On Pro Bowl weekend, we review the greatest Notre Dame players to star in the NFL. Based strictly on what they achieved in the NFL, here are our top picks on this 22-man offense:
Utility Player: Paul Hornung
He played in two Pro Bowls, but the 1960 and 1961 MVP of the league is mentioned first because of his versatility, manifested by college football’s Paul Hornung Award started in 2010 and presented to college football’s most versatile player.
Hornung’s 176 points in a season in 1960 were an NFL record until 2006, when LaDainian Tomlinson broke it. But Hornung achieved his feat in 12 games, while Tomlinson played 16. Hornung could step in at quarterback, running back, receiver, defensive back or kicker and punter, if needed.
Quarterback: Joe Montana
The first QB in NFL history to make eight Pro Bowls, he also was a four-time Super Bowl champion – and an MVP in three of them. Montana and offensive tackle George Kunz are tied for second in Notre Dame history for most Pro Bowl appearances.
Alternates: Daryle Lamonica played during a miserable era in Irish annals (1960-62), but he became a five-time Pro Bowl pick and a two-time AFL MVP. His 66-16-1 record as a starter for the Oakland Raiders was good for a .784 percentage, topped at the time only by Otto Graham’s .810 figure.
Joe Theismann made the Pro Bowl twice and led the Washington Redskins to the 1983 Super Bowl title.
Running Backs: Jerome Bettis & Ricky Watters
“The Bus” was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015. He finished fifth on the all-time NFL rushing chart (13,662 yards) when he retired after winning the 2006 Super Bowl. Bettis eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing eight times and scored 71 touchdowns en route to six Pro Bowl selections and two first-team All-Pro honors.
Watters joined Bettis as one of two dozen players to surpass 10,000 career yards rushing (10,643), and he played in five straight Pro Bowls from 1992-96. He is the lone player in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards on three different franchises (San Francisco, Philadelphia and Seattle). Watters also caught 467 passes, which ranks behind only Tim Brown among Notre Dame alumni in the NFL. Notre Dame is one of five schools with two runners ranking among the NFL’s top 25 in career rushing yards.
Alternate: Rocky Bleier never played in the Pro Bowl, but he was a vital cog on four Super Bowl champions, as a runner, receiver and blocker, while with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. He rushed for 3,865 yards in his 11-year career, highlighted by a 1,000-yard campaign in 1976.
Receivers: Tim Brown & Wayne Millner
Brown and defensive lineman Alan Page hold the Notre Dame record for most Pro Bowl appearances with nine apiece. When he retired in 2006, Brown was second in NFL history in yards receiving (14,394), third in receptions (1,094) and tied for third in TD catches (100). Like Bettis, he was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.
Millner might be an unfamiliar name to younger Notre Dame fans — although he caught the winning TD in the closing seconds of the epic 1935 win at Ohio State — but he is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was the favorite target for Slingin’ Sammy Baugh while playing for the Washington Redskins from 1936-41. Although he caught only 124 passes in his career (never more than 22 in a season), he played in an era where the pass was not emphasized nearly as much.
Millner, Brown, Hornung, Page and George Connor are the only four Notre Dame alumni who are in both the college and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
Alternates: Jack Snow and Golden Tate. Snow enjoyed a productive NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams that included a Pro Bowl. His 340 catches averaged a whopping 17.7 yards with 45 touchdowns.
Super Bowl winner Tate made the 2014 Pro Bowl and has grabbed 445 passes in his career, eclipsing 90 catches each of the past three seasons. He will pass Watters next year for second-most career catches by an Irish alumnus in the NFL.
Tight End: Dave Casper
“The Ghost” is considered by many NFL analysts the greatest receiving and blocking tight end in NFL history and was a first-team team All-Pro selection four straight years from 1976-79 (and a Pro Bowl selection five times). He snared 378 career passes, averaging 13.8 yards per grab with 52 TDs, and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Alternate: Mark Bavaro. The two-time Pro Bowl pick helped the New York Giants win two Super Bowl (1986 and 1990), and his stats are not far behind Casper’s with 351 catches, 13.5 yards per catch and 39 TDs. They didn’t make them any tougher during his 10-year pro career from 1985-94. His 66 catches in 1986 are the most ever in an NFL season by an Irish tight end.
George Kunz (tackle), Bob Kuechenberg (guard), George Trafton (guard), Frank Varrichione (tackle) & Dick Szymanski (center)
Kunz and Kuechenberg – both members of Notre Dame’s Class of 1969 – had eight and six Pro Bowl appearances, respectively, with Kuechenberg a mainstay on the 17-0 Miami Dolphins unit in 1972. Kunz is on the All-Time Team for both the Baltimore (Indianapolis) Colts and Atlanta Falcons. He and Kuechenberg could still be on future Pro Football Hall of Fame ballots.
Trafton, who played for Knute Rockne and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was an original “Monster of the Midway” for the Chicago Bears from 1922-32. Red Grange referred to him as “the meanest, toughest player alive.”
Varrichione was a five-time Pro Bowl participant in the 1950s.
Szymanski was a three-time Pro Bowl center who hiked the ball to Johnny Unitas at Baltimore from 1957-68, and played in what has been termed “The Greatest Game Ever,” the Colts’ overtime victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL title game.
Alternates: Art Hunter, Tim Grunhard, Tim Ruddy and current right guard Zack Martin of the Dallas Cowboy.
The first three all made the Pro Bowl one time, all three played center in the NFL, all three played a full decade in the NFL and all three are on this team because of their durability and versatility.
In another year or two, Martin should be elevated to our first team after already making three straight Pro Bowls in his first three years — and All-Pro twice.
Hunter made the Pro Bowl with the Cleveland Browns but also starred for the Los Angeles Rams from 1960-65. He was a tackle at Notre Dame.
Grunhard was a three-year starting guard at Notre Dame from 1987-89 but was an Iron Man at center for the Kansas City Chiefs, starting every game he played from 1991-2000.
Ruddy, who also had a couple of starts at guard for the Irish when not playing center, started all 140 games he played from 1995-2003 with the Miami Dolphins.
Later: Defense & Special Teams
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