Ted Burgmeier, whose myriad roles included split end and cornerback at Notre Dame from 1974-77, died Sunday morning (July 7) from heart and lung failure. He leaves behind his wife of 37 years, Julie, four children and 10 grandchildren. In memory of one of the most versatile football players to suit up for Notre Dame the past 50 years, we are re-running this feature from the Oct. 4, 2010 edition of Blue & Gold Illustrated.
Burgmeier started at split end in 1975 before moving to cornerback in 1976-77.
An “athlete” recruit in college football is defined as someone who can help in myriad capacities, depending on where he’s most needed.
At Notre Dame in the last half century, few epitomized that role better than Ted Burgmeier, who signed with Ara Parseghian’s last recruiting class at Notre Dame in 1974 and then played in the shadow of luminaries at various positions before becoming an integral figure for the 1977 national champs.
• The East Dubuque, Iowa, native was recruited originally as a quarterback and punter because the 6-0, 183-pound southpaw fit the mold of 6-0, 184-pound senior starter Tom Clements, a three-year starter who directed the 1973 national title drive. Oops … six of the 31 recruits in Burgmeier’s class were quarterbacks, one of them a Parade All-American from Monongahela, Pa., named Joe Montana.
• Shifted to free safety during his freshman season, Burgmeier cracked the two deep and also served as a return man on punts and kickoffs, earning a monogram. Oops … the star of Burgmeier’s freshman class was another free safety, Randy Harrison, who would record 57 tackles and return two interceptions for touchdowns. Again, Burgmeier was in the shadow.
• In the spring of Burgmeier’s freshman season, new head coach Dan Devine and his staff sought a wide receiver to replace the graduated All-American Pete Demmerle. By this time, Burgmeier had moved to halfback. One day in practice, Burgmeier took a screen pass and raced by the entire defense for a long touchdown gallop — and voila, he became the No. 1 split end. Oops … he would be in the shadows again, because opposite him at tight end was classmate Ken MacAfee, who would become a three-time All-American and the 1977 recipient of the Walter Camp Award.
• In the spring of his sophomore year, despite starting at split end in 1975, Burgmeier was shifted this time to a starting cornerback role. Oops … playing opposite him was future All-American and first-round pick Luther Bradley, probably the greatest all-around defensive back ever to suit up for the Irish.
After all the changes, though, maybe the most memorable moments of Burgmeier’s four seasons was as … a holder?
In the 1977 “Green Jersey Game” against USC that propelled the Irish toward their national title, Burgmeier helped alter the course of the game against the No. 5 Trojans, who had been vanquished only once in their last 10 meetings against Notre Dame, and were 3-0 against Burgmeier’s class.
With 2:37 left in the first half, the Irish had scored a touchdown to take a 13-7 lead, but a bad snap on the PAT forced Burgmeier to scramble back to his 20 while being pursued by three USC defenders. As he got past the 10 and ran into more traffic, Burgmeier lofted a pass into the end zone, where flanker Tom Domin made a tightrope catch along the sideline for a 15-7 lead.
In the closing minute of the first half, Burgmeier was holding again for a 51-yard field goal attempt by Dave Reeve, but on the snap he rolled right instead and raced 21 yards for a first down — leading to a touchdown pass on the next play from Montana to MacAfee. When the Irish lined up for their next PAT attempt to make it 22-7 at halftime, the public announcer couldn’t resist saying: “Burgmeier will hold — we think.”
The sudden change in momentum spurred a 49-19 blowout of the Trojans, and several sentences in Sports Illustrated that read, “Burgmeier was a household name only if he didn’t step outside his own house … however, Burgmeier assured himself a place in the Notre Dame pantheon.”
In addition to his “holding heroics,” Burgmeier was credited with eight tackles and made a sensational leaping interception (also captured in SI’s spread with a photo) at the Irish 14 that he turned into a 38-yard return with a thrilling zigzag effort in which he avoided about a half-dozen tackles.
“I’m not usually one in the sun,” said Burgmeier after the game. “I’m kind of tickled.”
The Football Writers Association of America at the end of that national title campaign selected Burgmeier as a second-team All-American.
A Different Era
An all-state athlete in football, basketball and track (pole vaulting, which he also excelled at while at Notre Dame) at Wahlert High in Dubuque, Burgmeier was recruited mainly by the in-state schools, but he became thunderstruck one day in February of his senior year when it appeared that Notre Dame had come calling.
Back then, signing day wasn’t until later in the spring, and recruiting news was sparse.
“I was in a class when one of my teachers said, ‘There’s a Coach Kelly that’s going to watch you play basketball tonight,’” Burgmeier recalled.
No, not that Coach Kelly. It was Irish linebackers coach George Kelly, who had been on Ara Parseghian’s staff for five years and would be a fixture in the Notre Dame athletics department for more than three decades.
“I didn’t know he was from Notre Dame, but I had a football program at home and browsed through that,” Burgmeier said. “I just had an inkling he was from Notre Dame.”
The football program was a souvenir from the lone Notre Dame game he had attended, the 23-14 victory over USC in 1973. It wasn’t even a recruiting trip. Burgmeier was invited to attend the game by his girlfriend’s (and future wife’s) aunt, who had been a season-ticket holder since 1937.
Burgmeier sat in the 59th row (out of 60), just underneath the south end scoreboard when he saw the hole develop for Eric Penick’s memorable 85-yard touchdown run that helped snap a six-game winless streak against the Trojans. And just like four years later with Burgmeier on the field against USC, it was the pivotal mid-season conquest that became the springboard toward a national title.
