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Touchdown JesusFaith and Fandom at Notre Dame
By Scott Eden
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2005 Scott Eden
All right reserved.
A congregation of about fifty people stood in a semicircle, three and four people deep, trying to pay attention to an elderly priest murmuring important words. Draped in a white alb, a white stole around his neck, he was celebrating a Mass, and he worked off a card table unfolded in front of him. A chalice stood on the table, and he faced the tailgate of an SUV.
It might have been difficult for the parishioners to hear the priest with any clarity, given their immediate surroundings -- a parking lot mostly full, boys chucking a football, men and women clustered in groups with beers inside beer cozies inside their hands, the "Victory March" playing from someone's car stereo, shouts and whoops from those of undergraduate age milling about nearby. Smoke rose from portable Weber charcoal grills and portable Coleman propane grills -- the air like some kind of briquette incense. The members of this congregation could in no way be distinguished from those of the secular tailgates. Everyone wore T-shirts of green and blue and yellow-gold, bearing leprechauns and interlocking N's and D's and the words Fighting Irish. Less than two hundred yards to the northeast rose the dish of Notre Dame Stadium. It blocked from view the spire of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Mother Church of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the religious community that had founded the university. Had the priests of Notre Dame known about the site of this particular Mass -- "It's an inappropriate place at an inappropriate time," one of them said later -- they would not have given their approval.
A Notre Dame alumnus of the 1970s, now a Notre Dame employee, witnessed the scene while working his way through the lots on his way to a somewhat less ritualized tailgate. Thirty years in and around the university, and he'd never seen anything like it. He did a double take; at first he couldn't quite believe what he caught sight of. Too concisely did it seem to establish the milieu, here at a place where religion and sport are so famously entwined. He likened the gathering to a hedge Mass, those Reformation-era services conducted in the fields of Ireland by priests whose churches had been torched by the English.
The parishioners had likely arrived on campus from somewhere far afield -- from eastern Pennsylvania or northern Ohio or western New York or northern New Jersey, regions traditionally dense with Notre Dame fans. Doubtless the communion hosts had come from the local parish, as had the priest, who was probably a fan like the rest of them, and the local parish may very well have organized the trip, probably in a rented bus or two, the universal method for gathering all the Irish fans in a particular community and hauling them to campus. They had reached their pilgrimage destination, and they were sealing the deal with a sacrament -- the hosts consecrated on the grounds of Notre Dame, or close to them anyway, on pavement and within eyeshot.
Unperturbed by the commotion around him, the priest at the tailgate read from the Gospel according to Luke. He might have read from the Sunday missal, he might have read from the Saturday, and if the latter, he said, "But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house."
This was the home opener, the biggest home game of the year, versus the University of Michigan, September 11, 2004. Despite the date, the weather made the day jovial -- a few high cirrus clouds at the corners of the earth like hair on an old man's head, still summertime, leaves green, people in T-shirts, coeds in tank tops, everyone in sunglasses, eighty-four degrees in northern Indiana. Around the campus and in the parking lots and on the peripheral streets of South Bend, somewhere near a hundred thousand people were gathering for a game that, to many of them, carried far more significance than what the scoreboard would eventually tell of the day's sport. One hundred thousand people, despite the fact that the stadium holds 80,700, leaving the surplus to witness the game on a drive-in-size screen at the Joyce Center basketball arena, or inside the bars around town.
They had been amassing in South Bend for days. From Interstate 80-90, the automotive pilgrimage gridlocked at the exit tolls, cars and buses and recreational vehicles bearing plates from all over. Green signs on the tollway announced the mileage remaining to Notre Dame. After the tollbooths, as the cars descended the exit ramp, a view suddenly emerged: above woods in the middle distance rose the spire of Sacred Heart and the golden dome of the Main Building. The ramp aims its outflow traffic directly at this picture, and if you're sitting in your front seat, your windshield frames the vantage in concise perspective. It could be a poster sold at the university bookstore -- so much so that one wonders if the interstate's surveyors had received instructions to lay down the ramp with this view in mind. The day was bright and the sun exploded off the dome. You almost had to avert your eyes.
The hoi polloi came by auto, but all through Friday and into the night you could look up into the sky and see the lights on the wings of the private jets -- Citations, Leers, Gulfstreams, Challengers, Boeing Businesses, eighty and ninety and a hundred of them -- in descent toward the South Bend Regional Airport. They were carrying the most moneyed of fans, the whales, known in the development office as "Friends of the University."
