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Grandpa’s Bond: God, Country & Notre Dame

BY ALEX THOMAS | Ball State Sports Link

People say sports are the last true unscripted display in the world.  There is no possible way for someone to write the script of a sporting event like so many “reality” tv shows are nowadays.

Because they are so authentic and real, sports bring people together like nothing else.  Just look at all of the people in Wrigleyville during the early hours of Nov. 3, waiting for the final out and a 108-year drought to end.  Sports send us on such a whirlwinds of emotion and groups of fans rise and fall with their team.

If you look at it, every area of the world, from Kaskinen, Finland to New York City, has people who give everything they have for people who play with a ball or a stick.  That’s incredible.

There is nothing else like it in the world, but I’m not here to tell you about how becoming a fan of something is incredible.  If you want that then go read this article by Tim Reusche of Ball State Sports Link.  It’s excellent.

I’m only here to talk about one man and one team.

My grandfather, Elson “Duke” Kuskye was born in 1931 in Plymouth, Ind., 29 miles due south of Notre Dame Stadium.  His father worked at the Studebaker car factory just five miles from campus and adored the Irish.

Raised on the heels of Knute Rockne and the “Four Horsemen,” Notre Dame Football was in his blood, like most people in and around South Bend.

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Elson “Duke” Kuskye (second row from the top, far left) with the class of 1948 at West High School

From the age of 10, my grandpa Duke would listen to every Notre Dame game on the radio with his dad as they worked on small engines and lawnmowers in the garage.

At that time Frank Leahy led the Fighting Irish to six undefeated seasons, four National Championships and the second highest winning percentage (.864) of any coach in college history.

Needless to say, my grandpa had it good.

Grandpa married my grandma Marlene in 1951 and the two went on to have four children, Tim, Debra, and twins, Lisa and Lori (my mom).

Over the years, grandpa watched as Notre Dame continued to dominate college football.  Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz led the Fighting Irish to four more National Championships over the next 40 years.

Players such as Joe Montana, Jerome Bettis, Paul Horning, Joe Theismann, Tim Brown, and so many more took the field at Notre Dame Stadium.

“Growing up, it wasn’t mandatory for us to watch Notre Dame, but it was always on and it was just a given that we liked Notre Dame because Dad did,” said my mom reminiscing about growing up in Plymouth.

Raising three girls and just one boy, meant my grandpa was waiting for a grandson that could carry on his love for Notre Dame.  Just so happened, I was the one.

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My grandpa (left), mom (center), and dad (right), sitting by Dick Vitale at the Pittsburgh vs. Notre Dame game Oct. 9, 1993.

I was born in February of 1997, just after Lou Holtz announced his retirement.  The head coaches to follow —  Bob Davie, George O’Leary and Tyrone Willingham —  didn’t give grandpa much to cheer for.

Notre Dame is all about tradition.  The stories and trademarks of Irish football, such as the four horseman, the golden helmets and everything else that goes along with Notre Dame football, were built while my grandpa was growing up. He witnessed the greatness which holds Notre Dame in such high standing now.

In 2005, things took a turn for the better, or so we thought.

Charlie Weis was hired as head coach and after watching Weis’ offense in New England dominate the Indianapolis Colts, we were excited.

The Irish went 9-3 under Weis in ’05 with Brady Quinn guiding the Irish offense.  Wins over Pittsburgh, Michigan and Purdue ushered in a new era of football in South Bend.  Notre Dame climbed the polls up to No. 9 heading into a game against No. 1 USC.  Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Lendale White had USC creating a dynasty and it presented a huge opportunity for Weis’ to get a big-time win early in his coaching career.

It was a back-and-forth game all day that ended with the famous “Bush Push” play.  Leinart tried a quarterback sneak with seven seconds left and after being initially pushed back, Bush ran up from the backfield and pushed Leinart into the end zone.  It was devastating how close it was and forced the change of NCAA rules in the future.

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Grandpa came down to Carmel, Ind., a few weeks after the game to visit my family.  We spent loads of time talking about the game and everything wrong about it.  After we had parched ourselves about our dislike for USC, the attention moved to that weeks opponent: Stanford.  It was the last game of the season and a win would almost ensure a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Grandpa and I were going to have a chance to watch the game together, a rare feat because he lived nearly two hours away.  While my parents were out dinner, Grandpa and I opted for pizza and a front row seat on the couch.

Another back-and-forth game all night, Notre Dame couldn’t pull away from the Cardinal.  With Notre Dame leading 30-24 with three minutes left, one stop would more than likely be enough.

