Billy Hackett was born in Boston, Mass., where he spent the first half of his childhood, and where his love of sports began. As a child, Billy’s life was all about sports. “My mom and dad were both coaches, and I played on the tennis and soccer teams. My dad coached the boys soccer team, and my mom coached the girls team. When I was going into middle school, my father decided he was ready to leave the financial industry in Boston and embark upon a new career, and so he relocated the family to Sarasota, Fla.”
“We arrived in Sarasota and got involved in sports right away, but I hated it there. I had a great group of friends back in Boston and I did not want to leave them. But, once we got settled in Florida, I made new friends, got involved in soccer, and continued to excel in sports. As a freshman in high school, I was picked to play on the varsity soccer team. I played on the varsity team my first two years of high school. While I was out on the practice field with the soccer team, the football team was practicing on a nearby field, and the football coaches began to notice me. One day, John Sprague, the Riverview High School football coach, came over and said,
‘Hackett, can you kick a football?’
And I responded, ‘I don’t know, but I guess I can.’”
“So, after practice, I went over to the football field and kicked a few balls. Not being a football player/kicker, I asked the coaches, ‘Do you want me to kick with my right foot or left foot?’ and they replied, ‘which ever you are most comfortable with.’ The next thing I know, I am a place kicker on the football team. My junior year they moved me up to the varsity football team, and I started making some pretty big field goals and getting some recognition in the state of Florida.”
“Coach Sprague took really good care of his players. He wanted each and every one of us to get into a good college so that we could continue our education, and as a result he made sure we were taking high school seriously and kept us in line. After I started to receive recognition in Florida, I also started getting noticed by colleges. I was getting looks from Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, and Miami; and the letter started to roll in. The recruiting process is a very difficult time for a family, and it was the first time my family had ever been through it.”
“Penn State, and Joe Paterno, was recruiting me exceptionally hard. I even went up to Penn State for a visit, and had a one-on-one meeting with Coach Paterno, and I was very impressed. I had a great visit, and was pretty fired up about going to Penn State, but decided I didn’t want to commit right there on the spot. My dad and I were still looking at other schools, and we wanted to keep my options open, even though I was strongly leaning towards Penn State.”
“After I returned to Florida, I received a letter from Coach Paterno which said they had given away my scholarship to another student, but if I decided I did want to attend Penn State, they would still honor their original offer. Penn State went on to play for the National Championship that year against Miami. One of the Penn State coaches kept calling me from the sideline to ask me, ‘We’re going to kick a field goal here, do you think you could make it?’ That was absolutely crazy.”
“Even with all of the schools that were interested in me, in the back of my mind, Notre Dame was calling to me. I made a VCR tape of my highlights and sent it to Notre Dame, and a week later they invited me to come up for a visit. We planned a trip north during my Christmas break, and scheduled visits at Notre Dame and Michigan.”
“When we arrived at Notre Dame, we met with Vinnie Cerrato. Because we were there over Christmas break and there wasn’t a single student on campus. It was snowing, and we met with Vinnie at the Morris Inn. After our meeting, he took us on a tour around campus, to the Joyce ACC, and the stadium. Notre Dame absolutely blew me away. I was ready to commit to ND right there, and it was going to be the end of my college search.”
“The coaches at Notre Dame were so professional. They never spoke negatively about any of the other schools. They told me, ‘we’d love to have you, but if you don’t choose us, that’s okay. We wish you the best of luck in your decision process.’”
“And of course, the whole idea of being on television every week was absolutely awesome. I was raised in an Irish Catholic family, but I didn’t have any Notre Dame alums within my family. My dad went to Boston College and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. Going to Notre Dame was one of the best decisions I ever made. Don’t get me wrong … my trip to the University of Miami sure was tempting. They take you out on boats, and have sorority girls sending you letters, but Notre Dame completely won me over. After seeing the Grotto, the church, visiting a few dorms; there was just something about Notre Dame, this indescribable connection that drew me to commit to Notre Dame. I had no idea how lucky I was as I embarked on my journey to Notre Dame.”
What was it like when you arrived at Notre Dame?
“While I had no idea how lucky I was as I headed off to Notre Dame, I also really had no idea what I had gotten myself into. When you go on your college visits, they show you the best of the best, but then you get to college and the work begins. They even sent you a home with a workout that you needed to follow before you reported for summer ball.”
