CHISHOLM — The year was 1924, and professional football was in its infancy as players from the University of Notre Dame marveled fans and became the most famous football team in the country.
Jim Lefebvre, a 30-plus year communications professional, brings readers back to those early years of football in his book “Loyal Sons: The Story of the Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions.”
Lefebvre tells the story of the backfield, nicknamed “The Four Horseman” by sports writing legend Grantland Rice, and the line that blocked for them, known as the “Seven Mules.” One of the “Mules” Chisholm native Joe Bach.
Coach Knute Rockne led the Fighting Irish of 1924 on their incredible journey to victory.
The book, which was recently honored with a bronze medal at the 2009 Independent Publisher Book Awards presented in New York City, is more than just a story about football.
From Green Bay to Notre Dame
While growing up in Green Bay, Wis., — a town known for football — Lefebvre would listen as his dad and uncle talked about early football players from Green Bay.
One of those players was Curly Lambeau, who left Green Bay to play one season of football under Rockne at Notre Dame. He then came back and founded what became the Green Bay Packers. He also coached East High School, where his star player was Jim Crowley.
Crowley also went to Notre Dame, stayed four years and became one of the “Four Horsemen,” who were “among the most famous backfields in football history.”
Crowley attended the same Catholic grade school in Green Bay that Lefebvre did.
“So I was always interested in his story and how he was part of the first Notre Dame football team to win a national championship,” said Lefebvre, who is the founder and publisher of Forever Irish, an online magazine that celebrates the heritage of Notre Dame football.
Lefebvre and his wife were blessed with daughters, who both earned their way into Notre Dame, said Lefebvre.
About six or seven years ago, when they were visiting Notre Dame, Lefebvre looked for a book on “The Four Horsemen.”
“And even though their photo — the famous one of them on four work horses — is on the cover of several books, in each case the book only included a chapter, or one story, about the famous Notre Dame-Army game of 1924, which led to their nickname,” he said. “I checked further, and finally determined that nobody had ever told the entire story of that team and season — the 1924 Fighting Irish.”
Lefebvre spent the next several years fully researching that time and that team. The result is his book.
More than a football story
“In ‘Loyal Sons,’ I think readers find a well-told story about an interesting time,” he said. “Yes, it’s a book about football, but it’s about a lot more than that. We provide a context and a background for what this football team achieves.”
It was an era of rapidly-expanding technology, with the advent of radio. The year 1924 was a year of many firsts in broadcasting — the first political conventions on radio, and many firsts in sports events on radio.
Then, there is the backdrop of the anti-Catholicism of the time, said Lefebvre.
“The Ku Klux Klan was at its zenith and strongly anti-Catholic, something Notre Dame experienced at some of its away games,” he stated. “A major Klan rally targeted South Bend and Notre Dame in the spring of 1924. And the success of the Four Horsemen and Seven Mules that fall goes a long way in presenting the best image of Catholic higher education to the nation — outstanding representatives of their school and faith. That's really what Loyal Sons refers to.”
Lefebvre described the book as deep in cultural and geographical detail.
“It is amazing how many locations come into play — whether it's the many places Notre Dame athletes come from or the many places the team travels to — it’s the first football team ever to play games in New York City, Chicago and southern California in the same season,” he said.
Lefebvre said professional football was very much in its infancy then. When people referred to football then, they meant college football.
The book is fitting for a reader interested in history, geography and a time gone by, he said.
“In today's strapped economy, with fewer dollars for vacation and entertainment, a good book is an excellent alternative,” he added.
In 1924, football is still a one-platoon game, in other words, 11 players played both offense and defense, said Lefebvre.
He said Rockne did things a little differently at Notre Dame. He developed an entire second unit, called the Shock Troops, which started every game and wore down the opposition a bit before he sent his 11 regulars into the game.
A hometown football hero
One of Notre Dame’s top 11 was Bach from Chisholm, who grew up at the Shenango mining location of immigrant parents. His dad died when he was young.
