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Notre Dame’s Football History In Rhode Island

Rhode Island?

Whether one is a casual or zealous follower of college football recruiting, the smallest state in the Union by land mass is generally going to elicit surprise when it produces a prospect for a top Football Bowl Subdivision school.

That is the case with 6-5, 248-pound three-star strong-side defensive end Jason Onye, Notre Dame’s most recent verbal commit in the 2021 recruiting cycle who hails from Bishop Hendricken School in Warwick, R.I.

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Warwick (R.I.) Bishop Hendricken School defensive end and Notre Dame commit Jason Onye
Defensive end recruit Jason Onye likely will be the sixth player from Rhode Island to see action at Notre Dame. (Paul Danesi)

Only five players from the Ocean State have appeared in game action for the Fighting Irish, although the most recent came last year after a lull of more than 70 years.

Jamestown, R.I., native Harrison Leonard, a preferred walk-on freshman kicker last year, challenged starter Jonathan Doerer for the starting role in the preseason before serving as the backup. He converted all four of his extra-point attempts and kicked off twice. Leonard is in line to succeed Doerer, a 2020 senior in his final season of eligibility, in 2021.

The most famous Notre Dame player to hail from Rhode Island is fullback Jim Mello, from West Warwick. Signed in the 1942 Notre Dame recruiting class with future Heisman Trophy winner John Lujack, Mello as a sophomore for the 1943 national champions rushed for 714 yards and 5.2 yards per carry, while senior halfback Creighton Miller led the nation in rushing (the only Irish back ever to do so) with 911.

Like Lujack and so many others, Mello’s football career was interrupted when he served in World War II before returning in 1946, and starting again for another national champion, starting all nine games and totaling 307 rushing yards at 5.0 yards per clip.

Mello went on to play several years in the professional ranks, but also distinguished himself off the field when in 1985 he was presented Notre Dame’s prestigious Harvey G. Foster Award for his civic work.

In addition to Mello and Leonard, the other three Rhode Island natives to appear in game action for Notre Dame were three Providence natives: 1938-39 center John McIntyre, who started as a senior, 1942 end Frank Cusick, who backed up College Football Hall of Fame inductee Bob Dove, and 1946 quarterback Bill Heywood, who had three future NFL players ahead of him in Lujack, George Ratterman and Frank Tripucka.

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The greatest defensive football player at any school to come from Rhode Island is two-time All-Pro defensive end Gerry Philbin, who was born in Pawtucket and attended the University of Buffalo before becoming a third-round pick and playing 11 years (1964-74) in the pros. During the New York Jets’ march to winning the 1969 Super Bowl, he recorded 14.5 sacks to earn his first All-Pro honor.

The best-ever from offense was fullback Mark van Eeghen, a graduate of Colgate who played 10 years for the Oakland Raiders, rushing for 6,651 yards while helping the franchise win two Super Bowls.

Two others from Rhode Island who excelled in the NFL the past 70 years were longtime kicker Al Del Greco, who played from 1984-2000 after starring at Auburn, and 1972-80 Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Steve Furness — who starred at Onye’s high school and the University of Rhode Island before winning four Super Bowl rings.

Unofficially and by our count, there are 10 other states who have had fewer than five players make a game appearance for Notre Dame: Vermont and Alaska (one apiece), Maine, Wyoming, North Dakota, Arkansas and New Mexico (three apiece), and New Hampshire, Utah and South Dakota (four each).


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