A Football Legend

Remembering Gridiron Star Jack Elder

Notre Dame’s prominence in college football is a mixed blessing. It gets the Fighting Irish on national TV every week, but it affords cynical sports pundits the opportunity to use them as a verbal punching bag when things aren’t going well.

If any of the critics had known Jack Elder, however, their tune would turn to: “Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame …” When Elder’s funeral Mass was celebrated at the Santa Barbara Mission on December 12, 1992, people of all faiths from the area sports community respectfully filled the pews.

Elder was a living legend when he and his wife, Kay, moved out of the Midwest in 1975 to commence his retirement in Santa Barbara. He was the player who secured Notre Dame’s second national championship in 1929. He intercepted a pass on the icy field at Yankee Stadium and sprinted 100 yards to a touchdown that gave the Irish a 7-0 victory over Army.

That play froze the image of Elder in time, but it did not stall the man. Fifty years after his gridiron glory days, still handsome and vigorous, he plunged into civic activities. An avid golfer himself, he took over leadership of Santa Barbara’s junior golf program and spent many hours with the children. At the weekly meetings of the S.B. Athletic Round Table, Elder was there to greet people at the door.

Jack Elder
Courtesy Photo

Notre Dame and Army are returning to the Bronx this Saturday (Nov. 20) to play football in the new Yankee Stadium. Perhaps no occasion has ever been more significant in the history of college football than those two teams meeting in New York. It was the first game to feature a serious passing offense, when Knute Rockne was the Notre Dame captain and receiver. It inspired Grantland Rice to write, “Outlined against the blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. …” It brought out the most famous speech by Rockne, then the Irish coach, when he told the boys to win one for the Gipper. And to conclude the Roaring Twenties, a decade of theatrics in sport and entertainment, Elder streaked the length of the field.

Contrary to the perception that athletic feats tend to be embellished in print, it was reported that Elder ran 96 yards. Only years later, when a review of the film showed him leaping to snag the Army pass at the goal line before he landed upfield and went off to the races, was he credited with the full 100 yards. Elder, the fastest and most versatile player on the Notre Dame squad, made many other big plays during the 1927, ’28, and ’29 seasons. His surviving children, including Jane Maurer and Tom Elder of Santa Barbara, and their families will be guests of the university at Saturday’s game.

Sports artist Tom “Pap” Paprocki depicted Jack Elder in all his 1930s football glory.

The Irish played every game on the road in 1929 while Notre Dame Stadium, designed by Rockne, was being built. They extended their winning streak to 19 games by going undefeated again in 1930. That turned out to be the end of the Rockne era. On March 31, 1931, the adventurous coach was on a flight from Kansas City to Los Angeles, where he was to give a speech and, according to Elder, “he might steal a few good players from under the nose of [USC coach] Howard Jones.” The plane encountered bad weather and crashed in eastern Kansas. There were no survivors.

When Jack and Kay Elder were on their way to Santa Barbara from Indiana in 1975, they made a detour in Kansas to find the isolated site where Rockne died. There was a monument on a windswept hill.

“I got a big lump in my throat,” Jack told me. “Thousands of things went through my mind. I said a few ‘Aves’ and shed a few tears.”

GAMES OF THE WEEK: UCSB’s Gauchos face a treacherous road to the NCAA men’s soccer Final Four. They host Denver in the first round of the 48-team tournament today (Thu., Nov. 18) at 7 p.m. The winner will travel to Berkeley for round two against Cal at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. The Gauchos would have to win two more games—probably on the road—to reach the 2010 College Cup on their home field December 10-12. … Dos Pueblos High claimed its first Channel League football championship in 31 years when Nicolai Bornand kicked a 41-yard field goal to beat Ventura 30-27. The Chargers will open the CIF playoffs at home Friday at 7:30 p.m. against Camarillo. … The college basketball season picks up speed with the UCSB women hosting Portland State in a 1 p.m. matinee today (Thu., Nov. 18). On Saturday at 7 p.m., it’s Fresno State at the Gaucho men and CSU San Bernardino at Westmont.


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