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Remembering ‘The Kick’

Eduardo Magallanez | Monday, September 3, 2007

Harry Oliver passed away a few weeks ago.

To current Notre Dame students, this probably doesn’t mean a thing. However, for many of us legions of Irish football fans, particularly those around in the early 1980s, his left-footed soccer-style kick resulted in probably our fondest moment and memory in Notre Dame football. His being, however, represents something much larger that Notre Dame students and alumni aspire to achieve.

I’ve never written a tribute like this before, but I came across the news article that announced Harry’s passing on the Notre Dame football website while I was surfing earlier today. I was moved at the news, not only because of that moment now seared into my memory, but also of the life Harry lived while at Notre Dame and after leaving. I don’t consider myself a rah-rah, win-at-any-cost alum. I have simple needs and desires – that the Irish play well. ND wins and ND loses, and the sun still rises in the east.

It is a sunny Saturday afternoon in September 1980. A brisk wind is blowing from the south – remember that. Notre Dame Stadium is filled to capacity, around 60,000 in those days, for another classic battle between the Fightin’ Irish and the visiting Michigan Wolverines. The lead changes hands throughout the game. Late in the fourth quarter, Michigan scores what appears to be the game-winning touchdown with 41 seconds left: the score is Michigan 27, ND 26.

Notre Dame starts on its own 20-yard line. While the rest of the game remains blurry, as are most ND games I’ve attended or watched on TV, these last seconds weren’t. The Hail Mary’s just weren’t hitting their targets, and one senses the frustration throughout the crowd. An opportune pass interference penalty moves the ball to midfield. A few plays later, the ball is on the Michigan 34-yard line and four seconds remain on the clock. Coach Dan Devine sends Harry Oliver into the game to attempt a seemingly impossible 51-yard field goal into the brisk wind.

Harry Oliver never became a celebrity. He lived in Grace Hall, which, along with Flanner, was a dorm at the time. He attended classes like the rest of us and never called attention to himself even with his new-found fame. He had respectable numbers with the football team. He was humble in accepting the spotlight that was suddenly thrust in his face after “the kick.” And like so many of ND’s student-athletes, did not pursue a career in professional sports.

A mechanical engineering major, he went on to work as an engineer in the construction business and became a senior estimator and project manager at a construction firm in Cincinnati. Many of his projects were geared towards charitable organizations and schools in southern Ohio, according to Pete LaFleur, who wrote the article on the Notre Dame football website.

Back in the sophomore section, and throughout the stadium, the crowd is hushed and all eyes are focused on this one guy, this one player who has been called upon to carry the weight of the game and all the Notre Dame legends on his shoulders. Well, on his kicking leg anyway. The ball is snapped, Harry kicks and there is a scramble at the line of scrimmage. The ball sails through the air and heads toward the uprights. Because of the confusion on the field, and the fact that we’re witnessing this moment from the north end of the stadium, it is difficult to tell whether the football made it over the crossbar.

To this day, many who attended the game say that just before Harry kicks the ball, the brisk 15 mile-per-hour wind that wreaked havoc throughout the game suddenly went silent. Even the late Michigan coach Bo Schembechler “claimed until the day he died that the wind stopped right before Harry’s kick” according to former ND coach Gerry Faust. The legends would later say that the fans at that end of the field sucked air, while those of us at the north end blew fiercely to help the ball over. I guess we all wanted to feel we had a hand in the outcome of the game.

The silence of those four seconds that seemed to last forever was broken by a growing roar coming from the south end of Notre Dame Stadium as the field officials performed their impersonations of “Touchdown Jesus.” The kick was good! Pure, unadulterated joy broke out throughout the stadium. Someone in the upper levels of our section lost his or her balance and the entire sophomore section collapsed on itself, row by row. Thankfully there were no casualties and the celebrations continued with a mad dash of students and fans charging onto the field.

“Michigan 27, Notre Dame 26, GOD 3.” That’s how the banner headline from the University of Michigan newspaper read the following Monday.

God calls on all of us to face challenges daily. Some great, some small, but all with the potential to impact lives, many or few. These challenges manifest themselves in the classroom, on the playing field, at Sacred Heart, with family, or in the community. When we leave Notre Dame, we are charged to go out and make contributions to improve God’s world.

I don’t know that Harry Oliver ever knew what the kick meant to the thousands of Notre Dame fans who were witnesses to that special moment on the field. And he probably never fully appreciated the impact in pursuing his calling with the construction company in Ohio. But countless numbers of school children, workers, and those less fortunate will benefit for years to come from him sharing his talent with us. Great things can be accomplished in just 47 years.

As Notre Dame begins another academic year and the football season is again upon us, I wish that current students will experience a Harry Oliver moment seared into their memories like many graduates before and since “the kick”, moments that inspire us to take actions that have positive influences in other people’s lives, moments that make Notre Dame special even in the midst of her shortcomings.

I also hope that each of us accepts the challenges God calls on us to bear and for which Our Lady’s University prepares us. And that we accept these challenges with the grace and humility as Harry did that day in September, during his life at ND and beyond.

I never met Harry Oliver: I only knew about him from the game. But like everyone special in my life, he gave me a moment that can never be taken away and left us an example of a life worthy of imitation. And I pray that I am a better person for it. Rest in peace, Harry.

And thanks for the memory.

Eduardo Magallanez is an

alumnus from the Class of 1983. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.