“Notre Dame was quite a culture shock for me. My mom and dad dropped me off at Cavanaugh Hall, and after summer ball I was already homesick. The stress of trying to compete for a position on the team with all of these All-American football players, and then when school started, add on trying to keep your grades up alongside peers who were tops of their classes. Quite intimidating. There were nights when I’d call home and beg my parents to come get me, that it was too hard. Eventually, I figured out how to balance the stresses of academics and football. I’m not sure it got much easier, but I did get less homesick.”
“Sometimes it was hard to wrap your head around what the non-student-athletes did all day. I’d come back to Cavanaugh and ask them, ‘what did you guys do all day? You went to two classes and then what?” What did they do? We had class, practice, special teams meetings, film, weight room, and then had to go study. There was very little free time, especially during football season.”
“In high school, you were a big fish in a little pond, but when you get to a place like Notre Dame, everyone is a big fish, everyone is good at what they do. I was there with the likes of Todd Lyght and Ricky Watters, who truly were the best-of-the-best. Looking back, obviously I loved it, and I’m glad I stuck it out. My Dad kept telling me that I would be fine, but those decisions were tough at 18-years-old. It was tough just to get acquainted with everything.”
“Even though Notre Dame didn’t have fraternities and sororities, your dorm community was very similar to Greek life at other schools. Coach Holtz told us, ‘become friends with the guys in your dorm, those guys will employ you someday.’ I’m glad Notre Dame didn’t have “football dorms.” I was fortunate to be at a place where they had athletes and non-athletes in dorms together. My freshman year I lived with non-athletes, and then after that I lived with Stan Smagala and some hockey players. What was nice about rooming with fellow athletes is that you were on the same schedule. You could vent to them about what had happened at practice. It was tough to do that when you had roommates that weren’t going through what you were going through. I wouldn’t have changed my experience, though. It was a good mix to be a part of Cavanaugh Hall.”
What was it like playing for Coach Holtz?
“I was in Coach Holtz’s first recruiting class. It was tough playing for Coach Holtz. He was strong in his ways, and he didn’t accept anything except making sure you were the best you could be. He had an agenda, and he knew exactly where he wanted to be. And if you played for him, he demanded your respect.”
“As a special teams player, we practiced special teams an hour before the main practice every day, and usually Coach Holtz didn’t arrive until the beginning of the actual practice. Then, when it was time for practice to start for the entire team, Coach Holtz would arrive. You’d see the gates open up, then you’d see his golf cart driving towards the practice field. He’d have his two towels, his strawberry shake, and his pipe going. I think he liked starting every practice by yelling at someone. The cart wouldn’t even stop and he’d already be jumping out of the cart and laying into someone. Sometimes it was me, sometimes it was (John) Foley. The intensity at practice was already high, but as soon as he got there it went right through the roof.”
“We would practice special teams for an hour, the kickers would kick for a bit, and then we’d have time on our own; we just had to be back at the end of practice to run with the team. It would be getting dark by the time practice was wrapping up. You’d know how practice was going, and whether or not he (Coach Holtz) was happy, based on if the lights came on.”
“The following was a pretty typical occurance at practice. A play would be called out of huddle, they’d walk to the line, and Coach Holtz would get upset because there was no walking to the line. He expected you to hustle to the line. So to teach them a lesson, he’d have them call the play, come out of the huddle, run to the line, and coach would blow the whistle and have them do it again; over and over. Never run the actual play, just keep running to the line over and over to prove his point. That was Coach Holtz. He preached the fundamentals and doing the little things right. He was a stickler for that. He didn’t just preach it, he practiced it.”
“The psychology that Coach Holtz used in his coaching strategy was most definitely what took him from being a good coach to being a great coach. A good coach will pull 70% out of you, but a great coach will pull 90% out of you. It’s up to the head coach to pull that talent out of you. Not once did I go into a game thinking that the other team would beat us. I always thought we were going to go in there and win. We believed in coach, 100%.”
“Coach Holtz may not have been tall, but when he grabbed your face mask, dragged you off of the field and yelled at you with that lisp; he most definitely demanded respect. That demand for respect, that’s what made him who he was. He was easy to follow. He was a good man, he loved us, and he cared deeply for us. Before we would cross the road from our football life back into our student life, he would tell us, ‘remember that I love you and care for you.’ And he honestly meant it.”
