless tie in 1925.

The squads played annually from 1981 until 1992 and five of those games involved the No. 1 team in the nation. The Nittany Lions entered the 1985 matchup at Beaver Stadium atop the polls and thwarted the Irish 36-6.

Notre Dame, at the height of the Lou Holtz years, kicked off each game between 1988 and 1990 at No. 1. The Irish won the first two of those before falling 24-21 in 1990 to No. 17 Penn State in Notre Dame Stadium.

The Nittany Lions’ return trip to South Bend wouldn’t be so successful.

“He hated losing to Penn State”

Besides falling in its third home game of the year to Stanford 33-16 and tying Michigan at 17 in early September, Notre Dame hadn’t had a close game all season.

Dropping from No. 7 to No. 14 in the AP poll the week after the loss to the Cardinal on Oct. 3, the Irish climbed back into the Top 10, entering the game at No. 8.

The Irish beat Pittsburgh 52-21 on Oct. 10, trashed Brigham Young 42-16 on Oct. 24 and whacked Boston College 54-7 on Nov. 7.

Notre Dame was on a roll toward the showdown on Nov. 14, 1992. And if anyone wanted to beat Penn State in 1992, it was Joe Moore. A Pennsylvania high school coach and assistant at Pittsburgh and Temple before he joined Holtz’ staff in 1988, the then-Irish offensive line coach screamed, stewed and stomped around the practice field the days before the game.

“Moore was in a pretty ornery mood the whole week,” Brooks says. “He hated losing to Penn State.”

So did the rest of the Irish.

“[Moore and Holtz] didn’t have to do a lot to prod us,” he says.

“They didn’t respect my hands”

Notre Dame’s chances blew in the wind.

Down seven with over four minutes left in regulation, Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer stood in the huddle, cracking jokes to keep his teammates loose. Lou Holtz huddled on the sideline, engineering the most famous finish of his 11-year career. Joe Paterno was 53 yards away on the Penn State side, the swirling snow sticking to his coke-bottle glasses.

In the huddle with Mirer, Brooks shivered.

“Yes it was cold,” Brooks says. “[Former Irish offensive tackle] Aaron Taylor was hugging me in the huddle, trying to warm me up.”

Brooks’ body temperature rose as the Irish marched down the field, until Notre Dame ended up with fourth-and-goal at the Penn State 3 as 25 seconds remained in regulation.

That’s when Mirer completed a pass over the top to fullback Jerome Bettis as he hovered in the end zone to pull Notre Dame within one, 16-15.

The problem for the Irish was they had practiced that play for two-point conversions.

With a two-pointer needed to win, Holtz was forced to draw up a new plan on the sideline, one where tight end Irv Smith was to pivot at the line and let Mirer hit him with a quick pass. Brooks’ role was to streak toward the corner of the end zone and keep Penn State’s linebackers away from Smith.

It wasn’t how Holtz drew it up – but it worked.

As the Nittany Lions defensive line chased Mirer out of the pocket, Brooks did his job, sprinting toward the corner of the end zone with Smith three yards behind.

Thinking back to the play when he leapt in the air, cradled Mirer’s pass and snatched a victory for Notre Dame, Brooks pauses.

“[Penn State] didn’t really respect my hands,” he says.

Maybe it should have.

Snow Bowl, take two

Fourteen years later, Reggie Brooks is still a hero.

“It’s really nice when I hear that that play was someone’s favorite Notre Dame football memory,” Brooks says. “It makes me feel welcome … a part of Notre Dame.”

Many of those who witnessed the 1992 classic will be in the stands again at Saturday’s game – or on the sidelines.

“It’s the first time they’ve been back since then, is that right?” asks current Irish defensive coordinator Rick Minter, who held the same post under Holtz in 1992, of the Nittany Lions. “I guess it’s Joe [Paterno] and I returning to the scene.”

Brooks will be there, focusing on the game. He confidently expects the Irish to win the national title this season. It’s a pick he made on the Notre Dame football radio show he co-hosts, in a role much less intense than the job he had in 1992.

“It was one of those games where afterward you just want to curl up with a hot chocolate and say ‘We’ll party tomorrow,'” Brooks says.

We sure will.