ELKHART — Tom Eastman didn’t know it at the time, but he was part of college football history.
As a freshman on the University of Notre Dame football team, Eastman, suited up for the first time on Dec. 31, 1973 — the fabled No. 1 vs. No. 2 “Game of the Century” featuring the Fighting Irish and Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. ND won 24-23.
Eastman watched and cheered that night.
“It’s hard to remember a lot of particulars,” Eastman said of the ’73 battle for the national championship. “(Elkhart’s) Mike Stock threw the halfback pass. That was the first game I ever dressed.”
A year later in the 1975 Orange Bowl, Eastman, a linebacker, suited up again as ND battled the Crimson Tide again in Ara Parseghian’s last game as Irish head coach.
This time, Eastman started as Notre Dame edged out top-ranked Tide 13-11.
“I remember lining up and seeing Mike Stock in the backfield. I was almost like an out-of-body experience,” said Eastman, who today resides in Elkhart and is a branch executive at KeyBank on South Main Street.
“It was Riverview and Beardsley all over again,” Eastman said, recalling his elementary school football clashes from the late ’60s. “Chris Darling, Jeff Warner ... I played at Beardsley. It was great.”
So was each of the historic ND-Bama contests.
“In ’73, that was a whole new experience. It was electric,” Eastman said. “It was an old rickety stadium, but the game was fantastic.”
The ’74 game followed suit, but going into the bowl, Eastman, a Central Blue Blazer graduate, wasn’t sure how the Irish would fare. In its last regular-season game, ND was pummelled by a 49-point second half by USC in the legendary 55-24 victory at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Trojan star Anthony Davis started the Southern Cal snowball with a 102-yard kickoff return to begin the second half.
“The first half was one of the best first halves we had all season,” Eastman said of a 24-6 halftime lead by the Irish, who actually led 24-0. “Then there was the second half. The DBs took it on the chin in the Southern Cal game. It was good to see them redeem themselves (in the Orange Bowl).
Notre Dame found a salve for the defensive backs in the bowl, but the Irish had to deal with a finger issue — this one Eastman’s — late in the first half.
“I dislocated my finger five minutes before halftime. I got it caught in Randy Billingsley’s jersey,” Eastman said of one of the Tide’s top backs. “He twisted right and took the finger right with him.”
Not only did Eastman keep his finger, he kept his starting position on the Irish defense in the second half. In those years, a middle linebacker would stand along or just behind the line of scrimmage or drop into a three-point stance with the tackles and ends.
A “hybrid” position, according to Eastman.
“They wrapped it pretty good ... the finger was bent across, but I was young and dumb. They said they’d do what you need to do,” he said. “The damage was done. I went back in.”
There was no keeping Eastman out of the game, he said.
Nobody on the Irish wanted to let Parseghian down in his final college appearance. A “fear of failure” made Ara’s teams top-notch.
“You didn’t want to be the one to let the team down,” Eastman said. “Everybody was afraid not to succeed.”
This year, Eastman, who said he attends one game a year but watches every play of each game on TV, has noted a definitive flip-flop — he sees a true will to succeed rather than a fear of falling short.
And he believes it all started last season.
“You could just see the confidence building,” said Eastman, who in the preseason pegged the Irish as “probably a 9-3 team.” He’ll attend Monday’s night’s BCS Championship game with the Irish and Alabama at Sun Life Stadium in Miami.
“To me, I knew this team was special. ... They were overcoming adversity,” Eastman said. “That set the tone for the future.”