“The season in which we went to the national championship, we may not have had the best talent that year, be we sure did have the chemistry, and that’s what got us there. It brought us together, and we 100% believed in Coach Holtz and what he told us. We also had the luck of the Irish that year, the balls just bounced our way. At our 25th reunion, one of the student managers was talking about how everything just went right that year. All of the guys made every plane, no one forgot their helmet; thank goodness for the student managers. They really ran the show.”
“Pressure is when you have to do something you aren’t prepared to do.” ~Lou Holtz
“Coach Holtz would come to practice every day and tell us what he was going to do, and then he’d do it. He never veered from his plan. If you got a C in a class, you were sent to study hall after training table. Then they’d check you into study hall every day, and they’d check you into every class every day until your grades went up. He wasn’t going to let you sway. He had a lot of control over us as a team. A lot of great coaches have a good handle on their players. They are admirals and they run a very tight ship.”
Speaking of funny Coach Holtz stories … “I was kicking off at practice one day, and I was supposed to put it high, have a decent hang time, and drop it inside of the 20 yard line so that the guys can stop it inside of the 20. Apparently I didn’t put it quite where he wanted it, and he was so pissed. He was yelling and screaming at me. And then what did he do? He put an ad in the Observer early the next week, ‘looking for a kicker,’ and at the next practice there were 15 to 20 guys there to try out. And then he kept two punters and one kicker! He said to me, ‘I don’t care if we’re paying your whole tuition or not. If you don’t put the ball where I tell you to put it, I’m going to have some backups around here.’ I didn’t want to let him down, and after that I knew I needed to concentrate and do better. He sure did capture my attention.”
“After our special teams practice was over, we’d have some time to kill until we had to be back out on the field for the end of the regular practice. We spent a lot of time in the Joyce ACC, or in coach’s office eating his Zag Nut candy bars (his favorite candy). When we’d go out for the end of practice, he’d put us out there for three final kicks. If we made three kicks in a row, the offense wouldn’t have to run. Everyone would be yelling and cheering for us. Then there’d be someone throwing pencils at the holder, trying to put more pressure on him. And if you made all three kicks, you’d get a tap on the head. And even if you didn’t, you’d still get the tap on the head because it was expected. At the end of practice, he’d tell us he loved us. That was the best part. He wasn’t a warm person to us, even though he was a warm person on the inside. He needed to put on the dictator front to garner the respect that he expected from us.”
“Have you ever heard of Lou Holtz time? It absolutely was a thing. If you had a team meeting at 10 am on a Sunday, your butt had better be there at 9:45 am, because if you were there after 9:45 am the doors would be locked. And if the doors were locked you could guarantee that you were going to be doing bear crawls at 6 am for the next three days. He would tell us, ‘you may never be in the military, but this is going to be the closest thing to being in a military installation.’ And you had better have your eyes on him at all times. If he moved to the left of the podium, your eyes had better follow him, and if not, he’d kick you out of the meeting.”
“He would always have a couple of razors with him at meetings, and if you weren’t clean shaven, he’d have one of the managers give you a razor and you had to dry shave right then and there. Do you want to know what the difference is from the current Notre Dame team and our Notre Dame team? Discipline. They are never going to win another National Championship unless they ‘tuck their shirts in.’ They need more discipline. More discipline on grades, on being a team player, on doing their job, on being a Notre Dame man and doing what’s expected of them. It all goes back to doing the little things right. Coach Holtz was a champion at doing the little things right, and we followed him without flinching one bit.”
“I love Coach Holtz so much. He is a big part of what made me into the man I am today. How I run my family, that’s because of him and what he taught us. My passion for Notre Dame; that comes from Coach Holtz, too. My wife isn’t a big sports fan, but she has been blown away by the overwhelming support we’ve received since my heart attack (in January of 2017). The support from the Notre Dame Alumni, and subway alumni, it’s been very humbling. The support and good thoughts are greatly appreciated. Notre Dame is so much more than just football. The feeling I get when I’m on campus, when I hear the fight song, when I’m at the grotto; it’s just unexplainable. “
The 88 season was different.
