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Wednesday, June 19, 2024
The Observer

Waking the Echoes: Ken MacAfee

Among the 205 schools that recruited him, amid the 28 visits he planned and the 12 visits he actually made, one weekend in particular stands out for Ken MacAfee.

It wasn’t the somewhat exploitative joy ride he took to visit Colorado, which was really more of a means to visit his sister and spend a day on the ski slopes. No, the one that MacAfee recalls involved similar weather, but no skiing.

“I probably had the worst recruiting trip ever at Notre Dame,” the former Irish tight end recalled recently by phone.

In mid-January in 1974, Notre Dame was set to welcome roughly 30 football recruits to campus. The first leg of the flight took the players to Chicago, but foggy conditions prevented the next leg of the flight to South Bend. So MacAfee and his fellow prospects hopped onto a bus to make the trek to campus.

The bus arrived around 1:30 a.m. to a mix of snow and rain falling near Main Circle and the waiting Irish coaches, who quickly put the players up in the Morris Inn.

“Just miserable,” MacAfee recalled.

Things didn’t improve too quickly, either, as “terrible” weather didn’t allow for much fun.

Former Notre Dame tight end Ken MacAfee shakes hands with Irish coach Dan Devine during the 1977 national championship season.
Observer File Photo
Observer File Photo
Former Notre Dame tight end Ken MacAfee shakes hands with Irish coach Dan Devine during the 1977 national championship season.
But on Friday night, MacAfee watched the Irish hockey team knock off No. 1 Michigan Tech, which would advance to the next three Frozen Fours, 7-1. Notre Dame would surge up the rankings.

On Saturday night, MacAfee witnessed arguably the most famous Irish men’s basketball game ever — Notre Dame’s 71-70 win over UCLA, an upset that snapped the Bruins’ remarkable 88-game winning streak.

On Sunday night — still in town after weather prevented MacAfee from flying out on his scheduled flight —MacAfee went to the football banquet honoring the 1973 national championship team.

At one point during the basketball game, MacAfee’s host, former Irish tight end Mike Creaney, turned to MacAfee.

“Multiply this by 10 and you have a football game,” Creaney said.

“Where do I sign up?” MacAfee asked.

“From a perspective of a high-school student, visualizing all this and certainly athletically as well as academically, there’s no other school in the country that can compare to it,” MacAfee said. “No other school could touch it.”

MacAfee found himself comparing every school he visited to Notre Dame. A few months later, he was on campus preparing for the 1974 season.

After three days of freshmen-only, no-pad practices, the upperclassmen — wearing their blue-and-gold practice uniforms, in contrast to the white freshmen jerseys — joined the fray on the fourth day.

“You stick out like a sore thumb,” MacAfee laughed.

MacAfee soon stuck out for another reason. The coaches lined up the linemen and tight ends for a drill called “The Nutcracker.” The simple setup had one offensive lineman trying to block a defensive lineman and allow a running back to gain ground.

Ok, MacAfee, you get in there.

MacAfee went up against behemoth Mike Fanning, an All-American in 1974 who went on to be a first-round draft pick in the NFL.

“I go, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” MacAfee said when realizing who his opponent would be.

But Fanning stood up a little bit out of his stance, and MacAfee drove his face straight into Fanning’s chest and “buried” him. He landed on top of him for good measure, MacAfee said.

The next day, MacAfee moved up to third on the depth chart at tight end. By the sixth game of his freshman season, MacAfee grabbed hold of the starting job.

He never looked back.

After a 10-2 season in 1974 in which the Irish topped Alabama in the Orange Bowl, MacAfee earned three consecutive All-American citations over his next three seasons. As a senior, MacAfee finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. In four seasons, the Brockton, Massachusetts native hauled in 128 receptions for 1,759 yards and 15 touchdowns.

During the 1977 season, Notre Dame scored at least 30 points in seven of its 12 games. The Irish piled up 49 points against USC, 69 against Georgia Tech and 48 against Miami in the regular-season finale, setting the stage for the Cotton Bowl tilt with Texas.

With unbeaten teams dropping around the nation, Notre Dame knew a blowout win could vault it to No. 1 in the polls and seal the 10th national championship in program history. MacAfee said the Irish were confident heading into the matchup with the Longhorns, especially with Irish quarterback Joe Montana playing so well.

“We just didn’t think we could lose,” MacAfee said. “A lot of the guys on the team were overconfident, I think, and some of the coaches reminded us that we still had to play the game.”

Notre Dame forced six Texas turnovers, and the Irish rolled to a 38-10 demolition.

“We just obliterated them,” MacAfee said.

After going 16 seasons without a national championship before winning in 1966, MacAfee and the Irish had just added their third in 12 years. Tradition was building elsewhere, too, as MacAfee followed former Irish tight end Dave Casper — a 1973 All-American — in laying the foundation of the so-called “Tight End U.”

“It’s kind of cool as far as I’m concerned,” MacAfee said. “I enjoy being mentioned in the group with all the great tight ends. … To be able to be one of the initiators of ‘Tight End U,’ so to speak, is flattering.”

The tradition of Tight End U, MacAfee said, is just another hallmark of a school filled with relics. MacAfee quickly developed an appreciation for his campus, making frequent visits to the Grotto. And after three years living in Grace Hall, MacAfee moved into a single in Sorin College for his senior year, saying he wanted “some real tradition back.” From MacAfee’s room, he could look out his window every morning and see the Basilica and the Golden Dome.

“It was always inspirational to me,” MacAfee said, before adding with a chuckle, “except for the fact that the bells rang every hour. Tough to get sleep.”

Following his days at Notre Dame, MacAfee didn’t find much time for sleep, either, playing in the NFL from July through January before studying dentistry at the University of Pennsylvania from January through June. MacAfee juggled both for three years before his NFL career ended.

“Thankfully the dean at Penn was very progressive because he allowed me to play football and go to school at the same time,” MacAfee said. “I thank him every day just because he allowed me to do both.”

MacAfee had been interested in oral and maxillofacial surgery since he was a 16-year old working a summer job with former Holy Cross (Mass.) football captain Bill Moncevicz, who, at the time, was in dental school. After eight years on the academia side of dentistry and oral surgery, MacAfee now has a private practice in Waltham, Massachusetts, and works 11-hour days.

MacAfee’s daughter, Keeley, has committed to play lacrosse at Harvard. His son, Dalton, was a one-time Notre Dame lacrosse commit who eventually pledged to play hockey at Boston University.

“So he came to me and goes, ‘Dad I think I’d rather play hockey at BU,’” MacAfee said. “‘That’s ok, you have to make your decision.’”

Just as MacAfee did — despite the “horrible” first impression — 40 years ago.