By John Bassetti
Joe Kelty and Denny Kiliany don’t know each other, but they share something special that has taken on a new life this season.
Both played football for Notre Dame — with Kelty graduating in 1989 and Kiliany in 1969.
Although both had their careers cut short by injury, they were a part of teams that won national championships — something the Notre Dame faithful hope they’ll see again in a month-or-so if the Irish (11-0) get past Southern California in Saturday’s regular-season finale.
“People either love or hate Notre Dame,” said Kelty, 45, a former recipient of the R&R Mack Truck Award while at Cardinal Mooney High. “For a long time, you had to suck it up and listen to a lot of negative talk. Now that they’re winning, it’s a great feeling.”
The 65-year-old Kiliany, too, had a similar reaction.
“It’s terrific and I’m excited for the student-athletes there,” said the former All-City player at Ursuline. “I found out that there are as many people who don’t care for Notre Dame as do.
“When we were on the road, it was horrible and I think, sometimes, it doesn’t matter what Notre Dame accomplishes, people are not going to like them. This season’s team seems like it has quality kids and darned good athletes.”
Kelty sees some comparisons to his years in South Bend, Ind., and the current Irish situation under Brian Kelly.
“There seems to be a cycle here,” said Kelty, who played as an offensive lineman at Notre Dame before he was sidelined by knee surgery in 1987.
After Kelty was recruited by Gerry Faust in 1985, Notre Dame went 5-6, including a season-ending 58-7 shellacking by the Jimmy Johnson-coached Miami Hurricanes. Despite announcing his resignation before Thanksgiving, Faust was still on the sidelines that weekend.
“Notre Dame hadn’t been winning,” Kelty said of the Irish at the time, similar to recent years now under now-departed coaches Bob Davies, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis.
Lou Holtz replaced Faust in November 1985. Notre Dame finished 5-7 in 1986, then 8-4 in 1987, when the Irish lost to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
Still, Kelty was around the team for its national title season the following year.
“When Jimmy Johnson ran the score up, that started the whole rivalry,” Kelty said of the beginning of the bad blood. The teams didn’t play in 1986, but Notre Dame returned to Miami in 1987.
“Miami was No. 2 and Notre Dame was No. 10 and we had pushing and shoving in the tunnel before the game that started the whole Catholic vs. Convicts thing,” Kelty said.
The Irish lost, 24-0.
Notre Dame won the 1988 clash in South Bend where the rivalry escalated.
“The Catholics vs. Convicts T-shirts were all over campus,” Kelty said. “It was pretty intense. There was a lot of pushing and shoving in the tunnel again and the referees and security got involved to pull us apart. Now Kelly comes in and his first two years were pretty rotten until now. It’s very similar.”
Kelty said he was told that Holtz and Kelly have the same won-loss records.
“It’s so exciting to see them back on top because it’s a school where student-athletes are student-athletes. I got to live my dream by going to Notre Dame. Football didn’t work out, but I still graduated and it’s a wonderful place to be from.”
Kelty, of Poland, is now vice-president of sales at LM Engineering in Youngstown. A son, Patrick Kelty, just finished his junior season as Mooney’s left guard, while freshman Joe Kelty Jr., played lacrosse.
Kelty and his wife, Laura, whom he met in South Bend, also have a daughter, Mary Kate, who is a fifth-grader at Holy Family.
Kiliany, who retired from the Coors Brewing Co. at age 59 before returning to Youngstown, was a sophomore — eligibility-wise — during the 1966 championship season, when the Irish were 9-0-1.
In his freshman season — 1964, Kiliany remembers a season-ending loss to Southern Cal that spoiled the Irish chances for an outright national title.
“Like now, we went to USC and got beat on a difficult goal-line call,” Kiliany said, “so a couple services split it up,” he said of the news service polls that determined the national championship.
“In 1964, Notre Dame didn’t play any bowl games because the priests thought that once the season is over, you get back to class. We were prohibited from doing that.
“Because the last game was usually in Miami or at USC, we considered that to be our bowl game because we knew that, after that, we were going back to class. We never thought anything about it; that’s just the way it was.”
Kiliany, a barrel-chested linebacker in college, was hurt in 1967, but lettered in 1968, which was his last year. Before he graduated, Kiliany had four knee operations.
“I knew that if I stuck with it, once I committed to them, they committed to me. That’s how I got my education.”
His initial injury came in high school.
“If they would have had arthroscopic procedures like they have now, I wouldn’t have had all the cutting [on his knee].”
“I played some [in 1966], but not a lot, just kickoffs and at the end of games. We had some pretty good players, he said of such talent as QB Terry Hanratty.
Kiliany, who played with “Modern Family” actor Ed O’Neill at Ursuline, was among Ara Parseghian’s first recruiting class.
“That was kind of unique,” he said of being part of the group of 25.
“Parseghian was from Akron and offensive coordinator Tom Pagna was from northeastern Ohio, so they knew the high school coaches from Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown.”
Kiliany last had a five-year reunion of the 1966 team in 2011.
“We get to reminisce with buddies and meet current players and coaches and have a team meal with them.”