'He was our King Arthur': In letters, former Notre Dame players honor the late Ara Parseghian

When legendaryNotre Damefootball coach Ara Parseghian fell ill this past summer, many former players inquired about seeing him, perhaps wanting to tell him goodbye one last time.

Parseghian, who had developed an infection after hip surgery, wasn't physically strong enough to accept visitors, so his family told the players to write him letters. Parseghian's wife, Katie, and his children promised the players that he would hear their words.

Parseghian died on Aug. 2 at his home in Granger, Indiana. He was 94.

The Fighting Irish will honor Parseghian and his family before Saturday's game against Miami (Ohio), his alma mater.

Along with resurrecting Notre Dame's football program and winning national titles in 1966 and 1973, Parseghian devoted his life to raising money for multiple sclerosis, which killed his daughter, Karan, and Niemann-Pick Type C Disease, which killed three of his grandchildren.

Another part of Parseghian's legacy is the bonds and friendships he forged with his Notre Dame players, who shared their memories in dozens of letters they wrote to him this summer after he fell ill, almost 50 years after they finished playing for him.

Frank Allocco, quarterback (1972-75)

Allocco, from New Providence, New Jersey, will always remember what Parseghian told the Fighting Irish after they lost to the Nebraska 40-6 in the Orange Bowl at the end of the 1972 season.

"He walks into the locker room after the loss and says: 'Gentlemen, remember this for as long as you live: Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which under prosperous conditions might have remained dormant,' and then he walked out of the room," Allocco recalled.

The Irish rebounded to go 11-0 the next season, defeating the Alabama 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl to win the 1973 national title.

"The real greatness of who he is and who he was is not in the 11 years he coached," Allocco said. "It's in the 45 years or so afterward, when he lived up to everything he preached. He used to tell us we had no breaking point. Even after three of his grandchildren were diagnosed with this devastating disease, Coach didn't have a breaking point. He went out and raised millions of dollars for research."

During a fundraiser for the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation several years ago in Berkeley, California, Parseghian told Allocco: "I can't save my grandchildren, but I'm going to make sure no grandparent ever loses their child to this disease again."

During their conversation, Allocco repeated what he'd heard many years earlier: "Sort of like how adversity has the effect of eliciting talents that under prosperous conditions might have remained dormant."

Parseghian smiled and said, "I taught somebody something."

"Imagine saying something in a locker room and then modeling it through the next 45 years, through all the heartbreak and pain that man experienced," Allocco said. "It was his greatness. I don't think there will ever be another one like him."

-- Frank Allocco was a longtime boys basketball coach at De La Salle High School in Concord, California. He won more than 600 games and two state titles. He is currently a senior associate athletic director at the University of San Francisco.

Frank Pomarico, guard (1971-73)

When Pomarico left home to play for the Fighting Irish in 1970, he had visions of Notre Dame being like Camelot under King Arthur.

"Notre Dame was still a very mythical place when I went there," Pomarico said. "Being from New York City and growing up in an Italian-American family, it was the greatest thing to play football for Notre Dame. But what I realized is that it wasn't so much about playing for Notre Dame that was so important. Playing for Ara Parseghian was the thing that was so important."

Pomarico, a tri-captain on the 1973 national championship team, wrote a memoir about his experience of playing at Notre Dame. "Ara's Knights: Ara Parseghian and the Golden Era of Notre Dame Football" was published in 2015.

When Pomarico interviewed Parseghian's former players at Miami (Ohio), Northwestern University and Notre Dame during his research for the book, their memories of the coach had a common thread: He was larger than life.

"He was our King Arthur," Pomarico said. "He was the guy that made Notre Dame so special for so many people because he was a manifestation for everything Notre Dame wanted to be noted for -- class, integrity, polish and character. Those are the things Ara Parseghian was all about.

"When you think about King Arthur and the myth of Camelot, it was the perfect place. King Arthur did everything not because he had might but because it was right, and that's what Ara did. He did things the right way."

