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Father Hesburgh: On Being No. 1

In my pre-teen years when I first read this, I didn’t grasp its full message. As the years progress, you appreciate it more.

Father Theodore M. Hesburgh's words at the end of the 1964 season also resonate today.

To this day, Notre Dame’s greatest “miracle” season might have been 1964 under first-year head coach Ara Parseghian. From the rubble of a 2-7 finish in 1963 and eight years of mediocrity, he led them to a No. 1 ranking before losing in the 11th hour at USC, 20-17, after leading 17-0 at halftime.

That evening, Notre Dame president Father Hesburgh wrote down his thoughts to the student body that were printed in the Notre Dame student magazine Scholastic. Here is the full text — one quite apropos to re-print this week.

It’s dark outside and cold. There is a strange quiet on a campus that usually is pretty noisy. Of course, most of you are away for Thanksgiving and probably matching, for the moment, the mood of this place on the evening of Saturday, November 28, 1964. As a famous politician said on losing the presidential election, “I’m too old to cry, and not old enough not to feel the hurt.”

Ten weeks ago, none of you expected the extraordinary season we’ve had. Certainly, no one expected Notre Dame to be No. 1 for a number of weeks and to come within two minutes of the National Championship. Southern California had done it to us before, and we have done it to them, too, but somehow the world went on, the sun rose again the next morning, and people began to dream of next year. That’s football and, in a sense, that’s life too — we can never be sure of total victory, not even of eternal salvation, until we’ve won it. And win it we must, day by day, even minute by minute. Don’t ever stop wanting to be No. 1, but especially don’t ever stop trying.

I’m certainly not saying the team stopped trying. They have been great all year and, if anything, have given us far more than we could have hoped for. I salute them, one and all. They carried the burden of long hours of practice, the bruises, the blood, sweat and tears that gave us nine victories out of ten starts, and a revitalized tradition of great games and a great pride in winning against the best in the land.

All through this exciting fall, especially since becoming No. 1, I’ve been sorely tempted to write a few words to all of you — non-team members, but Notre Damers all the same — about some of the things that made us less than No. 1. The heart of sport is spirit. Notre Dame spirit has been our greatest boast over the years, even when we were losing. That is what brought Coach Parseghian here — even when the prospects looked rather dismal last fall.

Sprit you have. No doubt about that. But we have to remind ourselves at times that spirit is more than noise. It has a kinship with the spiritual in sport. In this sense, it’s called sportsmanship. This kind of spirit never abuses a competitor — without him there would be no game — and with him, what takes place can be exciting, thrilling, even hard-nosed without degenerating into cheap abuse, disrespect, or a boorish lack of fair play. After all, it is still a game. In the Middle Ages when games were often a matter of life and death, there was still a spiritual quality to them called chivalry.

This is the unwritten code that makes sport different than crude brutality, and spirit in spring is something quite different than mere noise, bombs, mob mentality, sick humor and toilet paper. One of the greatest signs of immaturity is not to be capable of living with success, without becoming arrogant, boorish, or just plain unbearable. Those who win success the hard way, like the team, rarely show these unpleasant qualities — only those who ride the coattails of success the easy way do.

Having said all this, and I realize it applies mainly to a minority of Notre Dame men, may I say that its appearance on campus this fall puts a new responsibility on the majority who do want to be good sports. If Notre Dame is not teaching you to be responsible as individuals, to be independent of the mass mentality, to be unwilling to be classed with the lowest common denominator, then the educational process isn’t taking hold, and we will deserve the growing bad name we have begun to acquire this fall — even while achieving great success.

I happen to believe that our student body has every capability of being No. 1, and should be so in every way, be it sports, or honor system, or academic or spiritual achievement. All I’m really saying is that life goes on, the challenge remains and it will be a really dark and cold place here if we ever lose the desire to be No. 1 in everything we do, or lack grace and style and humanity in doing it.

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