Famed football 'Horseman' a link to Notre Dame's past

Don Miller, Elmer Layden, Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley - famous football names. The others are gone now, but 81-year-old Jim Crowley, last of the fabled ''Four Horsemen'' of Notre Dame, carries on.

As a youth he gained All-American status as a running back in 1924. Today ''Sleepy Jim'' Crowley remains sharp, and his stories still carry the authentic wit they did when he first began telling them on the banquet circuit many years ago.

Crowley has been a resident of this central Pennsylvania town for the last 30 years. He spends much of his time now visiting with friends and attending an occasional sports function, recounting his career and a lifetime of football memories.

Crowley left Green Bay, Wis., as a youth to play for The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in the backfield that eventually harnessed his name forever with those of the other Four Horsemen.

For those perhaps unfamiliar with the story, it unfolded in the third game of the 1924 season when Notre Dame defeated Army 13-7.

''Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again,'' typed Grantland Rice in what has become probably the most famous lead in sportswriting history. ''In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon.''

The next day, a national wire syndicate sent out a photo of the four uniformed players astride horses. The photo as well as Rice's lead have been reprinted regularly ever since, assuring the quartet of enduring fame.

Crowley has said that Rice took his idea from George Strickler, Notre Dame's student publicist, who had agreed with sportswriters during halftime that the Irish would destroy the Cadets. ''Just like the Four Horsemen,'' Strickler added , having recently seen the movie version of Blasco Ibanez's novel, ''The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,'' which starred Rudolph Valentino.

As for his own nickname, Crowley picked it up not because he liked to take naps but because he often seemed bored waiting for the ball to be snapped to the backfield men before they shifted into position. His body would kind of slump and his eyelids seemed to droop, writers explained.

Recruited by numerous other colleges, Crowley always has considered himself fortunate to have chosen Notre Dame, where he had the chance to play with such outstanding teammates under the famed Knute Rockne.

''They were tremendous individuals - Miller, Layden, Stuhldreher - with so much talent,'' he once said of his backfield colleagues. ''We had a bond of friendship that was just wonderful when we were young, and that grew and grew as we got older and would meet off and on through the years.''

As for Rockne, Crowley still considers him ''the most inspirational man I ever met.

''He had me for three years of varsity football and I can assure you there was nothing phony about the man. Stories that have been written about him have not been exaggerated through the years. He was inspirational and it is the key word to describe him. The man was a dynamic, well-rounded human being who would have been a big man in any business.''

Rockne once said of Crowley: ''Jimmy kept us from getting tense and taking ourselves too seriously. He was a reminder that college and even football can be fun. If anything, he was our team's unofficial spokesman.'' The coach had called his 1924 team his favorite.

After leaving Notre Dame, Crowley served as backfield coach at Georgia and later as head coach at Fordham and Michigan State. His squads never had a losing season, and his Fordham team averaged but a loss per season from 1935 to 1941 and went to two bowls.

Following a hitch with the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II, Crowley became commissioner of the All-American Football Conference, which eventually was absorbed by the NFL. Then, he moved to the insurance business in Pennsylvania, became a radio station manager and sports director, and eventually was named chairman of the state athletic commission.

He retired in 1971 and spent the next years traveling about the country as a goodwill ambassador and after-dinner speaker, a function he was busy at until a recent illness.

''You can't keep a good Irishman down,'' Sleepy Jim Crowley will tell you.

And so, 60 years later, the living legend is still a popular man, still sought after by the banquet circuit and still sought out by his horde of friends.

''It's strange that I'm the last one to stay around, but I feel fortunate,'' Crowley explains. ''That's life, I guess. Someone had to be the last on the field,'' said the last of the Four Horsemen.

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