ND Harvey, a different kind of friend of the university, presided over something close to chaos. On an Internet message board for Notre Dame fans, I had seen a post: "Stop over and have a 'Cold one' before, during and after we (ND) beat Michigan on Sat. afternoon...Keep the faith, IRISH fans." Beer cans were handed off to anyone with empty hands, beer cans were lateraled through the air. There was hooting and hollering and there were rude renditions of "Hail to the Victors," the Michigan fight song, in which the choir replaced "victors valiant" in the lyric with "fornicators" and "conqu'ring heroes" with "masturbators" and sometimes vice versa. There were teenagers in green wigs, and young men with gold earrings, and middle-aged men festooned in strands of green and gold Notre Dame-themed Mardi Gras beads. They all stood in front of a rented fifty-seat motor coach, the first bus in a long train of buses parked outside the front gate of the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center, the twin-cupped basketball arena and hockey rink, directly across the street from the football stadium.
A good spot, a coveted spot, but ND Harvey knew what he was doing. Once a year for the last twenty-seven years he has led a group of around forty Notre Dame fans ranging in age from eighteen to eighty-three, all male, on a bus trip originating in South Philadelphia and terminating on this very slice of campus. Everyone spoke in clipped, round-voweled Philadelphia accents. Five or six beer coolers sat on the curb near the bus. The tailgate had the air of a neighborhood social club, of a weekly poker game held in someone's basement. It was as if a beer joint had emptied out, its clientele beamed all at once to northern Indiana -- which, as it happens, is pretty close to the truth. The bus driver, a retired fire captain with the nickname Mean Joe Green, said the party had commenced at around six thirty Wednesday evening at a place called Dean's Bar, on Twenty-ninth and Tasker in the Gray's Ferry section of South Philly, had extended without pause onto the bus, and had consumed large portions of the toll roads of three states.
ND Harvey, who usually makes four or five additional pilgrimages per season to Notre Dame on his own, is the kind of man who naturally elicits intense affection and fidelity among his friends. This seems to derive largely from his passion for Notre Dame.
"To know Harvey is to love Harvey."
"So you've met Harvey? Harvey is God."
Of middle height and weight, forty-seven years old, a computer analyst for DuPont Chemical, ND Harvey has sandy brown hair and a brown mustache. In both appearance and demeanor he resembles the comedian Denis Leary. A gold chain hung around his neck. At first glance I assumed it held a crucifix, but when he withdrew it from his shirt, a miniature, golden Notre Dame leprechaun depended from the chain. ND Harvey is actually a nickname, given to him as a boy by his uncle -- a Notre Dame devout who passed his fanaticism down to his nephews in the 1960s. Harvey's real name is Bob Sumner.
Despite his post on the Internet message board, ND Harvey today was not keeping the faith. He predicted a loss against Michigan, perhaps severe, perhaps similar to the 38-0 drubbing that Notre Dame had suffered last year at Ann Arbor. Harvey had had a tough time coping with that one, but, then again, he had a tough time coping with any Irish defeat, regardless of the fact that nearly ten years of awful football tended to atrophy the expectations of even the most optimistic fans. He said, "It took me three days to get over the BYU loss last week."
The 2004 season opener had actually occurred the previous Saturday, on the road against Brigham Young University, a game that Notre Dame's athletic department had rescheduled so as to provide the Irish with a warm-up match before taking on the Wolverines of Michigan. Hated, secular, land-grant Michigan, ranked No. 7 in the nation. Despised neighbor-state Big Ten Michigan, which had, early in the twentieth century, successfully lobbied for Notre Dame's exclusion from the Big Ten for reasons having to do with the applicant school's mode of backward Catholic education. "The matter seems to have been settled on theological rather than athletic grounds," Notre Dame's vice president said at the time. Michigan is a game no one can stand to lose, no matter the odds, and so BYU, believed to be highly undermanned, was stuck there at the front of the schedule -- the warm-up game. In theory, it not only provided a satisfying victim given BYU's own religious affiliations -- though, of course, no one would publicly admit to that feeling -- but it was also seen as the perfect team on which to exorcise any lingering demons left over from a radically disappointing 2003, in which Notre Dame had lost seven games and won five, the team's third losing season in five years. Even in the midst of that downward spiral, Notre Dame had easily defeated BYU. Almost no one, therefore, believed the Irish could lose this season, and almost everyone thought that Head Coach Tyrone Willingham would use his relatively talented and veteran team in this, his third year on the job, to reclaim some of the momentum he had created in 2002, his first season, when he had led Notre Dame to victory in its first eight games. As it turned out, the unranked Mormons used their trademark unorthodox blitzing schemes to warm up the Catholics, 17-20.
