Reflections from the Dome

Motts scores on a short gain after his spectacular run of 77 yards set up the touchdown.

Motts scores on a short gain after his spectacular run of 77 yards set up the touchdown.
(Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives)

This month's edition of Reflections From The Dome is an article entitled "Motts Tonelli's Life in Football & War: To Hell & Back." It's written by Bryan Smith and published in the January 8, 2003 edition of the Chicago Sun Times.

He was a star football player who went off to war. He returned from the Bataan Death March weighing 100 pounds. But to get a NFL pension, Motts Tonelli had to play one more game...

It is an autumn Saturday at Notre Dame. And there is no greater place, no greater moment, no freer feeling in the world.

He has the ball. He is in the clear, running. The fans rise, strain to see.

The 30, the 40, the 50-yard line. . . . His cleats bite the turf. Jerseys flash. Footfalls thunder behind him. . . . The 40, the 30, the 10, the 5. . ..

Arms wrap his legs. He's falling. But it's OK. He has bolted 77 yards and put his team at the 5-yard line with time running out and the score tied and the national championship of college football on the line.

The players clap sharply, the huddle breaks, he clutches the ball again.

And on this fall Saturday, Motts Tonelli is exactly where he should be, a Notre Dame football player, a star running untouched, the game, his life, the end zone, stretching before him like a cloudless sky, like a season's promise.

Sixty years later, on another field, Motts shuffles onto the damp turf. His shoulders hunch against a stiff wind. He is 86 now, an old man. Time has drawn down his fullback's shoulders. A cap covers his fine white hair...

His brown eyes water. They have seen much. Things no eyes should see. But Motts isn't crying. Nor is he thinking of his anguished past....

But it is the eyes, two dark stones staring directly at you from some far-off place, that seize and hold you.

Half-hidden in hollowed-out sockets, they reach from dark shadows like pauper's hands, begging for relief, for help, for hope. Hurt deep as a chasm fills them, an anguish that almost physically cries out. There is pain and horror in those eyes. Loss and outrage. Suffering beyond understanding.

Long before that picture, on the sandlots and the back alleys of Chicago's North Side, they were different eyes, a boy's eyes, flashing wider than dishes as a perfect spiral nestled in his arms and he streaked across Chase Park.

It was the 1920s, before the Depression, when a ball and a field of scrub grass were all a boy needed to dream. But for the boy everyone called Motts, dreams seemed more like destinies.

Basketball. Track. Baseball. Football. He excelled in them all. He set city records in several sports at Our Lady of Lourdes grammar school.

Later, he claimed varsity letters in nearly every sport at DePaul High School.

His Italian-immigrant parents, Celi and Lavania, didn't quite understand the big deal about sports in this country, but they understood the respect their son earned in a culture where slurs against recent arrivals were common.

More than that, they knew athletics had all but saved their boy after he was nearly killed as a child. Six years old, he'd been running through an alley with a friend, dodging past huge barrels where people burned their trash. Someone had knocked into one of the barrels, toppling it onto Motts, and within seconds, flames engulfed him. Writhing, he rolled over, the pain so great he blacked out.

He woke up in a hospital with legs ravaged by third-degree burns and a doctor whispering to his father that he might never walk again.

Celi Tonelli had worked in a stone quarry, a job that matched his temperament. Solid, silent, not given to emotion, he brooked little weakness in his four children, especially his three boys.

Still, with an affection he rarely showed, he cobbled together an old door and some 2-by-4s and nailed wheels to the bottom to provide his son with a sort of gurney he could wheel him around on.

In time, to the relief of both parents, Motts took a few steps on his own. Soon, he was shuffling around the neighborhood. Each day, he would trudge a few more steps...

Chase Park, near his house, became his second home and his own rehabilitation center. He spent hours there, scaling monkey bars, racing around the grounds, jumping until he was so tired he collapsed. Muscles swelled again in his scarred legs, and he learned that he still had speed.

He also learned something else...But, for him, athletics was a means of recovery and survival. The idea lodged in his brain, a truth around which he would build a passion to achieve. And he did.

