Author's note: This was originally written as a response to a board question on why Notre Dame has such success recruiting, even when a Brontosaurus is running the show. If you read it there already, congratulations.
My grandpa's favorite joke (like he would slide it in whenever he could) was whenever someone mentioned Shakespeare, he'd say "you mean Bill Shakespeare, the quarterback at Notre Dame?" Yes, the Domers had a QB named William Shakespeare back in the day.
In that day, however, that was probably the least exotic name on the ND squad, at least according to the sensibilities of what constituted a majority of Americans. Back then, an Irish name was treated by many Americans with a similar contempt that is shown today for some African language-inspired names for blacks.
Even a generation later, in Detroit, and other big cities, it was common for the Jewish boys like my father and the Catholic (mostly Irish, Italian and Polish) kids to be living in the same neighborhoods. However, each group generally segregated themselves, and had distinct sets of stereotypes.
The Catholics, it was said, were the rough-and-tumble guys. They're the ones who'd as soon knock you down as speak to you. They were the toughs. They were the bigs.
These are all century+old stereotypes, of course. But they were powerful, well-known stereotypes that persisted well into my parents' generation, a time when being Catholic still meant being not mainstream.
It's hard to imagine today, but Catholics, and Irish Catholics in particular, were in much the same position then as African Americans are today, i.e. they had the presidency, but they were still somewhat marginalized, still the victims of prejudice from holdouts of different times.
Teenagers of any persuasion are known identity seekers. As such, they tend to latch on to stereotypes, even going so far as to transform themselves to meet them. If society said a Catholic boy at a boarding school in LaPorte, Ind., was going to be a tough guy (according to one such fella*), that kid would make himself a tough guy.
Football loves tough guys.
Being a football tough guy is something you can learn. Not everyone with athletic prowess can play, or chooses to play football. Mentality is a big part of the game. As with any sport, early commitment to the game is a big part of success.
On the day Jack Kennedy was sworn into office, it was Catholic boys who were filling the rosters of college football programs well beyond their statistical population footprint. It was Catholic boys who were being told when they were teens that toughness was their ticket out.
It was during that period, from my grandpa's childhood through my father's, that Notre Dame built itself into a premier program. For all that time, its lifeblood was these Catholic boys. At a time when many Catholic Americans had few ways out of a predestined life in the working class, playing football for Notre Dame was the pinnacle of many of these boys' dreams.
Thus, the school at South Bend for two generations had a direct pipeline of premier football tough guys all across the United States.
The ND national recruiting model later became modern recruiting. But by nature of getting there first, ND still has the inside track on many traditional high school football programs which themselves were built on the backs of Catholic boys. The halls of St. Thomas Aquinas et al. all across the country are filled with photos of star alumni in their golden domes. ND is as much an institution in these schools as the fight song.
They no longer have the automatic draw, especially as Catholics in this country have, for the most part, completed their transition from margins to mainstream, meaning some oncologist of our generation might have, in a different time, made a fine defensive tackle for Notre Dame.
Today, it's African Americans still in transition from the margins to the mainstream, still fighting vestigial and institutionalized disadvantages, and thus more open in their teenage years to the kind of commitment needed to succeed in sports. And likewise, college football programs around the country have benefited from filling their rosters with today's tough kids, who learn life's tough lessons early in Pahokee and show up to play football with a hardness few kids in Birmingham could ever imagine.
And likewise, schools ideally situated to bring these kids in are today's rising powers. Meanwhile, the traditional powers maintain their institutional advantages for bringing in the creme de la creme.
College football will prosper in talent so long as American teenagers feed themselves to it. The only thing that changes is which teens decide to take that plunge. As our society continues its slow march of integration, the faces of those teens and the name on the back of the jersey will likewise change. But if that name be Hernandez, Williams, Mienkewitz, O'Malley, Dimatello, Klausen, Levine, or as Anglo-Saxon as William Shakespeare, he's still, essentially, the same boy.
*Chief Justice John G. Roberts, who once thought playing for Notre Dame was about as high as any man could go.