Everyone here at Harvey's tailgate wore a kind of uniform -- the same custom-made blue-green T-shirts.
27th ANNUAL PILGRIMAGE
South Philly to South Bend
"We always call it a pilgrimage," said George Sumner, Harvey's brother, standing among the Philadelphians. "And we always have a theme. In 2001, because of 9/11, we called it The Patriotic Pilgrimage. Another time it was 'Faith, Family, and Friends.' This year, as you can see, it's 'God, Country, Notre Dame.' " The T-shirts also pictured a Celtic cross, a U.S. flag, and the Notre Dame trademark leprechaun, each above their corresponding terms -- God, Country, Notre Dame -- a sequence of words that has become epigrammatic in the mythology of the institution, suggestive of a method for ordering one's core values. They appear carved into the limestone archivolt above the east door to the transept of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
Eleven o'clock in the morning, and elderly men in blue blazers, the Basilica's volunteer security detail, closed that very entrance to the public. The door beneath its carved slogan is a memorial to Notre Dame alumni killed in the First World War, and through that portal on every home-game Saturday, an hour and a half before kickoff, the football team and the coaching staff, in street clothes, enter Sacred Heart for an accelerated twenty-minute pregame Mass -- in and out. As always, the coaches entered first, with the head coach at the lead, showing the way. A small man, trim as a tightrope, Tyrone Willingham wore a dark suit and a somber expression. Embattled, criticized, condemned, and death-threatened (by an opposing-team fan, it bears remarking), he may have welcomed the few moments of solace here in the quietude of Sacred Heart. Two years into his tenure at Notre Dame and he had already experienced the antipodes of the position, among the highest profile in all of sport -- near deification after winning those first eight games of his first season, which produced a nonfiction book and a series of T-shirts and many articles in the sporting press all entitled "Return to Glory" -- and then near damnation after compiling last year's record, which grew full of ignominious thrashings at the hands of Notre Dame's bitterest rivals (0-38 to Michigan, 0-37 to Florida State, 14-49 to Southern Cal). It amounted to an abridged history of the football program's run of mediocrity and worse, which extended back ten years, included the tenures of three head coaches, and seemed to indicate a set of institutional problems that both rose above the head of the current coach and fell squarely atop it.
Now, as he took his seat for Mass, Willingham and his players faced the prospect of taking on a powerful Michigan team in the wake of the previous week's humiliating display. The fan base, meanwhile, had gone bipolar. People were calling for Willingham's immediate dismissal; others were desperately praying for him to succeed. "A bank of candles were lighted, ten rosaries were said, all for the coaching staff," announced one fan on an Internet message board. "May Touchdown Jesus guide us through the dark forest of our opponents."
The team Mass is celebrated in the apse, in a section of the church called the Lady Chapel, roped off and guarded by the elderly security detail, and at a thirty-yard remove from the fans who congregate each home-game Saturday for a glimpse of the players in their suits and ties, sitting their listening to the scriptures. Outside, from the east transept all the way to the stadium tunnel a half mile away, a corridor of humanity forms, and when the players emerge from the church following Communion, the crowd erupts in a roar, and down this pathway walled with football fans the team parades from Lady Chapel to locker room.
All through Saturday, before and during and after the Mass, the multitudes rotate through the Basilica. Years ago, the sacristy staff attempted to count the number of people who entered Sacred Heart on a home-game Saturday. They lost patience and quit after their clickers clicked many thousands of times. To achieve basilica status -- an honor bestowed only by the pope -- a church must meet several criteria. Among the more important, it must prove itself to be a legitimate place of pilgrimage. Notre Dame didn't have a tough time with that one. They needed only call attention to the number of people who visit Sacred Heart in the fall, and who happen also to couple those junkets with three-hour observances inside a nearby stadium. After more than a hundred years of application, Rome finally did the deed and basilicated Sacred Heart in November 1991. The next year the Irish ended the regular season undefeated.
