PORT ARTHUR — EDITOR’S NOTE: The following column from the Best of West collection was originally published in the Port Arthur News on March 29, 1991.
"There was only one lone Horseman riding against the skyline of fame when Notre Dame met the Army in their annual classic at Yankee Stadium this afternoon, but this time one Horseman was enough. "His name was Flanagan — Chris Flanagan — a big, gangling, hard-running halfback with the speed of the wind that sweeps the prairies of the West."
Nov. 13, 1926
Knute Rockne was reunited with one of his all-time favorites last week, and it's a safe bet they're still swapping tall tales about the good old days at Notre Dame. Matter of fact, I can vividly picture the smile on Christie Flanagan's face as he rushed right past St. Peter and embraced Rockne.
What a pair, those two, the immortal coach of the Fighting Irish, and the left halfback from Port Arthur who eased the coach's worries after the famed Four Horsemen rode off into the sunset. How nifty it would be to climb into a time machine and swoop down on their act in South Bend anytime between 1925 and 1927.
Nearest I've been able to come was a two-hour visit at Flanagan's home in October of 1988. Spellbound, I think, would be the proper description of my demeanor, as I listened to a man approaching his 83rd birthday reminisce about experiences in the shadows of the Golden Dome.
Of all the interviews in 25 years of sportswriting, I can't think of a single one that made more of an impression. The most amazing part was his memory, his uncanny ability to talk in great detail about events that transpired more than six decades ago. It was like they'd happened the week before.
Obvious above all else was his love for Rockne. Christie had written a two-page paper trying to capture the essence of "Rock" and why he was such a great leader. It was beautifully done, and a superb tribute. As always, he was unable to finish reading it without becoming choked up.
About the only thing Flanagan didn't dwell upon in the lengthy session was what a great player he'd been.
He was clearly proud to have beaten out Rockne's No. 1 recruit — Harry O'Boyle — as Four Horseman Jim Crowley's replacement his sophomore year. Only occasionally, though, did he mention personal accomplishments.
Accomplishments such as:
• Being a two-time All-America
• Being Notre Dame's leading rusher in 1925, 1926 and 1927
• Owning the second best average per carry (6.4) in Notre Dame history.
• Still ranking 11th (now it's 13th) on the school's all-time rushing list.
There's more to be found in the Notre Dame record book, too. Flanagan, for instance, led the Fighting Irish in both rushing and passing in 1926. He was No. 4 all-time in season kickoff return average (30.5), close behind Paul Horning, until some guy named Ismail bumped him down a notch.
Nor did he mention the 1926 game against Army in Yankee Stadium that inspired Grantland Rice's prose at the beginning of this column. It was a battle of two unbeatens that would be decided when Flanagan rambled 65 yards for the game's only touchdown.
Amazing — at least to me — was the fact Flanagan didn't have a scrapbook detailing his exploits. All he was able to produce was a single, yellowed clipping from a 1926 game against Minnesota. The Minnesota team that day featured a player of some note named Bronko Nagurski.
"You saw one of the greatest backfield men you will ever see play football if you watched Christie Flanagan out there last Saturday," the story quoted Minnesota coach Doc Spears. "They seldom come both that big (6-0, 170), and when they do they almost never run to brains, but Flanagan does everything.”
The everything with Flanagan included having a terrific sense of humor. My guess, from the devilish twinkle in his eye when he told Rockne stories, was that he must have been quite a prankster in his time. On the occasions our paths crossed after that day, he always had something funny to tell me.
Last time I saw him was six weeks or so ago at Port Arthur Country Club. He looked a little pale but I had no idea he was suffering from a flareup of the prostate cancer he thought he'd defeated five years earlier. Sadly it would deprive him of a chance to travel to California with his son in early March to watch grandson Michael play for the Stanford tennis team.
On this particular afternoon, Christie was the jovial guy I was familiar with. "Hey, Bob," he said with a chuckle. "I read in the paper where you and Lou Holtz played golf in Florida. If it hadn't been in your column, I wouldn't have believed it."
It was more than a little distressing to be handed a note last Thursday night in Austin that Christie was gravely ill. And it was even more distressing to discover he had died before I returned from covering the excitement created by the Lamar University Lady Cardinals.
So this is the best way I can say my goodbye. I'll never forget that interview, Christie. It was the best. I just wish I could have seen you play. That's one time I wouldn't have had any trouble pulling for Notre Dame.
Oh, yes, tell Rock hello for me. And tell Grantland Rice he sure had a way with words.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at email@example.com.