Notre Dame’s “birddog” recruiting method back then seems archaic today. The Burgmeier family was friends with a local attorney in Dubuque who was a classmate of Notre Dame athletics director Ed “Moose” Krause. He would keep Krause informed about Burgmeier, and finally the information trickled down to the Notre Dame coaching staff.
“Basically that’s how the recruiting started,” said Burgmeier, chuckling at how much more sophisticated the process is today. “[Kelly] watched me play basketball and then the next day in school he watched my films with my football coaches and visited with me, and invited me for a visit. Coach Parseghian then offered me a scholarship.
“They saw what they needed to see and thought I could contribute. That was the whole process. They sent me the paperwork in the mail and I returned it in the mail. It’s not the fanfare you see today with the kids.”
Burgmeier played quarterback at Notre Dame for about two weeks in his freshman year before he became the No. 2 free safety to classmate Harrison. At the time, no one could see fellow freshman Montana budding into a legend.
“He was just one of the guys,” said Burgmeier of Montana, who was fourth team on the junior varsity and seventh team overall. “We came in as a freshman together and I was on his intramural basketball team. But you could see he was a good athlete. He could have been Division I in three different sports.
“I wouldn’t say he had all the best skills of all the kids that were there, but he had the leadership ability, the intangible that when the lights came on, the players responded to him.”
After leading the Irish to their eighth top-five finish in 11 years, an exhausted Parseghian stepped down and was replaced by Devine. The freshman Burgmeier received a second audition at quarterback that spring, but again it was short-lived.
“He had more of a dropback, pro-style offense, whereas Ara liked that running quarterback, and that was my talent, the ability to run the option,” Burgmeier said.
Instead, Burgmeier capped the spring with a 33-yard touchdown reception from Montana in the Blue-Gold Game. Then in the fifth game of 1975, the sophomore duo began the “Comeback Kid” legend when the Irish rallied from a 14-0 fourth-quarter deficit at North Carolina and escaped with a 21-14 victory. The winning score came on a short eight-yard out pattern from Montana to Burgmeier that the latter turned into an 80-yard touchdown with just 1:03 remaining.
“Joe called an audible, and the intent was to pick up a few yards and get out of bounds to stop the clock,” Burgmeier said. “The corner went for the interception or knockdown and fell down.”
Although the safety had the angle on him near the sideline, Burgmeier dodged him and out-ran everyone else into the end zone.
“One of the first things I thought about was I can’t wait to talk to my dad, because back in those days all the games weren’t on TV,” said Burgmeier. “You just listened to the radio. I was so excited to share it with him.”
Entering Burgmeier’s junior year in 1976, the Irish had a veteran split end in senior Dan Kelleher and an emerging future star in sophomore speedster Kris Haines, but were short at corner. Thus, to get the best athletes on the field, Burgmeier aligned at his third different position in three years.
Prior to his senior year in 1977, Burgmeier made another change when he married high school sweetheart, Julie, who had just graduate from a three-year nursing program and landed a job at St. Joseph’s Hospital in South Bend, just a mile from the Notre Dame campus.
“We had seven or eight players married at that time [including Montana],” said Burgmeier, realizing that it’s hardly in vogue today in college football unless you play at BYU. “We did a lot together as couples and four or five of us lived in the same apartment complex. It was a fun year in that regard.
“At the time you think you’re mature enough and ready for all that. Looking back on it now and having had my own kids, to be married in college at 21 or 22, I really question the wisdom of our decision.
“But we’re still happily married,” he quickly added with a laugh.
Drafted in the fifth round by the Miami Dolphins, Burgmeier made it to the last cut and then was picked up by the Kansas City Chiefs halfway through the season to play safety and special teams. That rookie season would be his last in football.
“I tried out with a number of different teams, and went up to Canada to try out,” Burgmeier recalled. “I certainly wish it would have lasted longer, but that’s the beauty of Notre Dame — there’s life beyond athletics.”
The Life Beyond
Two weeks prior to his May 1978 graduation, Burgmeier and his wife welcomed their first child, Christopher. After the abbreviated NFL stint, the couple returned to their roots in East Dubuque and Burgmeier used his degree in business administration to become a national sales manager for A.Y. Manufacturing Co., where he has worked the past 22 years — or since Notre Dame’s last national title.
He returns annually to campus for at least one home game and the reunions held by the 1977 national champs, many of whose starters have passed on to the afterlife, including defensive linemen Willie Fry and Mike Calhoun, center Dave Huffman and flanker/cornerback Dave Waymer.
For a while, it appeared Burgmeier would be victimized too when at age 27 he contracted Hodgkins Disease that required radiation treatments. Seven years later it relapsed, and aggressive chemotherapy was the next step.
“I had a tendency, for a short time, probably to ask that question, ‘Why me?’ especially because I had three children under age 5,” he said. “But I kept a pretty good spirit and attitude about it. My faith is very strong and I was supported certainly by my family and lots of friends. One of the first letters I received was from Ara, and the support you receive from the Notre Dame community is so powerful.”
It was in those dark days that he also was thankful for being an athlete because his competitive instincts kicked in.
“You get angry at the disease and you get that mindset that you’re going to beat it,” Burgmeier said. “In sports there are so many ups and downs that you deal with that, and it’s kind of in your makeup that you can overcome the odds.”
He has been rid of the cancer the past two decades, but two years ago Burgmeier experienced a heart valve problem that doctors suspected stemmed from the past radiation treatments. Thus, he had open-heart surgery in which new valves were inserted.
The father of three adult children, Chris (32), Sara (31) and Stephanie (29) plus John (15) — “our Immaculate Conception,” he joked — and awaiting his sixth grandchild in February, Burgmeier’s greatest joy now stems from “playing catch and shooting baskets with the little ones.”
He remains ever the “athlete.”