Through Sacred Heart, the crowds make a prescribed circuit. Into the main entrance, through the narthex, they dip their fingers into a granite font the size of a birdbath -- the basin gurgling with circulated holy water -- make the sign of the cross, and they move deliberately up the nave, eyes lifted to vaulted ceilings fifty feet in the air. The ceilings bear the figures, frescoed on fields of gold and blue, of Old and New Testament scribes, cherubim and seraphim, a communion of saints, all afloat on cartoon clouds -- heaven above. Rainbowed light slants through the stained glass. It casts pictures onto the floors and pews and up vertically onto beveled stanchions thick as tree trunks holding the whole place aloft. When first-time visitors enter the church, there is often an audible cooing. Flash photography is discouraged, but prayer in the pews is not. And neither is confession. When the carved oaken doors swing shut, the sinner enclosed inside the confessional, a green bulb goes off and a red bulb lights up. Every so often, overwhelmed by the scenery, a lapsed Catholic will see the green light and follow it in. Among Holy Cross priests it is well-known that game-day contritions often entail taut, prolonged moments of renewed introspection. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned -- it's been thirty years since I've taken the sacraments."
After parking their cars and arriving on campus and before doing anything else, the pilgrims of Notre Dame will likely visit a man-made cave called the Grotto, situated behind Sacred Heart, down a flight of granite steps and cut into a slope of steep pitch -- a terminal moraine left by a glacier twelve thousand years before. Deep and dark in the permanent shade, it resembles with its stonework an exhumed catacomb. At a one-to-seven scale, the Grotto is a replica of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Marian shrine in southern France where She appeared to a peasant girl in 1858. Famed for its healing waters, Lourdes attracted pilgrims in such multitudes that religious tourism may well have been invented there. At Notre Dame, its replica has acquired a portion of that luring power. Aside from the stadium, it is the most-visited shrine on campus, and every year its cavern will receive a quarter of a million pilgrims. Filled to its fieldstones with candles set into iron racks, the Grotto gathers prayers. A black cube in the middle of the cave accepts bills through a slot -- a sign on top says OFFERING. People push in their money like votes. With long wooden tapers, they light their candles. Today, as always, a thrumming host stood outside the Grotto, the bodies queued up, five- and six-deep, waiting for their turn inside, before moving over to the long wooden kneeler that fronts the cavern -- hitting the rails, they used to call it. Shoulder to shoulder, about fifty people can fit on the kneeler at any one time, and heads bowed, they direct their pleas to the university's titular Our Lady. Above the cave's maw, resting in a cavity the size and shape of a mummy case, stands a statue of the Virgin Mary. In her hooded, peaked cloak she's narrow as a rod. Her eyes point skyward and on her face there is a look of ardor. She appears ready to transmit.
Away from sacred ground and all over the country, millions of fans were preparing themselves in their small individual ways, with their small individual rituals, tuning their televisions to NBC for a 4.0 Nielsen share. Portraits of St. Patrick came off walls and were placed next to TV sets. The heads of dogs were rubbed for luck, dogs named after former Notre Dame head coaches. In Niagara Falls, New York, Eddie Gadawski, for more than fifty years the proprietor of an eponymous tavern, readied his bar for the arrival of Notre Dame fans from around the region -- from Buffalo city and parts suburban, from the Falls on both sides of the border. Not surprisingly, given that Niagara Falls is 60 percent Catholic, Eddie Gadawski has converted large segments of the local population into Notre Dame fans (the process of becoming an ND partisan is usually phrased in the language of conversion). This development is also not surprising given the manner in which Gadawski has gone about representing Notre Dame at his tavern. It is possible that, outside one or two local establishments in South Bend, Gadawski's is, on a national scale, the ne plus ultra of Notre Dame bars. Its walls and cabinets and backbar and doorways and windows and ceilings -- every surface horizontal and vertical -- have been layered with Notre Dame memorabilia, acquired piecemeal by Gadawski over the decades. Its interior has the texture of the Carlsbad Caverns. It is an elaborate rococo homage to one man's passion, a shrine away from the shrines.
Eddie Gadawski has attended so many Notre Dame games over so long a time he has trouble remembering just when he may have first experienced a game on campus. He was eighty-four years old, and this season he would make it to Notre Dame for only one pilgrimage -- his lowest total since the era of Ara Parseghian.
Not many fans share Gadawski's record as an annual pilgrim. ND Harvey for instance, made his first trip to Notre Dame in 1977, a year in which, he is proud to say, the Irish won a national championship. Individually he travels to just about every home game of the season, but his annual communal pilgrimage with his busload of friends is by far his most important of all. He and his friends sometimes refer to themselves as the Boys of Gray's Ferry, since most of them of a certain generation all grew up in that section of South Philadelphia, at one time the city's principal Irish enclave. Only a few of the boys still live in the old neighborhood. "Gray's Ferry, it's not the same anymore," Harvey said. "It's kind of dying now. But our bus trip every year to Notre Dame, this brings us all back together." He slid a palm down his face. "It kind of breaks me up a little bit." Harvey now lives in south Jersey. As a way to bind the clan in the wake of diaspora, Harvey and the entire group have made it a point not only to organize this trip every year, but to bequeath to those of the next generation their absolute devotion to Notre Dame. As one of Harvey's friends has said, "My kids are Notre Dame fans, and now, my grandkids, they're fucking Notre Dame fans too."
