ATHENS – John Scully still goes to Notre Dame games. He just doesn’t go into Notre Dame games.
To be specific, Scully often tailgates with friends outside of Notre Dame Stadium. It’s just when it’s time for everybody to go inside and find their seats before kickoff that Scully and his wife, Annette, jump back into their car and listen to the first half on the radio during their two-hour ride to their home Joliet, Ill. He rarely hears or sees the second half.
“There’s a couple of reasons for that,” said Scully, who earned All-America honors as a Notre Dame offensive lineman from 1977-80. “Number one, I’m not the most beat-up person in NFL history, but my body really can’t take sitting in one small space for three or four hours. The other thing is, honestly, I don’t really watch sports a ton anymore. I don’t particularly root for any team other than Notre Dame, and with them I get so nervous I don’t even watch the game.”
People in Atlanta and the around the South probably don’t associate John Scully with the Fighting Irish. He’s better known in these parts for a nine-year career as a starting guard for the Atlanta Falcons. He played alongside Jeff Van Note and Mike Kenn making running room for William Andrews and Gerald Riggs and other great backs during the 1980s.
But that work took a toll on Scully’s body, just as it has for so many NFL veterans who managed to stick around the league for a number of years.
Scully, who turns 59 next week, underwent joint replacement surgery on each of his shoulders last fall. Add that to a list of injuries he incurred that included broken fingers, cracked ribs and broken legs and ankles. In fact, it was a leg that was broken completely in two that had to be re-broken and surgically repaired twice that finally ended his football career.
“But for all that I’m in pretty good shape,” Scully said this week. “Our trainer was a guy named Jerry Rhea, longtime trainer for the Falcons, and he had a saying, ‘The only thing worse than being here is not being here.’ And that exactly sums up my career.”
The primary issue Scully has with watching Notre Dame games is he honestly can’t handle the anxiety of it. He simply cares about his Fighting Irish too much.
“It’s a little hard to explain and have people understand it,” Scully said. “But when you get paid for that kind of consternation, that’s one thing; but to do it voluntarily is another thing all together. I find that football doesn’t always bring out the best in everybody.”
That other passion
That’s OK. Scully has found plenty of other ways to busy himself. In fact, his work can be heard at every Notre Dame home game. He wrote the spirit song that now plays before kickoff, “Here Come the Irish.”
Well before he was a highly decorated offensive lineman, Scully was a piano player. He took up the instrument as an 8-year-old and played regularly all the way into high school. Then his burgeoning football career just sort of took over.
It wasn’t until after retirement from the NFL that Scully found his way back to the ivories. And it didn’t take very long for him to find a way to make a living with it.
“I’ve been playing piano a lot longer than football,” Scully said. “When I retired from the Falcons I decided I wanted to get back into music somehow. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I just knew I had time and a desire to do the things I wanted to do for a change.”
Not long after making that decision and building a small studio inside his home in Joliet, Scully met a music producer in Chicago who would change his life.
You might not have heard of Jim Tullio, but you’ve probably heard his work. Tullio has created dozens of advertising jingles over the years, including “Have Driven a Ford Lately” and “Did Somebody Say McDonald’s?”
“I just forked my way into his session rotation, and we started working more and more together and basically I became his right-hand guy after a few years,” Scully said.
It was in 1997, not long after composing a song for the Chicago Bulls, that Tullio turned to Scully and said, “What do you want to next?”
Scully said, “Let’s do something for Notre Dame.” And in a relatively short while, they came out with “Here Come the Irish.”
“It came together fairly quickly,” said Scully, who scrawled out the lyrics on a notepad in his car one day. “I sent it over to a couple of people I knew in the athletic department just to see what they thought of it. I had no aspirations or expectations for what would happen with it.”
Recorded with the powerful voice of Jefferson Starship singer Cathy Richardson, Scully couldn’t have dreamed how his song would catch on. On Sept. 9, when Georgia plays Notre Dame, those fortunate enough to be in the stadium for the game will hear “Here Come the Irish” played immediately before kickoff, just as it is for every Irish home game these days.