“We tell his fascinating story in the pages of Loyal Sons,” stated Lefebvre. “Sports was an outlet for young Joe, and he excelled in football and basketball. We tell how it was basketball that got him noticed outside the area, and led to him going off to college, but not Notre Dame at first.
“It was a roundabout trip how he came from the Iron Range and eventually became a regular on the top college football team in the nation — and one of the best of all time.”
Lefebvre added, “Any time a local fellow becomes part of a major national story, it’s a source of great pride for his home area.”
For example, he said, when Notre Dame played at Wisconsin that year, a whole group of Iron Rangers made it down to Madison to see Bach play.
“And I think that local connection really helps to personalize the story,” he said. “And you start to realize that none of these famous football players was Superman.”
Back then, they weren’t well known outside of their home area, he added, noting that they came from humble origins and families.
“They just worked hard, as students and athletes, and maybe benefited from some amazing timing, and suddenly were on this huge national stage,” said Lefebvre.
He said many people in the area, even if they heard of the famous “Four Horsemen,” aren’t aware that one of the “Seven Mules” is from Chisholm.
Doc Graham is also in the book, as he comes to be the Chisholm schools’ doctor the fall Bach starts at the Chisholm High School.
An adventure traveling back 85 years
For Lefebvre, the most enjoyable part of writing Loyal Sons was the research.
He started with reading every book and article he could on this era and Notre Dame. He spent a lot of time in the Notre Dame archives and hundreds of hours pouring over newspaper articles on microfilm.
The best for him was the personal interviews. He located and interviewed relatives, in many cases the sons and daughters, of every one of the 11 Notre Dame regulars from 1924, plus about another 15 players and coaches.
“Some were able to provide great details from that time,” he said. “And they were all very gracious and cooperative.”
In Bach’s case, Lefebvre said they were never able to locate his daughter, but he traveled to New Jersey to interview his niece, Lois Bach Johnson, who had family scrapbooks of Bach’s years at Notre Dame and beyond.
“A real treat was getting to know the oldest living Notre Dame alumnus (at the time of my research), who was a junior when the Four Horsemen and Seven Mules were seniors,” he said. “ He died before the book came out, but I’ve since gotten to know the current oldest alum, class of 1930, who is a wonderful guy full of memories.”
All through the research, a highlight for Lefebvre was when he would find something he didn’t know before or discover something that had never been previously written about this team or season.
One example is when he put together that all 11 regulars from 1924 became college football coaches in the fall of 1925.
“That's astounding, but speaks to the prominence of this Notre Dame team and the reach of Coach Rockne,” he said. “Bach, for example, became line coach at Syracuse in 1925, then went on to coach at other Eastern schools, and eventually made it to the NFL as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
Being a partner in the publishing company (Great Day Press), it was a great sense of satisfaction to see the completed book for Lefebvre.
“But our goal, of course, is not just to publish an excellent book, but to get it to as many readers as possible,” he said. “So we started doing events such as the ones coming up in Hibbing and Chisholm.”
As part of the tour, they’ve traveled to the hometowns of the Four Horsemen (Massillon, Ohio; Defiance, Ohio; Davenport, Iowa, and Green Bay, Wis.) and now several of the Seven Mules as well.
They also have a whole kickoff tour coming up, with stops in areas including Madison, Wis.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Chicago; Indianapolis, Ind.; Columbus, Ohio; Cleveland, Ohio; Erie, Pa., and Pittsburgh, Pa.
“It’s a wonderful privilege at each location to meet and talk with college football fans, Notre Dame fans, and people interested in history — what things were like 85 years ago. It was a fascinating time,” he said.
To learn more about the author or the book, visit www.NDFootballHistory.com. Copies of the book are available for purchase locally at Howard Street Booksellers in Hibbing.
Lefebvre will make appearances in Hibbing and Chisholm on Thursday, Aug. 6. He will read from Loyal Sons, lead a question and answer session and sign copies of the book.
He will be at Howard Street Booksellers in Hibbing from 3 to 5 p.m. and at Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm 6 to 8 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.