Memories of 1973 Sugar Bowl remain sweet and sour
People to this day buy Robin Weber bar drinks.
“It’s been good for beer,” he joked in a recent phone interview.
On New Year’s Eve, 1973, a year after the scoop-for-score that made Franco Harris famous, Notre Dame executed its own “Immaculate Reception” to defeat Alabama for college football’s national championship.
The same programs will play for another title Monday night in South Florida.
The out-of-nowhere reception made by Weber four decades ago in New Orleans secured a 24-23 Sugar Bowl win and encased the game in football’s all-time time capsule.
There was no controversy, just jaw-dropping surprise.
Protecting a one-point lead late in the game, Notre Dame was backed against its own goal line facing third and long. Everyone expected Notre Dame to run the ball and punt. In 1966, Irish Coach Ara Parseghian had played conservatively in a 10-10 tie against Michigan State that cinched for Notre Dame the national title Alabama fans still think they deserved.
This time, though, in the rain at rickety old Tulane Stadium, Parseghian threw caution and pigskin to the wind.
The play was designed for star tight end Dave Casper but Weber, the second end in the set, had slipped wide open near the left sideline. Quarterback Tom Clements floated a perfect strike to Weber, who caught the ball in stride over his left shoulder for a 36-yard gain with 2:12 left.
Weber remembers running right past Alabama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. “He could have reached out and slapped the ball,” Weber said.
Weber fell out of bounds on the Alabama sideline, and found himself looking square into Bryant’s anguished, disgusted, defeated face.
“There are all these red helmets looking down on me,” Weber recalled. “And here comes Bryant, he’s mad. He’s very, very unhappy … but I knew it was checkmate.”
Weber’s catch allowed Notre Dame to run out the clock in one of college football’s epics.
The catch was Weber’s second of the season. The sophomore would be injured the next year and fade harmoniously into Notre Dame’s scrapbook. He runs a real estate business in Dallas that has a website with a link to “The Catch.”
The play almost never happened. Weber said he couldn’t believe Notre Dame would call a play that might remotely involve him.
“Holy crap,” Weber said he was thinking. “They want me to run a 40-yard flag route? I’ve run that in sandlot football, but other than that…”
Weber said he almost called time out, certain the Irish had the wrong personnel in the game.
“The unusual thing is, I had never caught a pass from Tom Clements,” Weber said.
Not even in practice?
“Ever,” he said.
The game endures as one of Notre Dame’s greatest and one of Alabama’s most painful.
It was the first meeting between college football’s most powerful pillars. Alabama had already been named national champion by coaches voting in a United Press International poll, which made a final determination before the bowls.
“It was North vs. South, No. 1 vs. No. 2, Ara vs. Bear,” recalled Mike Stock, Alabama’s halfback that night. “And then the game lived up to its hype. It’s amazing the shelf life of that game.”
Notre Dame could have earned an extra $100,000 playing in the Orange Bowl but opted for the undefeated matchup against the top-ranked Crimson Tide. The Irish were actually No. 3 in the polls behind No. 2 Oklahoma, which was ineligible for a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions.
“It’s doubtful that any college bowl game ever featured two teams with such an itch to get at one another,” Sports Illustrated reported. The setup could not have been more perfect. And the hurt on the losing end still penetrates.
“The thing I remember, not to take anything away from Notre Dame, is I thought we were the better team,” Stock said. “I bet we would have beaten Notre Dame seven out of 10 times, but on that given night… God, it was a heartbreaker.”
Stock has never been able to completely live the night down. He grew up in Elkhart, Ind., 15 miles east of South Bend and, as a kid, attended many Notre Dame games with his father.
Everyone expected Stock to play football under the Golden Dome. That was Stock’s plan, too, until the man in the houndstooth hat walked into his world.
“Coach Bear Bryant personally came to recruit me,” Stock said. “My God, if that guy is going to come to see me, I’m going to go play for him. When he came up, I’ll tell you, the whole town was just in a buzz.”
Stock, on that distant night 39 years ago, came close to being an Alabama folk hero for life.
In the fourth quarter, he took a handoff from quarterback Richard Todd and then threw it back to Todd, who raced 25 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. However, Alabama kicker Bill Davis missed the extra point leaving the Crimson Tide with only a two-point lead, 23-21.
On Notre Dame’s next drive, Bob Thomas wobbled a short field goal over the cross bar to put the Irish up, 24-23, and set the stage for a dramatic finish.
After Weber made his catch deep inside the Bear’s lair, he limped back to the huddle only to be immediately subbed out with a shoulder tap.
Weber ran to the sideline.
“Ara was looking right at me,” Weber said. “He had a look of astonishment on his face. It was very, very rare for him. He hit me on the shoulder pad and then I went to the sidelines with all the other players and grabbed them. We were high-fiving each other.”
Alabama’s side was a tomb — a real hurt locker.
Bryant went over to Notre Dame’s side to congratulate winning quarterback “Mark” Clements. Bear wasn’t always good with names.
“I don’t really consider it a loss; we just ran out of time,” Bryant is quoted as saying in the book “The Last Coach,” by Allen Barra.
Bryant thought the 1973 Alabama team might have been his best.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Stock said of the loss. “I guess it was ‘Thank God it was the last game of season.’ It just kind of deflates you.”
It still bothers Stock that he let his coach down.
“Coach Bryant was a class act,” Stock said. “Man, you just did not want to lose for this guy. He was already a legend in his own time. The sense of losing was just not in your mind.”
Stock returned to Elkhart to live with 24-23 for the remainder of his life. He started a business in town that he still runs, though he now splits his time between Indiana and Florida.
He still gets razzed on an almost weekly basis by Notre Dame friends and agitators.
The next season, in the Orange Bowl, Alabama lost a 13-11 heartbreaker to Notre Dame. It marked Parseghian’s last game after 11 seasons.
The Irish lead the all-time series against Alabama, 5-1.
Stock can’t wait for Monday night.
“It would really be nice to have some redemption this year,” he said. “I don’t want to go back to my golf course and listen for umpteen years about this game.”
Weber, in the meantime, happily basks in what he says was a “once in a lifetime” experience.
“It’s fun to be a trivia question,” he said. “It’s been great in business, once people find out about it. It has been a tremendous plus in my life.”
Weber has often thought about the consequences of dropping the pass. That would have changed his life in a dramatically different way.
“But I also know I’m the kind of guy who would have taken advantage,” he said. “I’d probably be in my 38th year as governor of Alabama.”
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