The times when Steve Alaniz watches himself on ESPN Classic are surreal moments.
Was he really there?
Alaniz, a 1985 Edinburg High graduate, was a senior starting wide receiver for Notre Dame in 1988 when the Fighting Irish were the national champions of college football. The Irish clinched a perfect season and secured the national title with a 34-21 victory over West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. After that game, the Irish earned the No. 1 spot by The Associated Press, which was the way the national champions were determined before the BCS system.
Although the 46-year-old Alaniz is 24 years removed from that game, he remembers what he was thinking during each moment when he catches a glimpse of himself on television. The memory is both distant and fresh.
“It seems like another person, yet I can remember being right there in the middle of it all — being in the fourth quarter, talking to my teammates out on the field,” Alaniz said. “Once I see it on TV, I can put myself in that moment. That’s when it gets special and it feels really neat.”
Nothing would make Alaniz happier Monday if the Irish can defeat Alabama in the BCS Championship to become the first Notre Dame team since 1988 to win a national title. Alaniz plans on watching the game at home with a cookout. His family will be celebrating his father Rene’s 68th birthday. And, if all goes right for Alaniz, a national championship for the Irish.
It’s really special to finally see them get to the point where they are ranked No. 1 and playing for a national title,” Alaniz said.
Alaniz played four seasons for the Irish. He didn’t start until his senior season. Alaniz was recruited out of high school by Gerry Faust. That turned out to be one of Faust’s last acts as Irish coach. Faust resigned in 1985, and Alaniz played his entire career for Lou Holtz.
Holtz preferred to run the ball and Alaniz’s role with the Irish was primarily a blocker. Alaniz had four catches for 74 yards during his college career. The times Holtz did throw, the ball was going to Alaniz’s former teammates like Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown and Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, who was a freshman during the 1988 season.
Alaniz drew his first start against Michigan in 1988. Later that year, he started for the Irish against Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes in the so-called “Convicts vs. Catholics” game in which Notre Dame won, 31-30. That win helped propel them for a chance to play for the national championship.
“It was a very special time for me to have been in that position,” Alaniz said.
In 2008, Alaniz caught up with a plenty of his former teammates in South Bend, Ind. at 20-year reunion of the 1988 team.
“It was a lot of fun to be there and see a lot of my old teammates,” Alaniz said.
So, how did a kid from the Valley end up being one on of the best teams in college football history?
Alaniz credits for Edinburg High coach Richard Flores for getting the word out about him through his college coaching contacts. It also helped that Alaniz was immensely talented. I know this for a fact because I saw every high school game Alaniz ever played.
Although we’ve never met, I’ve known Alaniz for a long time. He was one grade ahead of me at Edinburg High. I was a school newspaper nerd and not an athlete so we didn’t fall in the same circles. I attended every Bobcats game while I was in high school and saw first hand Alaniz’s greatness. He also had a remarkable quarterback, John Paul Cantu, a great athlete with a powerful and accurate arm.
In 1984, Cantu led Class 5A’s state passers with 2,075 yards. Alaniz’s 68 catches were second-most in the state that season. Mind you, Alaniz was a tight end in high school. He was Tony Gonzalez before Tony Gonzalez.
In the Bobcats’ season-opener in 1984, Alaniz caught 16 passes, which was a Valley record at the time. That mark has since been broken, but it remains as the third-most catches in a game in Valley history.
Alaniz said he was fortunate that Cantu was his quarterback in high school. Otherwise, his chance to become a member of the Irish may have never happened.
“Everything fell into place for me,” Alaniz said. “I had a great quarterback in high school. He could throw the ball. I was 6-2, and I could out-jump a lot of people down here. That made for some good film.”
There is probably no better example of than the 1984 bi-district playoffs against Alice. Or as Alaniz puts it: “The game everyone wants to talk about.”
There’s good reason too. Not only did that game provide one of the seminal moments in Bobcat football history, it cemented Alaniz as one of the best players in Valley history.
“The Catch” means something entirely different in Edinburg.
Against Alice (which was then coached by PSJA North’s recently-retired Bruce Bush), the Bobcats fell behind early 13-0. Edinburg managed to tie the score at 13 by halftime. The game stayed that way until the final minute.
On fourth-and-nine at around midfield, the Bobcats went for it. Cantu rolled out, and Alaniz was supposed to run a 12-yard corner route. Alaniz cut the route early and noticed Cantu, under heavy pressure, released the ball a little early.
“He lobbed it up over in my direction,” Alaniz said. “I turned to my outside shoulder on the right. I tipped the ball because it was out of reach. I remember the ball stayed right there, and I came down with it with one hand.”
Yes, he did. The game was in Alice. Our side erupted with excitement, while the other side was silenced in disbelief. That catch led to a touchdown run by sophomore fullback Oscar Perez, and the Bobcats took their first lead 20-13 with 20 seconds remaining.
Perez, now a physician living in Kentucky, said of Alaniz’s catch: “It was literally in slow motion. People say that, and I know it’s cliché, but I remember it just like that.”
So do I.
Edinburg High returned an interception for a touchdown on the last play to give the Bobcats a 26-13 victory. The Bobcats defeated San Antonio Sam Houston in the area round before losing 14-7 to Converse Judson in the third round.
The football season may have been over, but the recruiting of Alaniz was in full swing. Notre Dame, Texas and Stanford had shown the most interest.
The Longhorns had an in with Alaniz. Then-Texas coach Fred Akers was a former Edinburg Bobcats coach. He coached Alaniz father Rene, who starred for the Bobcats in the 1960s. Akers helped Rene Alaniz get a scholarship to play football under the legendary Bill Yeoman at Houston.
Alaniz had an offer from Texas. Alaniz visited Notre Dame after Eric Metcalf chose to go to Texas instead of the Irish. The Irish had only one more scholarship to give and during Alaniz’s visit, Faust offered it to him and his life was forever changed.
“I was blessed to be at the right place at the right time,” Alaniz said. “I’m proud to have played there and to have experienced a part of their history and being a part of the last team to have won a national championship.”