When No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 8 Oklahoma face off in Norman, Okla., Saturday, none of the more than 82,000 spectators will be rooting harder for the Sooners, or with a greater sense of the storied rivalry between the two football powerhouses, than Jakie Sandefer.
That's because Sandefer was playing for Coach Bud Wilkinson's Sooners on Nov. 16, 1957, when Notre Dame abruptly ended Oklahoma's 47-game winning streak, the longest in college football history, with a stunning upset.
I met Sandefer while teaching at OU's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communications in the fall of 2007, and wrote about his role in the historic game at the time. So I called him the other day at his home in Norman, which is just a few blocks from OU's football stadium, and from his close friend, former Sooners coach Barry Switzer, and it was clear he was excited about Saturday's game.
As I wrote at the time, Sandefer was a 165-pound junior running back who remembered every detail of the iconic game like it was yesterday. Oklahoma was ranked No. 2, and had beaten the Fighting Irish 40-0 the year before in South Bend. Notre Dame was an 18-point underdog when it arrived in Norman to play before 63,170 jubilant homecoming fans.
The game was still scoreless late in the third quarter when Sandefer returned a Notre Dame punt to the Irish 34. But the drive stalled, and Notre Dame drove 80 yards in 20 plays for the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
It was fourth-and-four on the OU three-yard line, and Sandefer watched helplessly as halfback Dick Lynch took a pitch-out from quarterback Bob Williams and scored with 3:50 remaining. The Sooners returned the kickoff to their 39 and advanced to the Notre Dame 24 before Notre Dame intercepted a pass with less than a minute to go to end the game.
Sandefer, a retired Texas oil tycoon who moved to Norman from Houston in 2003 so he could follow Oklahoma football more closely, was as stunned as his teammates and Sooner fans. "It was a devastating loss," he recalled. "Being so young, I didn't know of anything that was so devastating at the time."
But Sandefer said he never forgot what Wilkinson told his team afterwards. "Coach Wilkinson came into the dressing room and said, 'I'm proud of you guys.' He said, 'You've won 47 straight games. That's something nobody will ever do again. Remember, the only ones who never lose are the ones who never play.'"
The loss to Notre Dame dropped the Sooners to No. 6, but they rebounded the next week with a 32-7 win over Nebraska in Lincoln, extending their conference winning streak to 65, then went on to beat archrival Oklahoma State 53-6, and played Duke in the Orange Bowl.
Duke pulled within 21-14 before Sandefer scored on a three-yard run late in the third quarter, and OU went on to win 48-21, still an Orange Bowl record. The Sooners finished with a 10-1 record and were ranked fourth in the AP and UPI polls.
When I interviewed him in 2007, Sandefer showed me the scrapbook his mother compiled during his three years as a Sooner regular, and opened it to the page from the Dallas newspaper that reported his team's loss to Notre Dame.
Sandefer hopes Coach Bob Stoops' Sooners, who are 5-1 this year, will still have a shot at a national championship if they can hand the 7-0 Irish their first loss. That would go a long way towards healing the sting of a loss he still feels after more than half a century.