At one DePaul track meet, he placed first in pole vault, shot put, high jump and the 440-yard dash. His coach called him a "one-man team."

In time, colleges came calling. Among them was the University of Southern California that mounted a recruiting campaign that saw him whisked to Hollywood, wined and dined with celebrities, hauled around in a limousine, and flirted with by ZaSu Pitts, a famous comedienne. He attended parties with Mickey Rooney and Robert Taylor, shook hands with screen legend Wallace Beery.

For a Midwestern boy with parents who could barely speak the language, it was as if the angel of the American Dream had come and sprinkled magic dust on his fondest imaginings. He knew it was where he wanted to go.

But another school wanted him, too, no less powerful and just as determined...

If the Yankees were baseball's team, Notre Dame was college football's pinstripes. Knute Rockne had coached there. The stadium rocked with the rabid fans there. The great golden dome presided over the place like God Himself.

"Outlined against a blue-gray October sky," as Grantland Rice immortalized it, the Four Horsemen rode across the Notre Dame gridiron.

One of those horsemen, Elmer Layden, was now coach, and he wanted Motts Tonelli. One day, the coach showed up at the player's Chicago apartment, but not alone. By his side, an Italian-speaking priest in black frock and white collar loomed like a judge of good and evil come to consecrate any decision.

While Layden worked on the father in the living room, the priest cooed to the mother in her native language in the kitchen.

Within a few minutes, the mother had emerged, her face set. She had decided where her son would be going, she said, and it wasn't the place with the starlets.

For a strapping 200-pound fullback, it wasn't easy to admit, but almost as soon as he arrived at Notre Dame, he was homesick...

And, despite his accomplishments, he barely registered a blip on the coach's radar. Instead, he found himself on the "hamburger squad"--a group of freshmen tossed at the bigger, stronger varsity players like slabs of beef...

One afternoon, a priest noticed the dejected player and asked if he wanted to talk. For half an hour, Motts poured out his heart...

The priest, John O'Hara, would later become the school's president and a Cardinal.

And Motts, the burden of homesickness lifting, would begin to make his own way.

By his junior year, he was a starting fullback. By his senior year, he was a star.

They nicknamed him the "Pony Express" because he always delivered. He played with people like "Bunny" McCormick and was tended to by trainer "Scrap Iron" Young.

Now 5 feet 11 inches tall and 205 pounds, No. 58 hit the line like a sledgehammer.

"Powerful," the sportswriters called him....

He began collecting highlights the way he'd earlier collected school records. A 65-yard run against USC. A 45-yard run for a winning touchdown against Georgia Tech. His crowning moment was a 77-yard run, followed by a five-yard touchdown plunge, against USC, the school that had wanted him so badly. The game won Notre Dame the national championship.

Motts had a graduation ring made that season. Struck from gold, it held a diamond in the center and bore the words Notre Dame on the side.  He wore the ring with pride through the rest of the year and the following one, when the pros came calling, a cherished emblem of the championship season.

It didn't take long for him to get his shot at the new professional league. The National Football League, as it was being called, was looking for good players, and Charles Bidwill, who'd followed Motts' career, offered him a contract for $4,000 a year.

Soon, Motts was wearing his old jersey number, 58, in games against the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, playing for the Chicago Cardinals at Comiskey Park. Only one thing could slow him--and it wasn't a tackler.

A war was on, though the United States wasn't yet officially involved. One by one, Motts saw his friends go in to serve a one-year hitch. By 1941, he decided it was his turn..."One year, and I'm out, boys," Motts told his teammates.... he'd be back in his pads, running free again, like always.

He better be, his team's owner laughingly told him. If he ever wanted to see his pension, he'd have to play after the war.  "Just don't give away my locker," Motts said.

Shortly afterward, on March 10, 1941, artillery Sgt. Mario "Motts" Tonelli signed up for his tour. It wasn't just football he was leaving. He had met a beautiful, dark-haired girl named Mary at a party at Northwestern, and after a brief courtship, they married. She had a good heart, and he hated parting with her, but his orders had come through.

Soon, he was steaming toward a new adventure, a place he knew absolutely nothing about, a beautiful, tropical peninsula somewhere off the coast of China named Bataan...

