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April 29, 2013

Who is that masked man?

Notre Dame last won a national title 25 years ago when Lou Holtz's 1988 squad knocked off undefeated West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl, 34-21, to complete a 12-0 season.

A generation of Irish football fans has been born since then. Enough time has elapsed to make even the most iconic of photos tied to the legendary Notre Dame football program unfamiliar to a new generation of Irish follower.

"Somebody asked me if that was Rudy on the front!" laughed two-time Notre Dame captain Ned Bolcar, who adorns the front of the 2013 version of The Shirt, which was unveiled the weekend of the annual Blue-Gold Game.

No, that's not Rudy on the shoulders of teammates Troy Ridgley and Joe Farrell following the national championship victory over the Mountaineers. That's Bolcar -- one of just 16 two-time captains in Notre Dame football history -- two years before the first sale of The Shirt, which began in 1990 as a way to offset the cost of AnTostal, an annual rite of spring at Notre Dame.

Proceeds from the sale of The Shirt eventually were directed to medical costs of students, including one who was paralyzed from a car accident. Funds from shirt sales also were directed to the family of Notre Dame swimmers Meghan Beeler and Colleen Hipp, who died in a 1992 bus accident.

Little did Bolcar know that 25 years after Notre Dame's last national title, his picture would adorn The Shirt.

"About two months ago I got a phone call from Bob Franken ('69), who works hand-in-hand (as an advisor to) the students," Bolcar said. "I knew about The Shirt, and he told me they wanted to use that image on the front. He mentioned that Rocket (Ismail) and Timmy (Brown) would be on the back, but not (Heisman Trophy winners John) Lattner and (John) Lujack.

"They were looking for pictures that they liked and that one caught their eye. The theme was legends. The back of the shirt is legends and the front of the shirt is me. I'm not a legend, but the guys on the back are.

"When they asked me if they could use it, I said, 'Of course.' I thought it was a nice honor to be on The Shirt because it's a pretty cool thing that the student body does. The money goes to charity."

Bolcar thought it was a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the national championship team. But that proved to be more coincidence than plan.

The two truly unknown pictures on the front of The Shirt are of former Irish defensive lineman Troy Ridgley and walk-on linebacker Joe Farrell, who didn't lift Bolcar to their shoulders by happenstance. In fact, it was all part of head coach Lou Holtz's plan.

"Before the game in the locker room, Coach Holtz said when we win the game today, we're going to carry all the seniors off the field on our shoulders," Bolcar recalled. "Other games earlier in the season - Navy, SMU - those in between games where we were heavy favorites and Lou downplayed us and played up the other team, he wouldn't say something like that.

"But in this game, he was very confident. So before we even went on the field, we were planning a celebration after the game. The only other time I remember him doing that was before the Miami game earlier in the season when they were ranked No. 1."

So when the Irish disposed of the Mountaineers, Ridgley and Farrell followed through with their assignment.

"As a player knowing that, it was cool when I saw that picture on the front of The Shirt because I remembered how (Holtz) planned that out," said Bolcar, 46, the Phillipsburg, N.J., product who has spent the better part of the last two decades working on Wall Street.

"They could have put any one of 20-some seniors on the front. I guess when they went through the pictures, they thought that was a cool one because I had blood on my hands and blood on my nose. It's a pretty intense, cool-looking picture."

What a generation removed sees as a cool picture, Bolcar remembers as the day he and his teammates knew in their hearts that they'd be bringing the national championship trophy back to Notre Dame.

"I'm flattered they picked it," Bolcar said. "The significance to me as a player is that's our national championship season, which was a culmination of some tough times and rebuilding under Lou to become the undisputed national champions."

(Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part interview with Ned Bolcar.)

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