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Saturday, Sept. 23, 2006 | In real life, Mike Burgener plays a teacher and a coach at Rancho Buena Vista High in Vista.
His students can’t comprehend this, but in college football history he played a small role in the 1966 “Game of the Century” – if there was such a thing as a small role in the epic clash between the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked unbeaten giants that at the time that pre-dated the Super Bowl and was the most watched football game of all-time. On the field were 10 future NFL first-round draft picks, 25 All-Americans and 33 pro football players.
“I remember you couldn’t hear the guy standing next to you,” said Burgener, a backup defensive back for Notre Dame who was the wedge buster on kickoff coverage. “I still get chills thinking about it.”
The 40th anniversary of the Notre Dame-Michigan State showdown that ended in a controversial 10-10 tie when Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian opted to run out the clock is recognized tonight when the Irish and Spartans meet again at Spartan Stadium.
Burgener won’t be there, because the Notre Dame players will recognize the anniversary next week when the Irish have a home game against Purdue.
“I took my son (Casey) to one of the anniversary games when he was 13, and he sat next to Rocky Bleier,” Burgener said of the future star of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl teams. “The last time I missed one, all the guys I wrote that I couldn’t make it, wrote me back saying I can’t miss another one.”
Jimmy Raye, the Chargers’ Director of Scouting and a former San Diego State wide receiver, who is named for his father, considered attending today’s game with his father, but he was scouting in the South during the week.
Raye’s father, a long-time NFL assistant coach who is now with the New York Jets, is a famous name in college football not only because he played for Michigan State in the 1966 game but because he was one college football’s first African-American quarterbacks.
“Because of my name, I get asked about the game about once a week when I see coaches my father’s age,” said the younger Raye. “I think the fact that people are still talking about it shows you the significance of the game. The game meant a lot on the field and with the social aspects. Michigan State had so many black stars and Notre Dame had only one black athlete – Alan Page.”
As the final seconds ticked away in 1966, Michigan State’s Bubba Smith – a College Football Hall-of-Famer who is better known to Burgener’s students as Officer Hightower in the Police Academy movies – called Notre Dame’s players “sissies” for running the ball into the line from the Irish’s 30-yard line.
But Burgener and his teammates offer the same defense now they did 40 years ago. Nick Eddy, the Irish’s All-American running back, missed the game with an injury and Notre Dame was playing with a backup quarterback after Smith knocked Terry Hanratty out of the game.
“I still get calls from #$&*@, and we hash it all out again,” Burgener said. “I know it’s all in fun, but I always say, ‘No, no, Ara did the right thing. Do you want to see my national championship ring?’ “
A week later Notre Dame’s season ended with a 51-0 win over USC since Notre Dame didn’t play in bowl games in those days. Michigan State’s season ended with the Nov. 19 tie since Big Ten teams weren’t allowed to make two consecutive trips to the Rose Bowl, the only bowl game then involving Big Ten schools.
“I knew about the game from an early age, but I didn’t know how big it was until about when I was in high school,” the younger Raye said. “I know my dad enjoys having been a part of it, but I’ve never heard him say they should have been named the national champions. I think that’s because the Michigan State players won the national title the year before and thought of themselves as the national champions.”
Years later Burgener sent Parseghian a photo of the family he and his wife started with four kids. In the note to Parseghian he wrote he speculated that since he was a backup player the old coach might not remember him.
Parseghian wrote back: “I remember Mike Burgener as one of the toughest defensive backs ever to play for Notre Dame.”
How would you like that note on your bookcase? That should send chills up any football fan – similar to the chills the Notre Dame and Michigan State players felt in Spartan Stadium 40 years ago.
Maybe then Burgener’s students and the college players Raye scouts will at least partially understand there were no small roles in the Game of the Century.
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send a letter to the editor.