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"Is it true that you once said that Notre Dame is the fifth national university. What are the others?"

Yes, it is true. The words were spoken at the Packet Inn in North Tonawanda way back when the Rev. Edmund Joyce, now retired, was a vice president of the university.

The other schools named that night were Army, Air Force, Coast Guard and Navy. They are indeed national, but Notre Dame is not free like the others.

Now a person in the first row is asking, "Does your statement have anything to do with the fact that it was at Notre Dame that you first met the late Paul Neville, who would run your sports column and then invite you to work at The Buffalo News?"

The answer was, "I heard that statement long before I came to Buffalo. In fact, I heard it when I was in the war business and was supposed to be studying Japanese aircraft identification."

Yes, I was in the Army in Germany, and we had our choice between identifying enemy planes or listening to a replacement who had a brother playing for Notre Dame.

Needless to say, the Notre Dame player's brother won that skirmish handily. And though I knew of the subway alumni, that was the first time I realized that Notre Dame was a national university. And 16 years would pass before I met Neville, a Notre Dame graduate.

The year we met was in 1963, and Notre Dame was on its way to a losing season, as it might be in 1997. Indeed, in 1964, the school broke with tradition and hired a non-graduate, Ara Parseghian, as head football coach.

The other day a person said, "Ask a grad why the Fighting Irish never played Catholic schools, and you'll get blank stares." I did and was told, "I don't know."

The reasons now are obvious. Few Catholic schools, except for Boston College, now a traditional opponent, have big-time football programs.

A friend named Beano Cook, the college football expert, says, "Notre Dame never plays an away game." And it is true that the Irish always have a certain amount of subway alumni on their side.

Some of the subway alumni have never been in a college class or even seen a subway. Quite often they are fans like Eddie Gadowski, who has an oasis in Niagara Falls. Early in life, Gadowski adopted Notre Dame, or vice versa, and runs an annual trip to a home game at South Bend, Ind., where the Fighting Irish have their college.

In the movie "West Point Story" is a line that the name Notre Dame conjures up the image of a football school. And a school that has produced seven Heisman Trophy winners and many national champions would be hard put to protest.

Mention "football school" to an alum and you'll get a frown and then some words about how the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh fought to change that image.

Father Hesburgh was a prominent educator whose activities as a presidential adviser in Washington, D.C, won him a spot in a joke. "What's the difference between God and Father Hesburgh? Answer: God is everywhere. Father Hesburgh is everywhere but at Notre Dame."

Let's go back to my declaration that "Notre Dame is a national university." OK, ask yourself if anyone else you know achieves immediate respect with the words, "He is a graduate of such and such."

He or she does if you say, "That person is a graduate of Notre Dame." And many losses in football this fall won't change that evaluation. Nor will the busy actions of the Notre Dame Club of Buffalo and Western New York, which does more for its university than any club I know of.

As some of you know, I did not attend Notre Dame. Indeed, I went to a university with a more beautiful campus that allowed females before 1972, the year Notre Dame did.

Some local Notre Dame alumni are Claudette Musarra, Ed ("Retirement Fund for the Religious") Cosgrove, Jim Julian, Bill Grunert, John LaDuca, Bob Greene and Ed Rutkowski. On the national scene, are the late Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Red Smith, Regis Philbin, Paul Hornung and Joe Montana.

Today's score: Lions 27, Bills 20.

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