#5 Angelo Bertelli: Notre Dame Football’s Top 25 Players

Angelo Bertelli - 1943 Heisman Trophy Winner
(Original Photo provided by Notre Dame Media Relations)

#5 Angelo Bertelli, QB, 1940-1943

Angello Bertelli was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA to Italian immigrant parents.  A generation later, also in Springfield, Nick Buoniconti, #21 on our list of all-time Notre Dame greats, was born to Italian immigrant parents.

Bertelli was a multi-sport star at Springfield’s Cathedral High, the same school which Buoniconti used as a springboard to Notre Dame.  They are the only two members of our top #25 who attended the same high school.

Angelo Bertelli, The Multi-Sport Star

Eschewing Italy’s national sport, soccer, Bertelli immediately shone at Cathedral  on grass (fooball) on wooden planks (basketball) and on  ice (hockey).  Even the NFL noticed Bertelli’s grace on the ice, and pursued him at a time when over 95% of NHL players were from Canada.   Bertelli was agile, but good sized at 6’1 and a sinewy 175 pounds.

The Boston College Coach Noticed

80 miles away from Springfield in Newton, Boston College Head Football coach Frank Leahy noticed Bertelli’s football exploits in his senior year in 1939.  Leahy was diffident about Angelo’s dalliances with basketball, baseball and hockey but realized that the Massachusetts football  cupboard was not bare. Leahy was also aware that Bertelli was student body President at Cathedral as a senior.

When Leahy led Boston College to its only (partial) national championship in 1940, Bertelli was a frosh single-wing tailback in South Bend.

Bertelli, Miller, and Leahy

Frank Leahy arrived to coach the ’41 Irish and noticed Bertelli, the immigrants’ son and Notre Dame blue-and-goldblood Creighton Miller.  He realized he had something to work with.

Leahy continued to use the Notre Dame Box through the ’41 season but then implemented an audacious move in time for the 1942 season.   He was switching from Notre Dame’s box formation (a sort of Single Wing 2.0) to the split T.

Miller would be an easy transition, but Leahy put a South Bend version of a Vulcan mind-meld on Bertelli.  Even though Johnny Mercer would not publish the song until 1944, Leahy strove to “Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative” in discussing the transition with Bertelli.  He elevated  and magnified Angelo’s passing potential and minimized and pooh-poohed his running ability.  Frank Leahy was dreaming dreams and seeing visions and Bertelli came along on the magic carpet ride.

Bertelli spent the summer of ’42 taking snaps, practicing the footwork on his dropback and throwing to any fellow player who would help him workout.   It wasn’t Rockne and Dorais on the beach in Sandusky, but it was close enough.

A T-Formation Quarterback is Born

While the box-formation neocons hollered and screamed, Leahy, Bertelli and Miller were implementing the T-formation. They even got some help from Hunk Anderson’s Chicago Bears coaching staff. Anderson had played with Gipp.  He had a special loyalty to Notre Dame.

Retooling takes time, but Angelo Bertelli was an immediate success as a T-formation quarterback.  He passed for 1039 yards and 10 touchdowns in 1942.

Georgia’s  Frank Sinkwich was the runaway Heisman winner in 1942 but Bertelli finished a strong sixth in ’42.  Notre Dame for the first time, had announced itself in Heisman race.

The Irish finished 7-2-2 in ’42 with home losses against Georgia Tech and Michigan. As mentioned in our treatment of #15 Creighton Miller, the 1942 loss to Michigan would be the last loss, HOME or AWAY, to any civilian (that is other than Great Lakes Naval Training Station) team by a Leahy-coached Notre Dame team until 1950.

Angelo Bertelli’s Senior Season: 1943

Leahy was ready for his third year, and though it was seven decades ago, his quarterback would be the fulcrum of the team, now fully comfortable in the Split T.  He had the Springfield Rifle, Bertelli, at quarterback and the swift, swivel-hipped Creighton Miller at the key left halfback position.  They were not alone.  Jim Mello and Julie Rykovich kept defenses honest.