Of the forty men on ND Harvey's bus pilgrimage, just one was a Notre Dame alumnus. Class of 1975, Captain Bill Fisher now worked for the Philadelphia Police Department. Thick in the belly and the jowl, with enormous aviator sunglasses worn under the bill of a navy blue ballcap stitched with the ND monogram in yellow-gold, with a beer in his hand, he had the aspect of a tailgating MacArthur. Surveying the chaos around him -- forty-odd South Philadelphians, a good quarter of them belting out another lewd version of the Michigan fight song -- the captain said, "I oversee protests and civic affairs in the city. So I know a thing or two about crowd control."
Aside from Captain Fisher, everyone on Harvey's bus trip belonged to a class of fan known as subway alumni, followers of Notre Dame football who have no educational affiliation with the school whatsoever. Their fanaticism tends to flow from team to institution to religious devotion to a reverence for the textured mythos that the whole amalgarn has acquired over the years. The origin of the term dates to a series of games played against Army in New York City between 1923 and 1946. According to popular history, so many working-class, immigrant Catholics emerged from their tenements and spilled into the subway tunnels for transport to these games that a clever reporter coined the term, and the term entered the lexicon. Sui generis in the sportive world, these original Notre Dame fans paid for tickets and listened to the games' radio broadcasts in such numbers that they could be said to have invented big-time college athletics. Other teams with large-scale followings who were not educated by the sponsoring universities have since appropriated the term. The reasons why these prototypical subway alumni made their short pilgrimages were easy enough to discern: they felt a deep affinity for this team made up of Catholic schlumps just like them -- Irish and Polish and Italian, mostly -- for whom they could root against the West Point Black Knights, a team and an institution that defined Establishment. Embedded in discrimination against their religion and ancestry, forged by clannish tendencies imported from the Old World, their passion for all things Notre Dame grew almost nationalistic in its fervor. When Catholic enclaves in the big cities were still intact, whole neighborhoods became Notre Dame backers -- South Boston, South Philly, the outer boroughs of New York, the South Side of Chicago. Inasmuch as Ohioans root for Ohio State, Catholics rooted for Notre Dame. That feeling has never really gone away, but has, over the decades, as Catholics have entered the mainstream and left behind their proletariat past, morphed into something else again: veneration of the American-immigrant bootstrap ethos of hard work and Catholic faith, and the notion that the two entwined can only produce the good life. With each victory on the field, the team and the university not only came to represent that life, but seemed as well to confirm its possibility. It proved a potent combination, and devotion to Notre Dame, passed down through the generations, has become a religion in ways that exceed metaphor.
Millions in number, the subway alumni now dwarf Notre Dame's actual alumni population, which stands at about 110,000. They constitute a fan base larger than that of any other college team, larger than those of most professional franchises. In surveys conducted by the market-research wizards at the Harris Poll, on polls conducted online by ESPN, subways consistently make Notre Dame the most popular college team in the country, despite that the Irish have not won a national championship in sixteen years. As an audience, they have made it possible for Notre Dame football to remain independent of any athletic conference, to bargain with NBC for an exclusive contract to televise all Irish home games, to garner more press coverage than any other college team, thus begetting even more fans, and to have a licensing arm of such financial magnitude that university officials would rather not talk numbers. Well before television, the income these fans generated -- from ticket sales and merchandise sales and even straight-up donations -- helped endow the university.
"Let me tell you," Captain Fisher said. "I'm an alum, and I can't match their love for Notre Dame."
I had first met ND Harvey and his group at the pep rally the night before, which takes place inside the basketball arena. Wading through the crowds, trying to find seats, Harvey's brother, George Sumner, a burly man with dark hair and a thick mustache, walked in front of me, throwing blocks. At last we found seats in the bleachers, and George reflected on the oddity and profundity of his Notre Dame zeal. "I saw a sign on a pub in Northern Ireland once that got about as close to explaining our obsession as anything I've ever seen. It said, 'For those who do understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don't, none is possible.' " The sign, he said, was in reference to the Troubles of Northern Ireland. "It's a weird thing. Nobody understands it, really. I graduated from Temple University, but this . . ." And with a sweep of his arm he indicated everything -- the fans crowding into the arena, a group of students hollering the fight song, the campus outside with its spire and dome and mosaic of Christ with his arms raised. The rally had grown loud, and George shouted over the noise, "This is the only thing there is! I always relate it back to that sign in that Irish pub, because none of this makes any sense. I mean, none of us went here."
