Bobby Pope

Notre Dame had a very famous backfield almost a century ago

Without question, the most famous backfield in college football history is Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen.

I am not saying they were the best, but rather, the most famous. Their rise to fame had as much to do with prose as performance.

Noted New York Herald Tribune sportswriter and syndicated journalist Grantland Rice, following the Irish’s 13-7 win over Army in 1924, penned the famous lines that captured the nation’s love of football and need for heroes, and would forever immortalize the Notre Dame quartet.

“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. Those are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.”

Now, how good is that?

Upon their triumphant return to South Bend following the Army win, a Notre Dame student publicist enhanced the Four Horsemen legend by arranging a photo at the practice field of the players in full uniform atop four horses. The famous photo was almost canceled by head coach Knute Rockne, who was concerned that the shoot would distract from the team’s preparation for its next game with Princeton.

However, the event was revived when Rockne realized that two members of his newly famous backfield, Don Miller and Jim Crowley, were fearful of mounting the horses and needed to overcome their apprehension of the animals.

Macon has a direct connection to the Four Horsemen. Dr. Donald Beringer, an orthopedic surgeon with OrthoGeorgia, is a grandson of Miller, the Four Horsemen’s right halfback. Don, who was named for his grandfather, was just 18 and a senior in high school when his grandfather died.

Beringer has many fond memories of the Irish great and was especially struck by his humility. He recalls Miller recounting that “the bigger story” on the day Notre Dame defeated Army and were dubbed the Four Horsemen was that Red Grange of Illinois scored five touchdowns against Michigan in the dedication of the “Big House.”

Miller was asked by his grandson what it was like to have so many famous friends, and replied, “You will be most fortunate if you have two genuine friends the day you die.”

The iconic Rockne called Miller “the greatest open-field runner I ever had.” As a senior, the two-time All-American rushed for 794 yard with an average of 6.4 per carry. He averaged 6.8 yard per carry during his three-year career. In addition, he was the team’s leading pass receiver for three seasons and caught 19 passes for 346 yards, averaging 18.2 per catch his senior year. Interestingly, Miller was not a starter on his high school football team in Defiance, Ohio and was a walkon at Notre Dame his freshman season. He wasn’t a starter on that squad, either. His chance to play on the varsity, as a sophomore, came as a result of a teammate’s injury.

Miller has another Georgia connection. Following his playing days, he served as backfield coach for William Alexander at Georgia Tech from 1925-28 before serving as an assistant at Ohio State from 1928-32. He then embarked on a law career and eventually was appointed U.S. District Attorney in Northern Ohio by President Franklin Roosevelt.

Even by today’s physical standards for high school players, the Four Horsemen would be considered small. Miller was 5-11 and 160 pounds, quarterback Harry Stuhldreher was 5-7 and 151 pounds, left halfback Crowley was 5-11 and 162 pounds, fullback Elmer Layden was 6 feet and 162 pounds.

During their three years together, the Four Horsemen led Notre Dame to a 37-3-1 record. They won the national championship for the 1924 season, beating Stanford 27-10 in the Rose Bowl. And you have to love what the Four Horsemen’s offensive line was called: The Seven Mules.

All Four Horsemen, as well as two members of the Seven Mules, are members of the College Football Hall of Fame.

Contact Bobby Pope at bobbypope428@gmail.com.

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