David Adam

Sunday Conversation with Jim Rakers

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Mar. 11, 2017 12:01 am Updated: Mar. 11, 2017 11:15 pm

Notre Dame has been a big part of Jim Rakers' life.

He attended both Notre Dame and Christian Brothers High Schools, graduating in 1961. He was an all-state selection in basketball, and despite practicing with just two hurdles, he qualified for the state finals in the 120-yard high hurdles as a senior. He made his biggest impact in football, where he was an all-state selection. He was inducted into the QND Hall of Fame in 1992.

Rakers went on to play football at the University of Notre Dame, where he played as a sophomore and as a junior, but shoulder and Achilles tendon injuries ended his career as a senior. He worked for Uniroyal Tire from 1965-76, then for Dresser Industries in Columbus, Ohio, from 1976-80, and as a financial analyst for Honeywell from 1980-2007 in Phoenix.

He was the recipient of the prestigious Monogram Club Award from the University of Notre Dame in 2009. The award is given for significant contribution to Notre Dame athletics. Other recipients are Ronald Reagan, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz, Regis Philbin, Digger Phelps and Dan Devine.

Rakers, 74, now lives in Sun City West, Ariz., with his wife Pat. They have been married 47 years.

So what brings you to Quincy?

Visiting family. My daughter and her two boys had never met a lot of the cousins who live in Quincy. It's been a while since I've been back, and I have two brothers and a sister living here. It would be a good time to come.

Didn't you play in the first game in this gymnasium?

That was my junior year. As I recall, we had a tile floor. It was very hard on the legs and feet. There was basically nothing on the (football) field, and it wasn't in very good shape. Torn up grass and a lot of dirt. The facilities have really improved. It was a little bit in turmoil at that time.

How many games have you seen at QND since graduation?

I don't think I've ever seen a basketball game here since I left. I did see at least one football game at a reunion we had several years back.

How were the basketball crowds when you played?

We filled it up as well. We always had a capacity crowd. Back then, we had an average team. Not great, not like this year, but we had a decent team. I played my freshman and sophomore year with Bill Kurz. My role as a sophomore was to rebound and get Bill Kurz the ball. If you got Bill the ball in the low post, it was an automatic two points. Greg Bernbrock and Tom VonderHaar were on that team, too. I've kept in touch with a few of them. Ken Bunte played basketball and also was the quarterback on the football team. I haven't kept up with too many of the older players in front of me, but in my class, I've been able to reminisce with some of them.

Do you have any particularly fond memories of your days at QND?

My first game as a freshman, we played at Hannibal on a rainy night. I was playing fullback at that time. I think I carried the ball about 32 or 35 times for 230 plus yards. The first time I punted the ball, it went over 70 yards. My sophomore year, I can recall the first game I started on the varsity. The first time I touched the ball, we had it on our own 40, and I scored. It was called back. So the coach called the same play, and I scored on that one, too. Also, against Pittsfield, I got the handoff, went off guard. There was one guy in front of me. I gave him a fake and 80 yards, touchdown. The following game, they had a pep rally at the old Notre Dame High School. They called me up to speak before the student body. Boy, that shook me up. I didn't mess up too bad.

What was your first connection with the University of Notre Dame?

My senior year, we played (Springfield) Cathedral (now known as Sacred Heart-Griffin) here. It was a very back and forth game, and they had a hard time stopping me. We came from behind and beat them, and there was a write-up when the opposing coach had a few comments. There may have been some relationships between one of the coaches at Notre Dame and the coach at Cathedral. I had heard years later there may have been some connection. My first connection from Notre Dame came my sophomore year. I received an application in the mail. At that time, it really shocked me. I didn't think anyone knew anything about me.

What did it feel like to attract attention from Notre Dame?

It was very humbling. I really didn't think I was worthy. I really hadn't done that much. It made me feel great. My whole life was geared to that goal, to play college football. At that point, it really gave me a lot of confidence in a way, to make me work hard and develop my skills and become worthy of the recognition.

You received offers from about 35 schools, but I'm guessing it was an easy pick for you to go to Notre Dame.

It was very easy. My two older brothers were very avid Notre Dame fans. My family was too. The academic standards and the fact that it was Catholic, the tradition ... at that time, I really didn't know all the tradition, but it was a very easy decision. I was recruited heavily by Dan Devine at the University of Missouri. I made four visits. I went to Missouri, Iowa and Illinois as well. Iowa and Missouri sent private planes to pick me up. That was kind of a surprise.

What was life like as a football player at Notre Dame in the early 1960s?

The practices were always gruelling. We practiced several hours. A lot of our practices went late. I can remember some of them where the lighting was not that great, and we were almost in the dark. You had to really buckle down with the study. They didn't give you any shortcuts. You took classes that anyone else took. You had to be very dedicated to your studies. It was just a great experience, running out of that tunnel and on to that field. It just made you feel almost light-headed. You felt like you could do anything.

Didn't Notre Dame play the best of the best in those days?

