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Running back reflects on win over Oklahoma

Matthew DeFranks | Thursday, October 25, 2012

Tony Fisher’s favorite Notre Dame memory was not a 196-yard outburst against Boston College his junior season. It was not leading the Irish in rushing in 1999 nor was it a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2000.

It was Bookstore Basketball.

“I used to love when Bookstore Basketball came around,” Fisher said in a phone interview with The Observer.

Fisher’s team – named Coco Butter – consisted of cornerback Lee Lafayette, tight end John Owens and track athletes Red Croker, Doug Conners and Marshaun West. Coco Butter never won the title but made it to the semifinals.

“That’s all part of the Notre Dame, college experience,” Fisher said.

While Fisher fondly remembers his days on the outdoor courts next to the bookstore, some Irish fans note him for his career game in a 1999 win over Oklahoma, the last time Notre Dame faced the Sooners.

Coming into the showdown with the Sooners, Notre Dame had lost three consecutive games, bringing its record to a lowly 1-3 after starting the year ranked No. 18.

“Losing three straight games is never really acceptable at Notre Dame,” Fisher said. “We had to do whatever we had to do to right the ship. At the same time, we had to go out there, stay focused and handle your business and everything else will take shape. It was a real big game for us during that time.”

Oklahoma entered the game undefeated and ranked in the top 25 under new coach Bob Stoops and his wide-open offense. The teams had not played since 1968.

“Notre Dame, Oklahoma, they’re two storied schools in college football, there was a lot of hype going into that game,” Fisher said. “Regardless of how both teams had been playing, there was still a whole lot of hype going into that game.”

On the opening play, Fisher took the handoff and darted to the right before rumbling 55 yards to the Oklahoma 21-yard line.

“Any big play in any football game of that magnitude is definitely a tone-setter, especially when it’s the first play of the game,” Fisher said. “That’s how you set the tone and give the other team the mindset that it’s going to be a long day when we’re coming out the first play of the game like that.

“The offensive line did a great job and it was a good call. We caught them in the right defense and we had the right play called and I was able to make a play.”

Fisher, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound back, did not stop there. He finished the game with a then-career high 140 yards on 26 carries while former Irish quarterback Jarious Jackson also topped the century mark on the ground, totaling 107 yards.

Following a third quarter Sooner score that extended the Oklahoma lead to 30-14, the Irish faced a daunting task – erase a 16-point deficit against a team that threw the ball 40 times per game.

“It’s always tough [to come back] when they have a wide open offense,” Fisher said. “At the same time, when you stick to your game plan and everything starts working for you, you can’t worry about what the other team is doing. You just have to continue to do what you’re doing and just grind it out. Hopefully, the chips fall your way.”

The Irish scored the game’s final 20 points to claim a 34-30 victory, sealing it with an 11-play, 98-yard drive for the winning score in the fourth quarter.

Notre Dame sputtered to a 5-7 record the rest of the way, ending the season with a four-game losing streak.

Fisher, who also considered Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, said he chose Notre Dame, in part, because of the weekly exposure the Irish had on NBC.

“It would be Saturday morning cartoons and then when the cartoons were done, it would be Notre Dame football,” Fisher said. “How many schools basically have their own television network like how we’re on NBC every week throughout the whole country? Some schools could say they have their own network but it’s still only shown in that area. Ours is shown throughout the country.”

Fisher, a former Sorin College resident, had the unenviable task of replacing Irish all-time leading rusher Autry Denson, who was a senior when Fisher was a freshman.

“Autry Denson was there when I was a freshman so he was the big brother to me,” Fisher said. “It wasn’t tough because I had such good leaders to teach me the ropes and what’s going on.”

Fisher followed in Denson’s footsteps and played in the National Football League (NFL). Fisher was not drafted coming out of Notre Dame but signed a free-agent contract with the Green Bay Packers. Fisher said once he got the call from the Packers, his mindset changed.

“It’s time to go to work,” Fisher said. “I was happy and ecstatic about the opportunity because it was another dream that was able to come true.”

Fisher played four years in Green Bay and likened the atmosphere to the one at Notre Dame.

“It was a wonderful situation,” Fisher said. “The way Lambeau Field was set up was a lot like Notre Dame Stadium. It was a professional team in a college town. It was a great atmosphere.”

After four years with the Packers and one with the St. Louis Rams, Fisher blew out his knee, tearing his ACL, MCL and meniscus in his right knee.

“I rehabbed, came back, did some workouts with some teams but nothing really matriculated the way I wanted it to,” Fisher said.

Fisher, 33, now coaches running backs at Euclid High School in Ohio, the same high school he was named Mr. Football at in 1997.

“It’s my way of giving back to the community,” Fisher said.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at [email protected]