It won’t mean much to a Georgia fan, but to the Irish faithful, the lyrics are powerful and stirring.:
Well I remember the leaves a fallin’
And far off music like pipes a callin’
And I remember the golden morning
I saw the long ranks as they were forming
And there’s a magic in the sound of their name
Here come the Irish of Notre Dame
The pilgrims follow by the sacred waters
And arm in arm go the sons and daughters
The drums are rolling and forward bound
They’re calling spirits up from the ground
And there’s a magic in the sound of their name
Here come the Irish of Notre Dame
Other Notre Dame varsity teams also have adopted the tune as their theme song. It also has been performed and recorded by symphony orchestras and various artists throughout the country. Scully himself often plays it at concerts on campus or wherever it is requested.
Scully and Tullio could have made a fortune on royalties from the song, but they signed it over to the university.
Of course, Notre Dame still plays its old and oh so familiar fight song known as “The Victory March” or “Wake Up the Echoes.” But it appears now that Scully’s song now will move on with it into Notre Dame lore.
“That’s why it felt a little off the rails to write something in the first place,” Scully said. “Because the Notre Dame fight song is one of the most famous pieces of music in sports history.”
The Sugar Bowl vs. Georgia
Writing a spirit song for his alma mater was the farthest thing from Scully’s mind when he led the Irish into that Sugar Bowl matchup with Georgia in 1980. He was the starting center then, a tri-captain and consensus All-American. And like the rest of his Notre Dame teammates, his aim was to upset the No. 1-ranked and undefeated Bulldogs that day.
They didn’t. Georgia prevailed 17-10 to end a perfect season.
Scully said he doesn’t remember a lot of details about the game itself – “I hope it’s not concussion damage,” he quipped – but he recalls the Bulldogs still being in somewhat of an underdog role even though they were undefeated and ranked No. 1 coming into the contest.
“It was kind of interesting that Georgia was sort of a surprise, a team of moderate or low expectations at the beginning of the year,” Scully said. “So were we. So it was interesting that we ended up playing in such a pivotal game at the end of the year. But Georgia ended up being a team of destiny. They ended up winning that game like they won a lot of games that year, kind of by the skin of their teeth.”
Notre Dame more than doubled Georgia’s offensive output that day, 328 yards to 127. But the Bulldogs capitalized on 4 turnovers and converted their one and only pass on third-and-seven at midfield with 2:05 to play to put the game away.
Scully knows more than he’d like to about Georgia’s side of things that day. He ended up living for the next year with Scott Woerner, the Bulldogs’ All-American defensive back who had 2 interceptions in the 1981 Sugar Bowl. They shared an apartment in Norcross.
“We got to know each other pretty good in that year,” Scully said, laughing. “During that first season he took me down to Jonesboro a few times to spend time with his family, who are really nice people. And I got to know Marianne’s [Woerner’s future wife] family pretty well, too. He went from there to the USFL. We actually didn’t spend a lot of time together, but we made a great connection.”
Soon thereafter Scully married the Annette, the sister of his former roommate and teammate Tom Thayer. They had two daughters, whom they raised for 10 years in Roswell before moving to Joliet. Today Britt Florin and Annie Scully are Notre Dame graduates.
The plan is for the Scullys and the Woerners to attend the Georgia-Notre Dame game together on Sept. 9. At least that’s what Scott Woerner thought. He only recently learned that his old Falcons buddy does not intend on actually sitting in the stadium to watch it.
Scully said he’d still get his old friend tickets if he’d like, “but he’s going to have to wear a Notre Dame jersey in.”
That’s not going to happen.
“We’ll just sit in a bar and watch the game then,” Woerner said.
For these old gladiators, it’s not as much about the competition anymore. It’s more about the friendships.
“The game is the game,” Scully said of the Bulldogs and Irish finally playing again almost 37 years later. “For me the significance is getting to see Scott and Marianne again.”