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The real Rudy

Good morning!

Before there was Rudy Ruettiger, the Notre Dame football walk-on made famous by the movie, there was Rudy Konieczny. He wore number 73 for the Blue-and-Gold, played offensive tackle and hailed from Chicopee, where he’d played his schoolboy football for coach Bill Moge. He’s lived in Greenfield for 30 years, his wife Mary taught in the Greenfield school system, and their daughters Megan and Mary both graduated from Greenfield High School.

Reached by telephone at his Birch Street home, Konieczny talked of his days playing under the shadow of Touchdown Jesus in South Bend. “I started a good portion of my sophomore year, but in the preseason of 1966 I injured my knee. I played in the first three games (against Purdue, Army and Northwestern) but after that I ended up having surgery. I had torn the cartilage in my right knee.”

To this day, he’s proud to have been a member of the 1966 team that won the national championship, its first since 1953. During a reunion last fall, “I had a chance to shake hands with the coach (Brian Kelly). He’s brought the right kind of attitude. There’s a value system a coach needs to be aware of at Notre Dame to be successful, the high academic standards, the code of conduct. I felt he would be the person capable of upholding those traditions.”

Now he’s hoping the Irish can win their first national title since Lou Holtz did it in 1988. “It’s a wonderful time for Notre Dame sports and it’s such a great group of kids that really deserve this.”

Konieczny was a two-sport athlete at Chicopee High School, where he competed against Greenfield counterparts Tom Suchanek and Fran Murphy. In 2011, he was inducted into Chicopee’s newly formed Sports Hall of Fame, together with his brother Tony who played for Chicopee Comp, and Bernardston’s Bill Budness who spent seven seasons in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders.

“I really had planned to attend a college in the Northeast. I’d had a great three years in (high school) football and was recruited by Michigan State, but the two colleges I looked at were Holy Cross and Boston College. I was 90 percent sure I’d be going to BC.”

That was until Chicopee athletic director Ted Budynkiewicz got into the act. He’d played at Notre Dame for coach Frank Leahy in the 1940s and had a better idea. “Ted had graduated from Cathedral. Most of the local Notre Dame guys all went to Cathedral. He said, ‘You know, there’s a new coach coming to Notre Dame, why don’t you take a trip out there?’”

Notre Dame was on the cusp of what was to become the “Era of Ara,” when the Irish would win two national championships and rack up 95 wins in 11 seasons. “On a miserable winter weekend I went out and met this new coach, Ara Parseghian. There’s such an image and tradition at Notre Dame, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the place. I was offered a scholarship and decided this was the opportunity of a lifetime. If I didn’t give this thing a try, I would always have questioned what would have happened. It was a wonderful experience for me academically and athletically.”

The talent-laden 1966 roster included two-time All-American quarterback Terry Hanratty and NFL-bound running back Rocky Bleier, receiver Jim Seymour, offensive lineman Bob Kuechenberg and defensive lineman Alan Page. “We knew we were capable of having an extraordinary season,” said Konieczny.

And succeed they did, blowing out every opponent but Michigan State, a game that was played in East Lansing and ended in a 10-10 tie after the Irish had trailed 10-0 and Hanratty was knocked out of the game in the first quarter.

Parseghian was criticized for not going for the win on his final possession. “Tie one for the Gipper” jabbed SI’s Dan Jenkins, but Parseghian played it safe by calling three running plays into the line from his own 30-yard line with 1:15 left in the game. It was a sound strategy; the Irish went into the game ranked No. 1 and they left ranked No. 1. The following week they trounced USC, 51-0, and garnered 41 of the AP writers’ 56 first place votes to win the title.

Unlike today, the final poll in those days was tallied at the end of the regular season. In 1966 there were only eight bowl games, and strangely neither Notre Dame nor Michigan State were eligible. The Spartans had played in the Rose Bowl in 1965, and the antiquated rule of the day was that teams couldn’t play in the Rose Bowl in back-to-back seasons.

The Irish, meanwhile, hadn’t played in a bowl game since 1925 when they beat Stanford, 27-10, in Pasadena. “Notre Dame back then, it was decided that we wouldn’t play in bowl games because it interfered with academics,” said Konieczny.

The self-imposed ban ended on New Year’s Day, 1970, when the Irish lost to Texas in the Cotton Bowl. They’ve played in 30 bowl games since and have lost ten of their last 12 matchups.

For Konieczny, life went on after he graduated from Notre Dame and returned to Western Mass. He met his wife at the Kolburne School in New Marlborough, where both taught special education. “He’s modest, but he’s pretty passionate about Notre Dame. It’s been quite an influence on our lives,” she said.

He retired two years ago after 40 years with the ITT Corporation. “I still do consulting work but I’m 66 and it was time for a rest. We bought our home in Greenfield in 1981, the price was right. Both my children were athletes at the high school. My daughter Megan played volleyball and my youngest played field hockey and softball. We’ve enjoyed it here.”

Two weeks from Monday, he’ll be in front of the television set, hoping his alma mater can win despite being listed as 10-point underdogs.

“Alabama has a great football team and this is going to be a difficult game,” said Konieczny. “We’ve got a young quarterback (20-year-old redshirt freshman Everett Golson) and I hope he’s mature enough to stand up to the pressure of the game. I don’t have any real sense on how it will turn out, I’m just gonna settle back and hope for the best.”

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.

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