ELKHART — I had never heard of George Terlep until I moved to Elkhart.
When people asked me if we were related, I’d shrug and say, “Probably.” My father grew up here before moving to Indianapolis, so I figured all Terleps from Elkhart were related in some way.
I never knew George Terlep was an All-State halfback for Elkhart High School in 1941 or that he was a back-up quarterback on Notre Dame’s 1943 national championship team under Frank Leahy.
Even after I looked him up on Wikipedia and asked my uncle, Tony Terlep, who he was — turns out he was my grandfather’s cousin. I never knew that George Terlep would watch Notre Dame games from the same leather lounge chair every Saturday long after he played his last down.
“You could almost hear him cheering down the block every time they did something wonderful,” Alma Terlep said of her late husband.
When people would ask about playing for Leahy, George would put on his best impression of the legendary Irish coach.
“He said (Leahy) was a wonderful man,” Alma recalled. “When Leahy introduced himself to the team, he said, ‘Now, boys, we’re here to play football. And this is a football.’ George could mimic the way he talked so well.”
George started for Notre Dame at halfback in 1944. A year later, after joining the Navy, George led a Great Lakes team coached by Paul Brown to a 39-7 victory over No. 5 Notre Dame.
“That was a thrill,” Alma said. “Elkhart was thrilled.”
Even though George’s playing and coaching career took him to Illinois, Ohio, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee and Canada, his heart never left northern Indiana.
When he proposed to Alma, it was in front of the grotto on the Notre Dame campus, a place he had visited dozens of times to say his pre-game prayers.
“As he was putting the ring on my finger, there was a knock at the window and it was a priest and who said, ‘None of this! At the grotto especially!’” Alma recalled with a laugh. “George said, ‘Well, Father, I was a student and a graduate of Notre Dame.’ And the priest said: ‘You think I don’t know you, Terlep?’”
George turned to Alma and said: “I wouldn’t want to give it to you anywhere else.”
George and Alma eventually moved to Spring Hills, Fla., and decorated a room to commemorate George’s playing career with Notre Dame, the Cleveland Browns and the Buffalo Bills, of his relationships with Leahy and Brown and Steve Belichick, father of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
It was in that room — called “George’s room” — that Alma said her husband would watch every football game on television.
In December 2009, George watched Notre Dame introduce its new coach, a man named Brian Kelly.
“That team is going to go all the way,’” Alma said George told her. “Coach Kelly is going to be a wonderful coach for Notre Dame. That team is going to go." And it has.
I never got to meet George Terlep. He passed away on May 17, 2010 — three months before I moved to Elkhart and four months before Brian Kelly coached his first game at Notre Dame.
I’m sure, in some small way, he’d be amused that 70 years after his own national championship with Notre Dame, his cousin would be in Miami covering the Irish, who will try to win another title.
Alma knows her husband would have flipped on the television in his special room tonight and lit up Golf Club Lane with his cheering and armchair coaching.
She knows George will be by her side when she watches the Irish attempt to win their first national championship in 24 years. “I’ll be watching and cheering like George,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful if they were the champions?”