Game time approached and the greensward in front of the Main Building had become a scene of agitation. Thick with mature trees, this was the oldest of Notre Dame's quadrangles, containing at its perimeter both the Basilica and Mary atop the dome. It had come to be known as God Quad, and by now it had almost zero standing room. A sea of fans crammed into the areas between the trees and the religious statuary. Children had climbed up into the branches of the trees. People were sitting on each other's shoulders. Digital camcorders by the hundred were aimed and recording. The marching band had assembled before the steps of the building, and in a burst of sound, brassy and reverberant, they fired up the "Victory March" and moved in precise ranks away from the staircase and along a path headed south. Called the band "step-off," another Notre Dame game-day ritual, it essentially marked the beginning of the day's sport. In a hustling, jostling human migration of a thousand yards, the fans followed the band en masse as it advanced loudly through God Quad, continued out across the great open plain of South Quad, and marched east toward Notre Dame Stadium, entering the tunnel, threading the needle, a last flourish of sound hanging over the mob now arrayed on the concrete esplanade underneath the facade of the coliseum.
Up on the fifth floor of the press box, in a large hall called the VIP level, the VIPs had begun to gather, Friends of the University. An enormous bank of windows overlooked the field high above the fifty-yard line, and they encompassed an IMAX of sky and stands and, at the far left side, the upstretched arms of Touchdown Jesus. Trustees and big-check benefactors and the like had just begun the afternoon of mingling with university officials, all the provosts and deans and endowed-chair academics and university vice presidents and Holy Cross priests casually dressed. Fr. Edward "Monk" Malloy, president of Notre Dame, entered the elevators and rode up to the fifth floor. The noise of the crowd and the music of the marching band as it entered the stadium beneath the press box barely reached the VIPs, perhaps only as a structural vibration, and through the windows they could watch the stands gradually fill with Notre Dame fandom. Thirty minutes to kickoff.
Vegas favored the Wolverines by thirteen points, a large margin, and down in the parking lots, as the tailgates started to close up shop, not many people would have laid bets on a Notre Dame upset. An ancient dictum, that of the ND "home dog," states that one should never bet against the Irish if the Irish are underdogs at home. But these were extraordinary times, and the old rules no longer seemed to hold. Almost everyone expected defeat today, citing the extreme ineptitude displayed by the Irish in Utah, an offense that produced eleven net rushing yards for the entire game. That -- as almost anyone would tell you -- was not Notre Dame football, and if 2004 was meant to exorcise the demons of 2003, the demons still had possession.
George Sumner was as pessimistic as anyone, and he voiced an opinion shared by many others, speculation that expanded out from today's game and over the long term. He said, "I'm not sure they'll ever win a national championship again. That doesn't mean I'll stop hoping and praying. But everything is against them." He listed a set of familiar complaints, complaints that arise every time the Irish struggle on the field. He spoke of Notre Dame's academic rigor -- which, he quickly added, as nearly all Irish fans will, he'd never wish to see diminished so that the university might attract more and better athletes, for this among other things is what makes Notre Dame "special" -- and he spoke of an overall shift in the culture. Eyes on the NFL, the best high school athletes would rather skim through a few semesters of dumbed-down curriculum on a palm-tree campus among gone-wild coeds and, essentially, play their college ball semipro.
George backtracked a bit, however. "I won't say they'll never win a championship again, but it could be a while. But, no, it won't change anything for me." Win, lose, abolish athletic scholarships, and drop the program to Division III, and George Sumner would still be as rabid as ever. "We'd just get teased a lot more when we get back home. Because believe it or not, not everyone is a Notre Dame fan. As impossible as that sounds."
The fear that Notre Dame might never again compete at a high level had lately escalated in the minds of Irish fans all over the country. Like George Sumner, many of them were getting used to losing. Others had become enraged by it. It had been ten years -- going on eleven -- since the Irish had ranked among the elite, let alone won a national title, and ten years of middling football had convinced many fans that Notre Dame's leaders had capitulated to the idea that running a university with elite academics could not withstand the demands of running a university with an elite football program. Many believed that the Notre Dame administration had designs on de-emphasis, an ancient term peculiar to American higher education, the only university system in the world to play amateur athletics at a level of popularity equal to professional athletics, and thus the only university system in the world that hems and haws and worries and agonizes about the overemphasis it places on its sports teams -- an emphasis, they fear, that has made a joke of the term student-athlete, and thus the educational mission as a whole. The NCAA owes its very existence to this sort of agonizing, and no other individual university in the country agonizes about it more than Notre Dame, for no other university in the world is so defined by a game, by a single endeavor, as this one. Football had always been Notre Dame's blessing as well as its sin, and the university, many people feared, wanted to escape once and for all what had defined it.