But there wasn't much to do. It was 1941, and America still wasn't officially at war. Other than drills and cleaning and routine maneuvers, the days were dull. The months dragged on. Sgt. Tonelli bided his time.

Up at dawn. March over here. A little lunch. March over there. Much of the time, it seemed, everyone just stood around. The months bled into one another. Football season came, and his mind drifted. How were the boys doing, he wondered.

He figured he'd know soon enough. It was early December. Three more months, and it would be all over, he thought. A few more weeks, and he'd be free.

Other than the fact that his Cardinals were playing the Bears, Motts and the rest of the men at Clark Field didn't expect that Dec. 7, 1941, would be much different from any other day.....

By April, the Americans were in terrible shape. Having had to retreat south to Bataan, they had little food or medicine left and were racked with dysentery and malaria. It seemed unthinkable, but they were ready to give up, and did.

Motts Tonelli, just a few months earlier a star running back who lived with his wife on Wilson Avenue, realized that suddenly he was a prisoner of war...

Now, he found himself thrust into terror and confusion and uncertainty. Beaten, starving, without ammunition or medicine, Motts and 10,000 other U.S. troops were now prisoners of a foreign foe in what was the worst loss by an American force in any war....

For the men on Bataan, suddenly adrift from any support, it signaled the start of a nightmare.

The Japanese, eager to clear the region so they could attack nearby Corregidor, wanted the prisoners to be moved. And to be moved, they decided, the prisoners were to be marched....

True, the men were weak, certainly not fit to march far. But they would probably be allowed to rest after they got to a prison camp, he thought. Certainly, there would be food and water...

Then, shortly after moving out, Motts saw something that made him realize how wrong he was.

It bobbed almost, a dark oval, floating in the air... the oval on the pole was a head, a human head, a soldier's head, an American soldier, swarming with black blow flies.

The tropical sun beat its way through the dust of the crudely hacked road, scalding the flat plain and scorching the backs and faces and arms of the prisoners.

The brutality of the captors became apparent as quickly as the first soldiers faltered.

Those who collapsed were either run through with a bayonet, shot or beheaded. Sometimes, they were run over by Japanese trucks.

Mile upon mile, they were taunted and tortured, forced to walk in the searing heat and humidity without any food or water.

Filipino citizens on the sides of the roads saw the pitiful shape of the men and tried to help. Those who were caught were staked and burned...

On they trudged, through the dust clouds kicked up by tanks and trucks, until they came to the first stop.

Here, some of the Japanese soldiers went down the line, snatching jewelry, searching pockets for things like lighters and ballpoint pens.

Some ripped up pictures of loved ones, wives and children. If Japanese money was found, the men were shot and killed on the spot.

As Motts watched, he noticed a soldier staring at his hand. Jabbing with his bayonet, the man pointed to Motts' Notre Dame ring gleaming in the sun. Motts didn't move--not his ring.

"Motts," a soldier buddy hissed. "Give it to him. He'll kill you!"

He twisted it off his finger and slapped it into the soldier's hand.

Motts watched as the man walked away, turning it and grinning. A few moments later, he saw an officer grab the soldier and ask him something.

Then, the officer walked up to Motts and asked, in perfect English, "Did one of my soldiers take something from you?"

"Yes," Motts said. "My graduation ring from Notre Dame.''

The officer reached in his pocket and produced the ring. "Is this it?''

"Yes, that's my ring."

"You know," the officer began, "I went to the University of Southern California. I graduated the same year you did."

Motts looked back at the man, astonished.

"In fact, I saw that game where you ran for 70 yards.  You beat us.''

Great, Motts thought. I have to find the one officer who knows I beat his team.

The officer reached in his pocket and pulled out the ring. He turned it over for a moment, then handed it to Motts.

"You were a hell of a player," he said, walking away.

Before he left, he turned back to Motts. "I'd advise you to put that away,'' he said. "Someone is going to take it from you.''

Motts nodded, and the man nodded back, and Motts, standing in the scorching sun, stared after him, then slipped the ring in his pocket...

