On Pro Bowl weekend, we review the greatest Notre Dame players to star in the NFL. Based strictly on pro career, here would be our top picks on this 40-man team. We have 21 on offense:
Quarterback Joe Montana headlines our all-time Notre Dame All-Pro team.
Utility Player: Paul Hornung
Believe it or not, he played in only two Pro Bowls, but the 1960 and 1961 MVP of the league is mentioned first because of his versatility, manifested by college football’s Paul Hornung Award started in 2010 and presented to college football’s most versatile player.
Hornung’s 176 points in a season in 1960 was an NFL record until 2006, when LaDainian Tomlinson broke it. But Hornung achieved his feat in 12 games, while Tomlinson played 16. Hornung could step in at quarterback, running back, receiver, defensive back or kicker and punter, if needed.
Quarterback: Joe Montana
The first quarterback in NFL history to make eight Pro Bowls, he also was a four-time Super Bowl champion – and an MVP in three of them. Montana and offensive tackle George Kunz are tied for second in Notre Dame history for most Pro Bowl appearances.
Alternates: Daryle Lamonica played during a miserable era in Irish annals (1960-62), but he became a five-time Pro Bowl pick and a two-time AFL MVP. His 66-16-1 record as a starter for the Oakland Raiders was good for a .784 percentage. Only Otto Graham’s .810 winning percentage is higher among QBs in NFL history.
Joe Theismann made the Pro Bowl twice and led the Washington Redskins to the 1983 Super Bowl title.
Running Backs: Jerome Bettis & Ricky Watters
“The Bus,” up for Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration this month, finished fifth on the all-time NFL rushing chart (13,662 yards) when he retired after winning the 2006 Super Bowl. Bettis eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing eight times and scored 71 touchdowns en route to six Pro Bowl selections and two first-team All-Pro honors.
Watters joins Bettis as one of 24 players in league history to surpass 10,000 career yards rushing (10,643 is ranked 20th all-time), and he played in five straight Pro Bowls from 1992-96. He is the lone player in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards on three different franchises (San Francisco, Philadelphia and Seattle). Watters also caught 467 passes, which ranks behind only Tim Brown among Notre Dame alumni in the NFL. Notre Dame is one of five schools with two runners ranking among the NFL’s top 20 in career rushing yards.
Alternate: Rocky Bleier never played in the Pro Bowl, but he was a vital cog on four Super Bowl champions, as a runner, receiver and blocker, while with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. He rushed for 3,865 yards in his 11-year career, highlighted by a 1,000-yard campaign in 1976.
Receivers: Tim Brown & Wayne Millner
Brown and defensive lineman Alan Page hold the Notre Dame record for most Pro Bowl appearances with nine apiece. When he retired in 2006, Brown was second in NFL history in yards receiving (14,394), third in receptions (1,094) and tied for third in TD catches (100).
Millner might be an unfamiliar name to younger Notre Dame fans — although he caught the winning TD in the closing seconds of the epic 1935 win at Ohio State — but he is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while Brown joins Bettis as a candidate this year. Millner was the favorite target of Slingin’ Sammy Baugh while playing for the Washington Redskins from 1936-41. Although he caught only 124 passes in his career (never more than 22 in a season), Millner played in an era when the pass was not emphasized nearly as much. Still, Millner, Hornung, Page and George Connor are the only four Notre Dame alumni who are in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. (Brown could become the fifth.)
Alternates: Jack Snow and Raghib Ismail. In a three-receiver set you have to include Snow. He enjoyed a productive NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams that included a Pro Bowl. His 340 catches averaged a whopping 17.7 yards with 45 touchdowns.
Ismail never made the Pro Bowl, but he did catch 363 career passes for a 14.6 average per catch and 28 touchdowns. Plus, he’s not a bad alternate to have as a return man.
Tight End: Dave Casper
“The Ghost” is considered by many NFL analysts the greatest receiving and blocking tight end in NFL history and was a first-team team All-Pro selection four straight years from 1976-79 (a Pro Bowl selection five times overall). Casper snared 378 passes during his career, averaging 13.8 yards per grab and tallying 52 TDs, and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Alternate: Mark Bavaro. The two-time Pro Bowl pick helped the New York Giants win two Super Bowls (1986 and 1990 season), and his stats are not far behind Casper’s with 351 catches, 13.5 yards per catch and 39 TDs. They didn’t make them any tougher during his 10-year pro career from 1985-94. His 66 catches in 1986 are the most ever in an NFL season by an Irish tight end.
George Kunz (tackle), Bob Kuechenberg (guard), George Trafton (guard), Frank Varrichione (guard) & Dick Szymanski (center)
Kunz and Kuechenberg – both members of Notre Dame’s Class of 1969 – had eight and six Pro Bowl appearances, respectively, with Kuechenberg a mainstay on the 17-0 Miami Dolphins unit in 1972. Kunz is on the All-Time Team for both the Baltimore (Indianapolis) Colts and Atlanta Falcons. He and Kuechenberg could be future Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees.
Trafton, who played for Knute Rockne and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was an original “Monster of the Midway” for the Chicago Bears from 1922-32. Red Grange referred to him as “the meanest, toughest player alive.”
Varrichione was a five-time Pro Bowl participant in the 1950s.
Szymanski was a three-time Pro Bowl center who hiked the ball to Johnny Unitas at Baltimore from 1957-68, and played in what has been termed “The Greatest Game Ever,” the Colts’ overtime victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL title game.
Alternates: Art Hunter, Tim Grunhard & Tim Ruddy. All three made the Pro Bowl one time, all three played center in the NFL, all three played a full decade in the NFL and all three are on this team because of their durability and versatility. Hunter made the Pro Bowl with the Cleveland Browns but also starred for the Los Angeles Rams from 1960-65. He was a tackle at Notre Dame.
Grunhard was a three-year starting guard at Notre Dame from 1987-89 but was an Iron Man at center for the Kansas City Chiefs, starting every game he played from 1991-2000.
Ruddy, who also had a couple of starts at guard for the Irish when not playing center, started all 140 games he played from 1995-2003 with the Miami Dolphins.
Tomorrow: Defense & Special Teams