The Irish summarily dispatched Pitt, hard by the confluence of the Monongahela and the Allegheny,  and Georgia Tech, hard by the Southward Bend of the St. Joe River.   Next was Ann Arbor  to face the mighty Wolverines of Fritz Crisler.

Fritz Crisler, who was the spiritual and pigskin successor to Fielding “Hurry Up” Yost, had been on a rampage in the “Western Conference” the then title  of today’s “Big Fourteen” Conference.  In his reign in cavernous Michigan Stadium, Crisler averaged one home loss every other year, never by as much as two touchdowns.   And two of those losses were to mighty Minnesota of Bernie Bierman.

Maize and Blue partisans cackled in delight.  It had been 34 years since Notre Dame had visited Ann Arbor, beating Michigan 11-3 in 1909.  It was something less than the “point a  minute” pace that Yost had been accustomed to, at least the way we keep score in South Bend.

Leahy had defeated Bob Neyland and Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans when he was coaching BC.

Ann Arbor didn’t frighten him.

Yawn!  Notre Dame 35-Michigan 12.  Michigan had been ranked #2 before the game, right behind the Irish, and on this October day, they were 23 points behind the Irish.  Bertelli, the swaggering leader,  orchestrated his troops as they dominated the once proud Crisler and his minions. UPI posted that “Bertelli’s passing caught the Woverine secondary flatfooted and out of position
repeatedly to make the rout complete.” Who knew that Wolverines suffered from “flat feet!”

It had been 34 years since 1909 before the Irish were invited back to Ann Arbor.  After Bertelli,  Miller and Leahy got done skinning the pelt of the ’43 version of the Wolverine, it would be 36 years more before the Irish were welcome in Ann Arbor.

In the biggest arena in the biggest game, Bertelli was the clear star, though Miller gained 150 yards.

Bertelli threw just 36 passes in his six games that year, completing 25 passes, ten of which were for touchdowns. That is “Efficient Quarterbacking” and maxes out the Efficiency Rating of every algorithm yet designed by the human species.

Angelo Bertelli only played 6 games for Notre Dame that year.

God, Country, Notre Dame

Talk is talk.

Duty and honor are duty and honor.

Slogans on the East door of Sacred Heart can be meaningless unless implemented by the actions of the men of Notre Dame, not their words, but by putting their lives, their duty and their sacred honor to work.

Bertelli’s  parents were from Italy.  They were well aware, painfully, of the rise of former Professor of Fascism Benito Mussolini and his doppelganger Hitler.

Right in midseason, Bertelli left the Irish to begin active duty, all with Leahy’s blessing.

Motivated by fascism and tyranny in Europe, it was poignant that Bertelli was deployed in the Pacific Theatre.  He participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Heisman voters were aware of the duty of patriotism.  The great Nile Kinnick, born in Adel, Iowa, and the greatest Hawkeye of all time, won the Heisman Trophy by acclaim in 1939.  Kinnick died in June, 1943, in uniform, in Venezuela in a training flight.

Bertelli easily  dominated the Heisman voting with Penn Quaker Bob Odell the runner up  followed by Otto Graham of Notrhwestern.   Notre Dame had its first Heisman Trophy winner.  Six more would follow Bertelli.

HOW DO YOU REPLACE ANGELO BERTELLI?

WELL, WITH THE NEXT MAN IN.

Leahy never blinked-EVER.  It was mid-October and Leahy, soon to join the Navy after the season, had a full-throated endorsement of Bertelli’s departure for the military.

But he had a team to coach.  He looked around and beckoned a scrub quarterback.  Frank Leahy expressed confidence to the back-up that the kid could do the job, that Leahy would coach him up and that the team would support him.

Some scrub!

Some coach!

Some team support!

It was John Lujack  and he finished the season for the National Championship Irish.  It was Leahy’s first.  It would not be his last.

Bertelli had the honor of the Heisman and the honor of service.  Ann Arbor? Iwo Jima? Either way…….

Go Irish!

 

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