To do so would have all kinds of ramifications. Over its history, Notre Dame together with its football team had become that powerfully persuasive symbol: It represented all those working-stiff strivers of generations gone who toiled and sacrificed for the future of their children. The credo of the university, "the Notre Dame way," as it has been called, articulated over the decades by a series of Notre Dame plenipotentiaries, was to strive for excellence in all things and thus bring glory to God. Football had become not just the most visible example of the credo -- it had helped to create it in the first place. For many fans, then, to abandon football excellence would be to abandon the essence of Notre Dame.
Whether or not the leaders of Notre Dame purposefully wished to "de-emphasize," the last ten years pointed to a fundamental cultural shift occurring within Notre Dame that seemed to mirror the wider one spoken of by George Sumner. It had been occurring for forty years. For forty years there had been talk of a "New Notre Dame." All the way up until the early 1960s the university had largely drawn its students from the same groups that the Fighting Irish had drawn their fans -- the Catholic working classes -- so much so that to divide Notre Dame fandom into alumni and subway was a little tricky. Sons, and then daughters (ND went coed in 1972), of devoted subway alumni matriculated at their dream school and went off to get their Catholic education, learning to strive, but with a sense of difference inherent in their spiritual devotion. They wove the Notre Dame community together, and that community became known as the Notre Dame Family, which, all at the same time, is a business network, a fraternal organization, a charitable foundation, a clan, a club, and an audience of football fans. If you could combine elements of the Knights of Columbus with a dash of the Century Club and the fan culture of Manchester United, you'd have something close to the Notre Dame Family.
But as the children and grandchildren of Catholic immigrants climbed the ladder of prosperity, so had the university, until its academic programs began to compete with those of the best universities in the country -- universities that had all gone secular. And slowly, glacially, Notre Dame's student body shifted profile as well, from working class to middle class to privileged class. By the turn of the last century, this change had reached a point that people began to make connections: De-emphasized football, with the 2003 season and the BYU loss representing the leading edge of that decline. A seeming desire to ape in all ways the great secular academies. Football, over time, had got all bound up at Notre Dame with Catholic identity. Losing the first was a symptom inherent in moving away from the second. With elements of nostalgia, the fans looked back on an older Notre Dame that played superb football, an older Notre Dame that, they believed, played such football without shame. Among the fans, both alumni and subway, there was a growing sentiment that the newest New Notre Dame had lost itself, and that this development had its origins at the very top.
The day after the BYU game, ND Nation, the most prominent of the Fighting Irish Internet fan communities, collectively suffered something close to a nervous breakdown.
"I bought a black ND hat over the Summer...and now I finally get to wear it. In mourning for my beloved, lost football team."
"I have two tickets to every home game...I'd be willing to buy them and burn them versus going to any home game -- until this mess is fixed."
"The longer this goes on, the more I see me straying toward apathy. I worry about apathy...I've always seen Notre Dame's role as the noble samurai."
"The end of optimism is official."
"Success is not inevitable...Tradition doesn't win football games. Winning football games builds a tradition. Without a constant commitment to excellence from the top to the bottom, Notre Dame will quickly fade from memory as a football powerhouse. I'd rather we just quit playing than let this happen."
"We've become 'Fat Elvis.' A wheezing, money making parody of what we used to be."
"The emperor is stark naked."
"I believe that the next few months are going to be hell for all of us who love ND and especially the football program. But I believe battle lines will be drawn in what will soon be ND's own civil war."
"Finally, say it like it is: Ty is out of place here. Wrong guy for this program and its history...I've been a part of ND (self and family have five ND degrees and have donated a small boatload) for 35 years and have met and personally spoken with Ty on more than one occasion. In my opinion he is an arrogant and condescending jerk. Other than PC, he has nothing going for him as regards the world of ND football."