-- Frank Pomarico, who was a three-year starting guard, is a motivational speaker, author and radio host. He lives in Jackson, Michigan.

Thom Gatewood, split end (1969-71)

What Gatewood remembers most about meeting Parseghian for the first time was the simplicity of his message -- and his office.

Near the end of Gatewood's recruiting visit to Notre Dame in 1968, he was taken to Parseghian's office in the basement of Knute Rockne Memorial Gymnasium.

"When I walked into his office, which was very small and simplistic for a man running Notre Dame's football program, I was kind of shocked," Gatewood said.

Gatewood was one of the country's most highly recruited players as a senior at Baltimore City College, but Notre Dame had largely ignored him. His high school coach, George Young, who would later become head coach of the Baltimore Colts and general manager of the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants, sent game film to Parseghian, who invited Gatewood for a campus visit.

Gatewood was surprised by what Parseghian told him.

"We've looked at your film, we've talked to the teachers and administrators at your high school, and we like the character that was profiled to us," Parseghian told him. "We'd like you to be here if you can make a contribution to us. We'd like to trade your four-year experience for opportunities later in the 40 or 45 years you'll have to earn a living for your family."

After hearing recruiting pitches from Penn State's Joe Paterno, Ohio State's Woody Hayes, USC's John McKay and others, who mostly promised he'd become an All-American, Parseghian's pitch won him over.

"I'd never heard anything like it," Gatewood said. "All I'd heard was, 'You're a Parade Magazine All-America and all-state and you can be all-world for us.' The contract Ara was offering me was that if you play for us, and work hard and make a contribution, your reward comes in the ability to take care of yourself and your family down the road. You'll get something back and something you can take with you."

-- Thom Gatewood, who led Notre Dame in receiving in three straight seasons and became its first African-American team captain in 1971, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2015. He was a two-time Academic All-American and was awarded an NCAA post-graduate scholarship. He recently retired from an award-winning journalism career and lives in South Bend, Indiana.

Jim McGraw, head student manager (1970)

McGraw, who oversaw dozens of student managers during the 1970 season and supervised, among other things, the traditional painting of Notre Dame's gold helmets before games, became close friends with Parseghian later in life.

McGraw co-chaired several fundraising events for the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation over the years.

As Parseghian's 90th birthday approached in 2013, McGraw asked the former coach for permission to throw him a birthday party. Parseghian didn't want him to do it.

"He kept refusing to let me have it," McGraw said. "I finally was able to convince him, and I joked with him that if he let me have a 90th birthday party for him, I would agree to skip his 100th birthday party."

More than 100 former Notre Dame players, including Joe Theismann, Jim Lynch, Dave Casper and Rocky Bleier, attended Parseghian's 90th birthday on the Notre Dame campus on April 22, 2013. Attendees raised $300,000 for Niemann-Pick Type C research.

"When he was giving his remarks, he was feeling pretty charged up because it was a great party," McGraw said. "He said, 'I don't care if you all come back in wheelchairs and walkers, but I want you to promise me that you all will come back for my 100th birthday party.'"

"He was a special man," McGraw said. "To a lot of us, we considered him our father. He was as close to me as my own dad. He was probably the most influential adult person in my life on how I turned out and what I did. He was an incredible influence on my entire life, and I will never be able to repay him or his family."

-- Jim McGraw, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1971, attended the University of Akron School of Law. He works as a corporate law partner and CEO of an economic development firm in Cincinnati.

Coley O'Brien, quarterback (1966-68)

Legendary Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty and Parseghian have forever been linked by their teams' famous 10-10 tie during the 1966 season.

Several years ago, Daugherty's daughter, Dree, invited Parseghian and O'Brien to attend a dinner honoring her late father in East Lansing, Michigan. O'Brien had been forced into the 1966 game against the Spartans after starter Terry Hanratty separated his right shoulder. O'Brien was on the field when Parseghian elected to have his team let the clock run out.

At the end of the dinner at Michigan State, a couple and their young son approached O'Brien and Parseghian.