We played a lot of very good teams. My sophomore year, we went out to play USC in the (Los Angeles Memorial) Coliseum. We didn't win, but it was great to be in that atmosphere. The following year, they came to Notre Dame and we upset them. We also played Syracuse in Yankee Stadium. That was my first start. I had played some games as a sophomore. There were some nerves. I was awestruck. I knew of all the former players who were on that field before me, the Mickey Mantles and the Yogi Berras. One of the all-time greats played there, and I met him, and that was Chuck Bednarik. One thing about Notre Dame, you always traveled first class. We stayed at the Waldorf Astoria, which back then was the "in" place. I don't know what it is today. It was a wonderful experience.

Is the game at Yankee Stadium the one game you will never forget?

The game I didn't play in also is one. The game prior to (Syracuse). We were on the practice field that Friday before we left for Iowa City. We heard the church bells tolling. Usually when we would hear that, it was the death of somebody. A coach came up to us and told us that President Kennedy had been shot. The team all knelt down and said a prayer. Later in the day, we got on the plane and flew to Iowa City. My family came up for the game. I was scheduled to start in that game. Saturday morning, we were told the game was cancelled. We ate breakfast, and I did get to see my family for a few minutes. We went to the airport and flew back. That was very disappointing for me.

Not everybody gets to room with a Heisman Trophy winner. What was it like to live with John Huarte?

John and I grew up in similar type atmospheres. We both were somewhat, I would say, farm boys. John's father had a ranch. He grew artichokes and other vegetables in California. I can remember in summer school we roomed together. We were kind of bored. We went to South Bend and bought a BB gun. There was a tree outside our room, and we would shoot the squirrels and other animals, just to get a break from the boredom. John was very down to earth. He's very humble. When he injured his shoulder, that summer, I had been through it my junior year in high school. I gave him a lot of encouragement and helped him to get back to where he could lead the team again. I can remember the night he got the call from the Downtown Athletic Club. The floor that we were living on totally erupted.

So part of that Heisman Trophy really belongs to you?

I would like to think that.

Who was the best player you played against at Notre Dame?

Pat Richter at the University of Wisconsin. Jim Nance at Syracuse. Those two come to mind. Roger Staubach (who played for Navy) came to South Bend and really ripped us apart, unfortunately. He was one of the better ones. Some years back, I was looking at all of the consensus All-Americans who came out of Notre Dame. The four years I was there, we had 12 consensus All-Americans during that period. It made me stop and think of the competition that I was dealing with. During my senior year at Notre Dame, I was one of four players selected to help recruit Alan Page. He became an All-American and an All-Pro and a Hall of Famer with the Minnesota Vikings.

Did your injuries in college not allow you to try professional football, or had you had enough?

It was a little bit of both. It was more along the lines that I had a good education and felt that my body may not take much more. It's time. I've had a good run. I had a job lined up before I left Notre Dame. It was a decision I had to make. There were times in the years later where, when one of those smaller leagues started up, it took a lot for me not to try to get back into it. I loved the game. With family starting and already in a job, I thought I'd better stay where I am.

Why did you become so involved with Notre Dame after you left?

Unless you experience it and be at the university and understand the family atmosphere, it's hard to express if you haven't lived it. You live with other students. You're not in an athletic dorm. You're part of the campus. That kind of builds that family-type spirit, and it stays with you when you leave. I developed a love for the university. I tried to help the athletic program over the years. Every year, I would send a list of better high school players who were in the area I was in at the time. I acted as a recruiter or a scout. They didn't always use my recommendations, but I can remember that two of the players I sent them became all-Americans at other universities.

So how are you involved with the university these days?

Right now, I've been active in the Notre Dame Club. I was secretary several years back when I lived in Hawaii. I've received some recognition for continuous financial contributions over the years and for my work with various Notre Dame Clubs in the areas I've lived in.

What did you learn from your time at Notre Dame that stayed with you throughout your life?

The fact that there's a lot of spiritual involvement when you're at Notre Dame. The grotto is always a place when things are not going well. You can go there and reflect and rejuvenate spiritually. The fact that there's chapels in every hall and daily Masses. The spirituality of the university stays with you.

Many people who will read this will remember when they were kids watching you. Who did you follow when you were a kid?

Jim Morris was my idol when my brothers were playing. Rich is six years older, and Paul is four years older. When they were going through Notre Dame High School, my dad and I were walking on the sidelines watching the games, and I was watching Jim Morris play. The toughness he exhibited and the ability ... I wanted to be like him. That was my desire.

If you had an audience with the athletes at this school, what would you tell those kids?

Play with class. Win or lose with class. Be able to understand that in your career, you're going to have highs and lows. Maybe the lows will be attributed to injuries. Work through those lows and come out stronger. Know that when you're playing, younger players are looking at you, and you need to set a good example. After your career is over, give back some of your talent and ability to the community. In my case, I went into coaching youth football and basketball for 10 years. Also, choose your friends wisely. Choose ones who will lift you up and not take you down.

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