It took four plays in 29 seconds for Stanford to storm down the field and take the lead 31-30.  As a nine-year old kid I was not prepared for the stress of this game.  Grandpa remained calm, but I knew he was nervous.

Brady Quinn had the ball on the 20-yard line with 1:37 to go.  A chance at Notre Dame glory on the line.

I remember it like it was yesterday.  With each snap of the ball my grandpa and I were freaking out.  Standing five feet from the screen, thinking that if we yelled loud enough, the offense could hear us.

Quinn to Jeff Samardzija for 30 yards.  1:32 left.

Quinn to Samardzija again, this time for 17 yards.  1:19 left.

Quinn to Maurice Stovall for 20 yards.  1:11 left.

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Rides on the Helix Scooter were always a highlight of going to grandpa’s house.

Just like that Notre Dame was on the Stanford 10-yard line.  Weis took the ball out of Quinn’s hands on back-to-back plays, which took Stanford by surprise, just as much as it did grandpa and I.  Darius Walker ran it in for a touchdown from the Stanford 6-yard line.

I was jumping up and down with excitement.  I loved every bit of this game.  I loved every bit of this team.  I looked over to my grandpa and he was loving it too, but he looked nervous. He’d seen this too many times before and the Cardinal still had 55 seconds.

Two quick completions by Stanford had both of us biting our nails.  Things slowed down and the clock trickled down to 12 seconds left, Stanford on its own 29, fourth down coming.

Stanford quarterback T.C. Ostrander stepped back, hoping for a miracle.  He paraded around in the backfield for 10 seconds when Victor Abiamiri sacked Ostrander.  That was it.  The game was over.  Notre Dame had won.

My grandpa, at 74 years old, was jumping up and down in the living room with me.

“Cheer Cheer for Old Notre Dame, Wake Up the Echoes Cheering Her Name…” We yelled at the top of our lungs.  The Irish were back and I was just starting to get a taste of what my grandpa was raised on.

There was no looking back after that game. Notre Dame wasn’t his team or my team, it was our team.

Since then, Notre Dame has been back to the Sugar Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl and the National Championship game, losing all three.  It’s painful, but the day will come again when Notre Dame will hoist the trophy.

Starting with Brady Quinn, I was raised with guys like Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, Manti Te’o, Jaylon Smith and the newest member of the Cleveland Brown, DeShone Kizer.

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Opening up my first Notre Dame Jersey from my grandpa.

Through the years, no matter what was happening in my life or my grandpa Duke’s, we always had the Irish to talk about.

He gave me my first Notre Dame jersey, a white Joe Montana, and we put some serious thought into flying to Florida to see Notre Dame face off against Alabama in the 2012 National Championship (probably a good thing we didn’t).

I never realized this strong bond we had as anything more than basic fandom, until just a couple months ago.

My grandpa began to have some slight memory loss, so when I would go see him I would have to repeat stories from before.  He still remembered a handful of things though.

He remembered the memories of his wife, what was said in church that week, his time in the service–  and memories of Notre Dame.

God. Country. Notre Dame.

My grandpa with my Aunt, Uncle, and I at my high school graduation in 2015.

My grandpa, Elson “Duke” Kuskye passed away April 24, 2017 after being placed on hospice a few days prior.  I went to see him on Saturday, April 22, the day of the Notre Dame Spring Game.  While the circumstances were different than before, I talked to him like I always had before, telling him what I saw during the Blue-Gold game.  He didn’t say anything back, but that didn’t matter.

Each time I left over the weekend, I didn’t know if I would be coming back, so with each goodbye I told him, “I love you and go Irish.”

This sounds like a sob story, but I promise you it’s not.  My grandpa was more than ecstatic to move on to the next life and be reunited with his late wife, Marlene.  He was ready and so was I.  He lived one hell of a life and he knew it.

Some people believe sports are dumb and athletes are glorified unnecessarily.  I’m not here to disagree with you.  However, I know now my relationship with grandpa wouldn’t have been the same if it weren’t for Notre Dame football.  That’s pretty powerful.

Sports bring people together unlike anything else.  In a 24-hour news cycle, we can’t escape the terrible events of the world.  Sports is a constant of good news.  Victory and defeat comes in the spirit of competition.  It unites families and change lives.

It may sound dramatic, but I just witnessed it for the past 20 years.

This fall, things are a little different.  My heart is a little heavier, but the Irish will still take the field Saturday.  I will sit down and watch our team and so will he.

R.I.P. Elson “Duke” J. Kuskye (December 17, 1931 – April 24, 2017)

About Alex Thomas (7 Articles)
Homegrown Hoosier | Sophomore in Ball State Sports Link studying Digital Sports Production | Interested in all things Indiana sports

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