Each night, Motts would carefully take his ring out, wrap it up and hide it in a secret place. By now, the ring had assumed an almost talismanic quality, a charm he held on to with each step deeper into his hell...

Fall came again, and Motts' mind drifted to football.

But what did it matter, he thought. He must have lost 50 pounds by now, maybe more. He was never going to play again. What football team was going to put him on the roster? He couldn't stiff-arm a scarecrow, much less a linebacker.

He buried those thoughts. He was going to survive, he told himself, and he was going to play again. Somehow.

They were on the move. Packed into freighter ships, Motts was transferred to different prison camps. From O'Donnell, he went to Cabanatuan, then Bilibid prison...

Months passed. Seasons came and went.

In early 1945, it was announced there would be one last move, this time off the island. Unbeknownst to the men, they were about to embark on the most horrible journey yet. "Hell Ships," as they came to be known, lay floating at the docks, their holds waiting to receive men who had already been pushed to the limits of their own humanity...

Packed as tightly as slaves into galley ships, the men were left there with only a weak trickle of light to guide them, forced to compete for food with wharf rats and other vermin. Vomit and diarrhea slickened the floors and mingled with the sickening smell of the dead.

Buckets would be lowered on ropes for use as toilets, then rinsed in the ocean and filled with rice for meals and lowered again into the darkness...

In this darkness, a place of sorrows that seemed removed not just from land, or from the fresh air of the deck above, but from God and heaven itself--a dungeon where men fought each other like snarling animals and forgot or didn't care or had given up that they were human beings--Motts Tonelli sat holding his knees, half in delirium, dreaming and waking and praying.

When Motts' ship finally docked, he and the other men had spent 67 days in the hold. Hundreds had died.

Now, he was walking down the gangway, rushed to yet another prison camp.

Weighing less than 130 pounds, plagued every night by his malaria and parasitic disease, he had hardened his mind, which had hardened his face into a sad, angry stare.

He was no longer the innocent football player whose mother had told him where to go to school, happy-go-lucky Motts. He was a man in need of hope.

He looked to his ring, tucked away in his secret place, but even that wasn't enough.

They put him in Lasang prison camp for two months, then transferred him to Toyama. As he and the other weary prisoners arrived, barely alive, they were assigned numbers.

He pulled on his bulky prison uniform and looked at his cap with the newly issued number scribbled across it.

He looked at again, staring at the magic marker. He couldn't believe it.

It was number 58...

The U.S. planes were now bombing...

Soon after, on another U.S. bombing run, little parachutes floated down like autumn leaves onto the grounds, with notes and packs of cigarettes attached: "Hostilities have ceased,'' the notes read. "We'll see you soon."...

By July 1945, it was over. The Philippines, including Bataan, had been recaptured. After nearly four years in captivity, Motts, and the stubborn, haggard band of survivors, the Battling Bastards of Bataan, as they would come to be known, were suddenly free.

He returned home on a tramp steamer... to San Francisco, and from there he took a train to Chicago...

By now, the world had begun to learn what had happened on Bataan, the terrible torture the men had been through. Still, the families, including Motts', had little idea of the depth of the inhumanity...

He pulled off his hat when he saw them -- his mother and father and new baby brother, Tom, then his wife, Mary, who brought her hands to her mouth. They stood there for a moment, then Motts collapsed into their arms. At last, he wept.

He was taken to a hospital. He still needed to put on a lot of weight and to be treated for his parasites and malaria.  Fine, he thought. But he wasn't staying there long.

Only one thing mattered to him, now, and until that was achieved, unless it was achieved, he had never really returned. He had to play football again.

The doctors laughed, but the look on Motts' face told them he was serious...

Chicago Cardinals owner Charles Bidwell looks on as Motts signs his new contract.

Chicago Cardinals owner Charles Bidwell looks on as Motts signs his new contract.

Motts had had two operations to repair damage to his stomach and bowels. He was rail-thin, and now the owner of the Cardinals was coming to see him. Well, he'd look as tough as he could. The next day, Bidwill arrived.

"Listen, Motts, I wondered what you would think of playing ball again."...