"Thank you so much," the boy's mother told Parseghian. "Our son has Niemann-Pick disease, and no one knows what it is. But because of your celebrity and your work, people are beginning to realize how devastating this disease is, and the medical community is finally starting to take notice."

O'Brien believes Parseghian's charitable work after his coaching career ended is his greatest legacy.

"The work he did couldn't help his daughter and grandchildren, but it's going to help so many people down the road," O'Brien said.

A few weeks after Parseghian's funeral, O'Brien returned to South Bend to play in former Notre Dame player Mike McCoy's charity golf tournament. While eating breakfast at the hotel, O'Brien read a memoriam for Parseghian: "Remember this your whole life through: That tomorrow there will be more to do, and failure waits for all who stay, with some success made yesterday. Yesterday is history, tomorrow is the future."

"That sums up Ara's life," O'Brien said. "Certainly, he was satisfied and proud of his coaching career and the work he put into that. But then he was involved in so much more because it was required of him. He didn't rely on past successes, and he used what he'd accomplished to benefit others going forward."

-- Coley O'Brien, who played quarterback for two years and moved to halfback as a senior, attended Notre Dame's law school after his playing career ended. He became a lobbyist on Capitol Hill and worked with NASA, among other clients, until retirement.

Bob Thomas, kicker (1971-73)

Thomas had struggled at times during his senior season in 1973, but Parseghian knew he'd need his kicker against defending national champion USC.

After Thomas had missed a field goal and an extra point the week before in a 62-3 rout of Army, Parseghian approached his kicker on the field before the Irish played the Trojans.

"Hey, I know you've been struggling and it's been tough," Parseghian told him. "You've missed some kicks, but we didn't need them. We're going to need you against Southern Cal, and you're going to win the game."

Thomas kicked three field goals and scored 11 points in Notre Dame's 23-14 win over the Trojans on Oct. 27, 1973, which ended USC's 23-game unbeaten streak.

At the end of the 1973 season, Thomas kicked a 19-yard field goal with about 4 minutes left to upset No. 1 Alabama 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl, which earned Parseghian his second national championship.

"Along with being a great man, he was a terrific coach and had every aspect of coaching down, including the psychological part," Thomas said.

Thomas said Notre Dame's players had a nickname for Parseghian -- they called him simply, "The Man."

"It wasn't until years later that it took on a different meaning," Thomas said. "He was a man in every sense. He was a caring individual, a teacher as well as a coach, and someone who genuinely cared about you even after your time at the university was done. He was just the total package. I think that's what separates great coaches from one-of-a-kind coaches."

-- Bob Thomas kicked for four NFL teams during 12 seasons from 1975 to 1986. While playing for the Chicago Bears, he attended law school at night and during the offseason. In 2000, he joined the Illinois Supreme Court and served as chief justice from 2005 to 2008.

Brian Doherty, punter (1971-73)

During Doherty's junior season at Notre Dame in 1972, his father unexpectedly died. Doherty's brother, Kevin, was a freshman wide receiver on the team, and they were thousands of miles away from their home in Portland, Oregon.

"Ara had the skill of the right time and the right moment," Brian Doherty said. "We were devastated and didn't know which was up, or what life was going to be like without our father."

Upon learning the news, Parseghian called the Doherty brothers to his office.

"I'm so sorry, but you have family here," Parseghian told them. "My office door is always open."

"He really became a father figure to us," Doherty said. "He genuinely cared about you before you got to Notre Dame, while you were there, and then after you left."

What also impressed Doherty most about his coach was that he was so well rounded. Parseghian could play the organ and piano and was a scratch golfer. He started every day by reading three newspapers -- the South Bend Tribune, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times -- at a coffee shop at 5 o'clock in the morning.

"I really thought you could spend an entire weekend with Ara and never talk football," Doherty said. "He had a Ph.D. when he was coaching at Miami. He was a Renaissance man."

-- Brian Doherty started his Notre Dame career as quarterback, before moving to punter during its national championship season in 1973. After graduating, he attended Lewis & Clark Law School and now works as an attorney in Portland, Oregon.

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