Cheer for old Notre Dame
In my 23 years, I’ve posed next to a statue of Ted Williams, “The Splendid Splinter,” inside the Baseball Hall of Fame and watched a game at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y. I’ve been to Fenway, to the Friendly Confines and sat, wearing Red Sox apparel from head to toe, in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium. I’ve visited the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York. I’ve met Babe Ruth’s daughter.There’s one place, however, that stands out. It’s a place where religion and college football cross paths, although many there contend the two are synonymous. A place that inspired some of sports’ most sacred phrases. Win one for the Gipper. Play Like a Champion Today. A place where coaching legends are canonized and great players are cult figures who grace T-shirt fronts and are mentioned in church sermons. A place where you can stand in line for a brat at 10 in the morning flanked by Ted Koppel and a grown man wearing a plastic ear of corn on his head. It happened to me in 2000. It’s a place called Notre Dame. And, after three trips to South Bend, Ind., it’s clear: God must be an Irish fan.How does a guy from southeastern Connecticut who graduated from Syracuse side with Notre Dame? Considering the current plight of my alma mater, no would blame me for switching allegiances. After all, the Orange’s rapid descent into irrelevance (they’re ranked 100th in the nation, right behind Mount Holyoke College for women and Rhode Island School of Design) is as agonizing to watch as the Buffs offense. Last year, Syracuse won a single game – against Buffalo. BCS, more like SOS.It also doesn’t hurt that one of my family friends is a South Bend priest. Father Lavely sure is good company to keep, not only because he booked us rooms in the Moreau Seminary (made famous in “Rudy”) and got us highly sought-after tickets.It was my first trip to Notre Dame that ultimately sealed my fate. The environment was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Locals sell game tickets, parking passes and cold beverages from their front porches. Dormitories hang signs from building facades made from 20 bedsheets. Students cover helmets with a fresh coat of brilliant 24-karat gold.Throngs in excess of 100,000 pour onto campus like the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. It’s said the stadium lot is the largest RV park in the state on home game weekends. Tailgaters and clouds of portable grill smoke stretch as far as the eye can see. Flank steak sandwiches there taste like filet mignon, not the usual year-old tire rubber. Crowds of 45,000 pack the stadium for Friday night pep rallies. Fans support the Irish like no other team on turf. The famous fight song echoes through stadium corridors. I can still hear it now. Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame, wake up the echoes cheering her name…Excitement abounds for young children and the young at heart; from the distinguished man wearing plaid pants flashing pictures of the Golden Dome, to the father hoisting his daughter up to touch the nose of Knute Rockne’s bust for good luck. Football weekends are a distinctly religious experience. A mural that covers one side of the Hesburgh Library depicts Jesus with hands raised towards the sky in anticipation of the next Brady Quinn touchdown pass to Jeff Samardzija. The statue of “We’re No. 1 Moses,” makes it abundantly clear which side he’s on. It’s hard to argue with the man who parted the Red Sea.After witnessing two losses – to Michigan State and to then No. 1 Nebraska in 2000 – I made a third pilgrimage Friday for a much-anticipated showdown with Penn State. It was the first game between the schools since the 1992 “Snow Bowl.” It was a matchup between two programs steeped in tradition who are reverting back to championship form. JoePa versus the “Weis Men.” Blue and white versus blue and gold. Big Ten stalwart versus proud independent. It had all the makings.Judging by the thousands of candles that covered every square inch of the Grotto, many had enlisted a higher power to help the Irish. Those prayers were answered. Notre Dame convincingly routed the Nittany Lions. The Irish led 27-0 minutes into the third quarter and won, 41-17. Heisman front-runner Quinn completed 25 of 36 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns.It must’ve been divine intervention. I was grateful. One more loss and I was in real danger of losing my invitation in the future. God must be a Notre Dame fan. Count me among the faithful.Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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