From Chicken Soup for the Sports Fan's Soul

Chicken Soup to the Rescue

January 1, 1979. The Cotton Bowl. Notre Dame and Houston. Twenty degrees Fahrenheit, winds gusting at twenty miles per hour, with a wind chill of minus six degrees. Dallas had been turned into a giant skating rink by the worst ice storm in thirty years. Even so, Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish started hot, with quarterback Joe Montana guiding them to a 12–0 lead. Then, it turned Houston’s way, 20–12 by halftime. What was happening to Joe and his Fighting Irish?

As the teams trotted out for the second half, a groan migrated through the crowd as the Irish faithful noticed that Joe hadn’t come out with the team. Soon the announcement came that Montana was in the locker room . . . with the team doctor.

Dr. Les Bodnar had been the team doctor for Notre Dame for thirty years. Joe’s problem wasn’t a difficult diagnosis. Joe’s pale, clammy skin was clue enough. “But I’m not sick,” Joe insisted, “I just have the shakes.”

There wasn’t any medicine in Doc Bodnar’s black bag better than a cup of hot chicken soup for what was ailing Joe. Thanks to a Christmas stocking present from his daughter, Bethy, the doc had the right thing at the right time. As Joe sat under a pile of coats feeding himself chicken soup, the crowd noise filtering down to the locker room told everyone how it was going—not good.

Coach Dan Devine sent graduate assistant Rick Slager down to see how Joe was doing. Slager raced back with the news, trying to sound optimistic. “His temperature’s up to ninety-seven!”

Joe didn’t join the team until late in the third quarter, still feeling punk, but with his temperature back to normal. It wasn’t a good start, though: three and out. The third ended with Houston ahead 34–12.

That’s the way it stood until 7:37 to go, when Notre Dame’s Tony Belden blocked a Houston punt and the ball shot up in the air and came down in the arms of Steve Cichy, who burst through a crowd and sprinted thirty-three yards for the Irish touchdown. Montana threw for a two-point conversion and it was 34–20. Was the tide turning? Had the warmth and curative powers of the chicken soup kicked in?

In its next possession, Houston was three and out. Montana marched the Irish sixty-one yards to the end zone, again. The Cougar twenty-two-point advantage had been trimmed to six, with 4:15 left to play.

In two minutes, Notre Dame was threatening again. Montana ripped sixteen yards for an apparent first down, but the ball was stripped and Houston took over. The clock was at 1:50. Gambling on fourth and one at its twenty-nine-yard line, Houston called a dive, but Notre Dame stopped them. The Fighting Irish had the ball, just twenty-nine yards away from the end zone and twenty-eight seconds to get there. Montana scrambled for eleven, then hit Kris Haines for ten more, putting the ball on the eight. Houston called timeout with six seconds to go.

Joe ran a 91, designed to find Haines again at the sideline, but when Haines couldn’t shake free, Joe gunned the ball out of bounds. Two seconds left. Joe asked Haines if he could beat him again. Haines said, “Yes.” Joe smiled, “Let’s do it.” And that’s what they did. As Joe said later, “It couldn’t have been a more perfect pass. It looked low and outside, but that’s where it’s supposed to be. It was so clutch.”

Haines made the catch in the corner of the end zone as the clock went to 0:00. The score was tied.

Dallas native Joe Unis came on for the extra point. He made it, but illegal procedure was called, backing up the Irish five yards and forcing Unis to try again. Win the game on his leg two times in a row! And Unis did it. 35–34, Notre Dame.

Was Doc Bodnar’s daughter prescient, knowing that within a week of Christmas, her dad would need a package of Mrs. Grass’s chicken soup to save Irish pride and cement the legend of “Comeback Joe”? Probably not. Maybe it was simply “luck of the Irish” and another instance of chicken soup being good for the body and soul.

Bernie Kish

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