“The 88 season was different. It’s only different, though, when looking back on it. In our eyes it was just another season, where we kept on winning week after week. It was a special season for sure. One of the things that was different was the chemistry we had that year. There seemed to be more togetherness that year than we had the previous year. And everyone was going the extra mile, such as staying after practice to do more drills. And then there was the building momentum. After beating Michigan the way we did, and then Miami. Coach Holtz kept telling us, ‘you don’t have to be the best team in the country on Saturday, you just have to be the best team in the stadium.’ He had a vision and he was telling it to us week after week.”
“My friend and fellow teammate John Foley wasn’t able to play that year, due to a neck injury he had sustained earlier in his football career at Notre Dame. But he still had an active recruiting role with the team, and was with us in the locker room for every game. He had such an intense personality. Even though he wasn’t able to get out on the field with us, just having him in the locker room, with tears in his eyes, was magic. Especially as we kept winning games.”
“To kick a field goal in the national championship game, and have it go through like it did, that was a magical moment as well.”
“There’s a time in the huddle, at the end of practice, when Coach Holtz was in the middle of everything. I don’t know if everyone was out of breath from running drills, but there was this quiet hum. There was a level of intensity in that huddle. I can still feel it. It wasn’t like that the year before, or the year after. There was a happiness, a contentment, a chemistry on that team that only came together that year. There was something in that huddle that brought us together, I could feel it.”
“Coach Holtz told us, ‘you don’t win a national championship, you wake up to one.’ It took us years to figure that out, but he was totally right.”
His 45-yard field goal opened the scoring in the Irish’s Fiesta Bowl matchup with West Virginia. Hackett wasn’t needed the rest of the game, as the Irish did what they had done 11 times before that 1988 season.
“The kick I made in the Fiesta Bowl, right at the point of impact I actually slid on my butt, but I was still able to watch it go right through the middle. Thank goodness I made that field goal. And thank goodness we beat Miami … because my field goal in that game was blocked.”
Where did life take you after football?
“As a student at Notre Dame I majored in American Studies and earned a Bachelor of Arts. My career since leaving Notre Dame has had many paths. I worked for Fidelity for a while, I worked for my Dad’s business in Florida for a while, and then I got into the insurance business, which I’ve done for the past 17 to 18 years. I work as a catastrophe adjuster. I do a lot of traveling with my job to visit the sites of hurricanes (I worked Hurricane Katrina) and floods. My job is to help these people get some money in their hands through their insurance policy. It has brought me to where I am today. All of the ups and downs I’ve experienced in my life have brought me to the loves of my life, my wife and children. I am so pleased with who I am and where I am today, I wouldn’t want to be anyone else. I can work a room like the best of them. I want to get out there more and talk about Notre Dame … it’s a true passion of mine and it’s been such a big part of my life.”
What can I tell people about what your family has gone through in the past few weeks and the help that you need?
Billy Hackett suffered a heart attack on January 23rd which was caused by a buildup of plaque inside two of his coronary arteries. One was completely blocked, and required three stents to open the artery. The second was 90 percent obstructed. The doctors have told the Hackett’s that Billy was genetically predisposed, as relatives on both his maternal and paternal sides have suffered heart attacks or required preventative treatments.
“Every day I ask myself, ‘why did this happen to me?’ I am not 75-years-old. I had just lost 25 pounds last year, and so I thought I was relatively healthy, or at least progressing towards becoming healthier. In hindsight, losing the weight last year probably saved my life. It was a quiet January evening in my house when I was eating s’mores with my girls (Mae, 5, and Sarah, 9). I thought I was suffering from heartburn. The next day I felt extremely fatigued, which didn’t get better over the next two days. Something just didn’t seem right and so my wife, Pam, decided it was time for me to go to the hospital. They ran all of these tests at which point they discovered I had suffered from a heart attack, not heartburn, and that two of my arteries were blocked. An event like this truly changes you, and gives you a brand new outlook on life. I’m not ready to leave this world yet, my story is not done.”
The Hackett family is currently raising money to help cover living expenses for their family of four while Billy recovers from heart surgery, goes through rehab and looks for a new line of work. Their modest fundraising goal of $25,000 would cover about three months of Billy’s prior income.
Billy hasn’t received any bills yet for his emergency room visit, hospital stay, procedures or cardiologist consultations. Billy wasn’t insured at the time he was stricken, so his family is bracing for hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
If you can help the Hackett family, it would be greatly appreciated. Every little bit helps: https://www.gofundme.com/hackett-family