The words sounded good, but both Motts and Bidwill knew the man in the hospital bed was a different man than the strapping fullback Bidwill had drafted out of Notre Dame. His weight had plummeted to nearly 100 pounds, and his ordeal had sapped him of energy and strength.

But they also knew that if Motts was going to see his NFL pension, he would have to be signed to a contract after the war.

Unspoken, but understood, was that his return, if he could pull it off, would be largely ceremonial...

Motts had other ideas. He might not be the player he once was, but he wasn't just going to stand there. He wanted in. For at least one play. It didn't seem right otherwise...

But it was more than that. While he was a war prisoner, the thought of football helped sustain him. He didn't romanticize it. He knew what the game was, and most people made more of it than he did. Being a ballplayer did not make you a hero.

It was just that, if he was going to be given a pension, he wanted to earn it.

He owed it, he felt, to those who had not made it back. He owed it to himself.

'I'm in shape," Motts had told the papers. "I weigh 184 now. That's only six pounds under my old playing weight."

He didn't say that he still was struggling with malaria and parasites, or talk about the operations, or tell them that no matter what he weighed, he didn't have the same bull strength he did as a back at Notre Dame...

Now, on Sunday, Oct. 28, 1945, he pulled on his pads and helmet and laced up his high-top leather cleats.  The game was in Green Bay against the Packers.

As he waited to come out of the tunnel, it hardly seemed possible. It had been only two months since he'd been liberated from Toyama prison camp near Yokkaichi...

He took it all in, every moment, and when the game began he yelled himself hoarse on the sidelines.

He looked at the coach, who had earlier laughed at him when he said he wanted to get in the game, and the coach shook his head and said: "All right Tonelli, get in there!"...

He pulled on his helmet and sprinted into the huddle. With a sharp clap, the players walked toward the line and settled into the stances. The play was coming to him.

Could he do it again? Break into the clear and race down the sideline?

The ball was in his gut. Everything happened fast. Pads thumped, men grunted.

A few fell, but the linebackers came charging...

And Motts felt the impact like a thunderclap and the oof of the air leaving him as he hit the turf. No gain.

He went back to the huddle. Took the ball in his gut, threw himself into the line.

Again, he was stuffed, driven into the hard turf.

Another fullback had been called in. Motts was being taken out.

It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Because Motts Tonelli, on a cold autumn afternoon, was on a football field, returned like a ghost, but solid enough to carry a ball; back from the dead.

He was alive, and for that moment he didn't have to worry about the men who had died and the humanity they tried to take from him and the sorrow that still filled the eyes of the prisoner in the black-and-white prison camp photo.

He could look around at the stadium and wonder at its beauty and think, "I am a lucky man."...

In the years that followed the war, Motts became a successful politician. Elected the youngest commissioner on the Cook County Board, he later opened Chicago's first Environmental Protection Agency office.

But it took him many years before he was willing to open up, even with his own family, about his experiences.

Of the 10,000 Americans taken prisoner in the Philippines, only 4,000 returned. Fully a third of the 1,875 men forced on the Bataan Death March had perished. Many were his friends.

The memories still hurt. He pauses for long seconds when asked to recall certain moments.

'Here, kid," Motts is saying. "I'm going to show you something."...

He moves some pills, a Bible, a jar of Vaseline on a night stand, and produces a glimmering gold object.

"Boy, it's really worn," he says. He pulls out a magnifying glass and maneuvers the object under it.

"You can barely read it. . . . But here. See? That's it. 'University of Notre Dame.' "

He looks up for a moment and smiles again. Then, he puts his ring back in a blue-velvet box and waits for his visitor to look away so he can hide it. And he turns out the light.

He rarely goes to games. Too much trouble. He just sits on his couch watching the Bears on his beat-up TV with the buzzing line across the picture. Sometimes, he has a glass of beer or makes himself a snack...

But on a cold winter day, he has agreed to go to Soldier Field to make a picture. part of a promotion they had him strike a pose for a photograph...

Framed against the columns... he puts his hands on his hips. He lifts his chest, an athlete's chest, and raises his chin...

And he smiles before the green field, big as a meadow, that stretches before him like an open sky, like a season's promise.


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