Playing for Ara Parseghian at the University of Notre Dame from 1966-1969 left George Kunz well prepared for professional football.
Instilled with a commitment to excellence that was reflected in a 32-6-3 record over four years with the Fighting Irish, Kunz became one of the best offensive linemen of his time while playing for the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Colts. He was named to the Pro Bowl roster in eight of his 11 NFL seasons.
Even though players are eligible for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame five years after they retire — this was 1985 for Kunz — he has not yet been voted in. His son Matt, who played at Notre Dame under Lou Holtz, is working to get his father recognized by the Hall of Fame. While the elder Kunz would be happy to be voted in, he places emphasis on an individual’s commitment to playing well rather than receiving honors for that play.
George Kunz, who now works as a lawyer in Las Vegas, Nevada, spoke with the Register about football, family and being a loyal son of the Catholic Church, leading up to this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction events Aug. 3-6 in Canton, Ohio.
Growing up, did you always want to attend Notre Dame?
I started attending Catholic schools in the third grade and even spent two years of high school in minor seminary. I wanted to continue receiving a Catholic education and also play football for a solid program. Notre Dame had both of those things, and it was one of the best schools in the country on an academic basis. I couldn’t find a better three-part combo, so Notre Dame was my choice.
You played on the 1966 National Championship team for Ara Parseghian. What are some of the most memorable things he taught you?
Ara’s organizational skills were outstanding. He had been on a team coached by the great Paul Brown, who ran very organized, methodical practices. Ara followed Brown’s lead and was very specific as far as what he expected from each player at any given time. The practice schedule was set and posted beforehand, and it rarely changed at all. You got to practice 45 minutes in advance, and you knew what you were going to be doing at 3:45, 3:52, 4:10, and so on.
There was also a theme, not only for each practice, but for how the practices generally went as the season progressed. They would be longer at the beginning of the season, because there was more to learn. By the end of the season, the length would taper off, because by then, you should know what to do. The shorter practices probably helped us to stay fresh for games later in the season, too.
Do you still get to talk with Ara today?
I do. Many of his players still call and visit him, and we even have specific events. Last year a bunch of us from the 1966 National Championship team met with him for a 50th anniversary celebration, and some of his players from other teams came, too. We have great respect for him and the high standards he worked so diligently to meet.
Did you find that your time at Notre Dame helped you in the NFL?
No doubt about it. The players at Notre Dame had a certain level of expected performance instilled in them. That training — physical and mental — helped tremendously in professional football. What surprised me about my time in pro ball was that not all players shared the same standards. They didn’t have the same type of training in college, so some of them just didn’t see the value in putting a lot of effort forth.
Did Notre Dame help as far as remaining Catholic after graduating?
I think when you’re already in a set routine of praying daily, going to Mass every Sunday, going to confession when necessary, it’s easier to keep that up, even in a secular environment. It seems to stay with you more easily, because it’s become a part of you — who you are at the deepest level. It expresses your vision of yourself, your fellow man and God, so even when you no longer have a chapel in the building you live in, it’s not that tough to make a little more effort to keep within the spiritual boundaries of the Church.
Did you want your son, Matt, to attend Notre Dame, as well?
I am so grateful for my time at Notre Dame and know so many other people are, too. I’m still in touch, not only with Ara and other former Fighting Irish players, but also with non-football alumni who went there. With that said, I wanted Matt to make his own decision about which school to attend. The very last thing I wanted was for him to think he had to go to Notre Dame like I did and then have people compare him to me. I wanted him to be his own man.
While Matt was in high school, we visited Notre Dame and other schools to see which one he’d be interested in. At Notre Dame I took him to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the football stadium. He was taking everything in, but didn’t say much. Even when we got home, he didn’t indicate what he’d like to do. Finally. he came out of his room and said he wanted to go to Notre Dame because that was the only school we visited that he didn’t want to leave.
There’s something every special about Notre Dame, and Matt went there from 1994 to 1998. He got to play for Lou Holtz and went to three bowl games. Now he’s an author, financial consultant and a city councilman in Milton, Georgia. He’s also trying to get me into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
One would think getting an eight-time Pro Bowler in to the Hall of Fame would be easy.
Well, that’s a decision ultimately up to the voting committee. Other people can make known to the committee all the reasons they think I should be in the hall, but I’m not going to make a pitch myself. I didn’t play football to be recognized and given awards, but to become the best player possible. I wanted to play at a consistently high level, and now it’s up to others to look at the career statistics with the Colts and Falcons and see how they compare to players who have been voted in.
Do you have a patron saint?
It probably won’t be a surprise, but ever since I was a boy I liked St. George. The image of him slaying a dragon really caught my attention. I loved the idea of being able to conquer an evil force for the betterment of mankind. That’s what St. George is known for, and it’s what we’re supposed to do in our own little ways, always relying on the grace Jesus has won for us in the battle.
I also gained a lot from St. Thomas the Apostle. Earlier in life I had doubts, but St. Thomas helped me to get through them. That’s one of the best things about being Catholic — we have a huge family of saints who have gone through what we are going through today. Things weren’t always smooth sailing for them, but they faithfully persevered — and now we can call on them to help us do the same.
They show us that our real “Hall of Fame” is in heaven.
Sporting halls of fame aside, we should all be striving to enter the heavenly “Hall of Fame” with the saints. That’s my ultimate wish — to hear, at the end of my life, the words in Matthew 25, which are, paraphrased, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord.” In the same chapter, we are informed how, when we help our fellow man in his needs, we are really helping God and that God will recognize our efforts and reward us accordingly. We each have our own ways of helping, but two things I like to do are making it possible for financially needy children to attend Catholics schools and feeding homeless people.
I do a lot of personal-injury law with a friend who has vast experience in financial and estate planning. Everyone’s specific situation is different, but the Church has some suggestions for those two areas of life. The Church teaches us that when we give away material things we can’t take with us when we die, we get, in return, spiritual things that can never be taken from us after we die. It’s not an even exchange, but that’s the beauty of it; God rewards us far beyond what we deserve — if we are willing to do our part by giving some things away now.
That might not be what people expect to hear from a lawyer in Las Vegas, but some saints have been lawyers — like St. Thomas More and St. Alphonsus Liguori — and there is a healthy Catholic presence in this city. Hopefully, I’m doing my part with my wife, Mary Sue, and indirectly through our son, Matt, who is, I can honestly say, a better man than I am. Being in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in part through his efforts, would be great, but yes, the heavenly “Hall of Fame” is what matters most.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book, Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015), contains numerous Catholic sports
interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register.