In celebration of Notre Dame’s return to relevancy on the field, I decided to create a list of the storied program’s top 10 players over the last 30 years, so anyone who played during the 1982-1983 season or later was eligible for consideration. The beauty of creating such a list, particularly for an immensely popular football team like Notre Dame, is the staunch disagreement sure to follow. This could be a list of 10 deserving players or a list of 10 things in Kramer’s apartment, and it would be just as wrong, but that’s part of what makes it fun. Were some of these choices impacted by what age I watched said player and how good Notre Dame was that season? Perhaps, perhaps.
Feel free to boot someone off the list and suggest a replacement not named Ron Powlus.
10. Allen Pinkett, RB (1982-1985) — Pinkett is second on ND’s all-time rushing list and remains atop the list for career touchdowns with 53. The guy who holds the TD record has to be on this list, right? I’m just glad it’s not Autry Denson, who’s close behind. Sadly, most people know Pinkett best for saying “to have a successful team, you have to have a few bad citizens on the team,” and promptly getting suspended from his ND radio gig earlier this year.
9. Reggie Brooks, RB (1991-1992) — Enthralling running back Reggie Brooks was already on this list before I even thought of putting one together. While he technically played just two seasons for the Irish, which really equated to one, he averaged a ridiculous 7.9 yards per carry and routinely bounced off defenders like an indestructible pinball. If you were watching college football in 1992, he’s pretty much impossible to forget. A good example of why would be this astounding run against Michigan:
8. Bryant Young, DT (1990-1993) — Bryant Young was a first-team All-American in 1993 and during his four year run with the team, the Irish went 40-8-1. Those were some of the more enjoyable, brighter days before Bob Davie and his bad haircut took the wheel and drove the program directly off a cliff, Toonces style. While Young was certainly a star at Notre Dame — he went 7th overall in the 1994 NFL draft — I probably hold a special place for the guy since he was able to come back and play for the 49ers after suffering terrible fractures to his tibia and fibula that ended what was turning into a tremendous season in 1998.
7. Justin Tuck, DE (2001-2004) — Tuck holds the Irish record for career sacks with 24.5, and is third all-time in tackles for loss with 43. Impressive numbers considering the guy was a backup his sophomore year and suffered a torn ACL at the end of his junior season. Additionally, any football-related list would feel incomplete if said list did not include a player known by teammates as “The Freak.”
6. Jerome Bettis, RB (1990-1992) — Bettis is here thanks in part to a highly memorable performance against No. 3 Florida in the 1992 Sugar Bowl that saw him run for 150 yards on 16 carries and three touchdowns. That was the game famously coined as the “Cheerios Bowl” after a waiter delivered a joke to Lou Holtz that would ring especially true a decade later. Here’s Holtz’s recap, including his epic response: “I was having dinner with my family at a restaurant just prior to taking the team to New Orleans in 1991, and our waiter came up and said, ‘What’s the difference between Cheerios and Notre Dame? Cheerios belong in a bowl.’ My response to the waiter went like this: ‘What’s the difference between a golf pro and Lou Holtz? A golf pro gives tips.'” Holtz was always quick with a crafty retort.
5. Chris Zorich, DT (1987-1990) — Notre Dame’s bold answer to the Lamar Thomas half-jersey, Chris Zorich was an undersized, but outstanding nose tackle and the spirited leader of the 1988 national championship team. He was recognized plenty during his time at Notre Dame — first team All-American and winner of the Lombardi Award in 1990 — but putting all the accolades aside, you just remembered the commanding presence of Chris Zorich.
4. Manti Te’o, LB (2009-2012) — Not a particularly difficult choice. Te’o is the endlessly likable heart and soul of Notre Dame football in their somewhat baffling 2012 season. Beating Alabama to win the national title would take his legacy to a rather obscene level — if it hasn’t reached that point already — but he has clearly cemented his spot as an all-timer for the Irish. I’d mention the interceptions, but that particular stat has been drilled into your heads with merciless, drool-crusted redundancy.
3. Tony Rice, QB (1987-1989) — Tony Rice was under center when Notre Dame reeled off 23 straight wins as well as the last time they found true glory, winning the 1988 national championship. Despite being an integral part of team history, Rice remains a bit of an unheralded freak, as threw for 3,273 career yards and ran for 2,046 in three seasons. While he certainly wasn’t carving up defenses with his arm, he was damn productive and fun to watch.
2. Tim Brown, WR (1984-1987) — Tim Brown was the lone bright spot during his four years in South Bend, narrowly missing out on all the fun in 1988, though he did win the Heisman Trophy in 1987 and gave Notre Dame fans a legitimate reason to regularly tune in. Brown was the Rocket before the Rocket. His two punt returns of 66 and 71 yards that went for TDs against Michigan State, who would later win the Rose Bowl, was his signature moment that set the tone for his memorable ’87 Heisman campaign. The way he quietly went about his business made Brown one of those rare Notre Dame players that even fans of opposing teams enjoyed.
1. Rocket Ismail, RB/WR (1988-1990) — Quite simply one of the most exciting, unpredictable college football players I’ve ever seen. In three seasons, he became the only Notre Dame player with over 1,000 career yards in rushing, receiving and kickoff returns. In 1989, the Rocket famously took back two kicks against Michigan at Ann Arbor in a huge No. 1 vs. No. 2 game, and another one that same season against Colorado in the Orange Bowl with less than a minute to play that should’ve spoiled a national championship for the Buffaloes, but was instead called back on a clip that wasn’t a clip. It was one of the first college football games I had attended as a kid, and I still vividly recall the Colorado side of the stadium thunderously chanting “Rocket’s a pus-sy, Rocket’s a pus-sy” right before he took it to the house. An incredible rush of adrenaline was quickly followed by a colossal wave of disappointment. Notre Dame football, encapsulated in 15 crazy seconds.
Head Coach: Lou Holtz — Please, was there every any doubt?
Note: While Brady Quinn threw for more yards than any quarterback to ever play for Notre Dame, and owns the record for most touchdown passes, it felt odd putting him on this list of players. Consider this a back-handed honorable mention, or something.