Mike Coffey, under a canopy at the ND Nation tailgate, sipped from a bottle of Sierra Nevada and discussed the state of Notre Dame football from behind a pair of sunglasses. The consensus, as elsewhere, was that the possibilities of an upset today over Michigan approached absolute zero. Notre Dame class of 1991, Coffey is one of four men, three of whom are Notre Dame alumni, who operate and administer the ND Nation Web site. Collectively known as BoardOps, they preside over a community of about five thousand registered members. Theirs is a free board, open to the public. On a day such as the Sunday after the BYU game, traffic at the site can swell to twenty thousand visitors. And on a day like the previous Sunday, the ranting can take on such hysteria that the BoardOps will "wipe," "flush," "nuke" the slate clean like electroshock. The perception among outsiders is that the boards, and ND Nation in particular, are hothouses of vitriol and angst and rage -- fans of the sort who need a constant and immediate fix of Notre Dame news, gossip, and rumor, but, most important, a venue on which to vent. A mix of alumni and subway alumni, the posters of ND Nation are thought of as one-dimensional, hard-core, zealotic, right-wing. In cases of defeat, they are believed to be the ones who die the hardest. If the Internet fan communities form a sub-subculture of Notre Dame fandom as a whole, ND Nation is thought of as the lunatic fringe. One Notre Dame official told me, "On the message boards, you're either a blasphemer or a child of the light. It's like a kind of unexamined fascism."
But, as Mike Coffey is quick to point out, "the board is monitored well." In addition, he says, the Web site's membership rolls contain a number of large-scale Notre Dame donors, former athletes, and university faculty and staff. The athletic department in particular is full of avid lurkers, and employees of the Sports Information Department use the site, as much as they may deny it, as a means to take the temperature of the masses. As it stood now, a few minutes before kickoff on the first home game of the year, the temperature of the fan base had reached the malarial.
Coffey comes from a long line of Notre Dame graduates; his father and grandfather are alumni; his mother went to Saint Mary's, the all-girls college across the street from Notre Dame. His handle on the boards is El Kabong, an allusion to the alter ego of Quick Draw McGraw, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character. For the game today he wore a gray T-shirt that said NOTRE DAME BASKETBALL. He speaks emphatically, as if putting into speech a message-board post that succinctly dismantles another poster's bad logic, as his posts often do. As it turns out, his line of work is logic -- he's a database-software programmer, and he splits time between Chicago, where he was born and raised, and South Bend. Last January, he had appeared on television in Chicago, on a local sports show, to explain the position of an alumni letter sent to every member of the Notre Dame board of trustees. Motivated by fears that the university's leadership, through incompetence or design or both, was allowing the football program to die a slow death, the letter had voiced as well as summarized all those profound anxieties that had come to permeate the fan base. Bearing the signatures of 412 alumni, the "Call for Change" letter, a title soon acronymed on the message boards to C4C, began its argument with a set of premises. Notre Dame had achieved its greatness based on "three pillars" -- rigorous Catholicism, rigorous academics, and championship football, though not necessarily in that order. Demolish one of those pillars, their argument seemed to run, and the weight of the roof would make rubble of the other two.
The only other BoardOp here today was John Vannie, handle of Jvan. A key framer of the C4C document, he was, at the moment, mixing a batch of margaritas, the recipe for which is evidently famous among the ND Nation set. In from San Diego, a manager in the fighter jet division of Northrop Grumman, he was graduated from Notre Dame in 1975, in the era of Ara Parseghian. He carried a cell phone in his right hand attached by a cord to a hands-free headset plugged in his ear, into which he would break into ghostly conversation at irregular intervals. Vannie is responsible for the pregame and postgame write-ups that appear on ND Nation. He concluded his BYU "postmortem" with gloom. "This opener was in many ways a painful reminder of the 2003 season, and it will be nothing short of disastrous if that comparison can be made again next week."
A few ND Nation members had convened at the tailgate today, but no true regular posters. One of those regulars, a 1988 Notre Dame graduate and an attorney in St. Louis, was supposed to be at the game today, but he had canceled his trip after the BYU game, enraged by the result. For his part Coffey had decided to watch Michigan's evisceration of Notre Dame from a TV plugged into a generator right there in the parking lots. His tickets remained in his pocket.
Kickoff neared, NBC commenced its coverage with its slow sentimental rendition of the "Victory March," and Eddie Colton sat at home on Staten Island with only his fiancee. If not on campus, which he travels to regularly during the season, he prefers to watch the games without distraction. As he puts it, "Normally I can't have anything within arm's reach. I get into the games a little bit." New York City police sergeant, member of the Emerald Society, the national club of Irish Cops, Colton learned to love Notre Dame from his father, who learned to love Notre Dame from his father, the font of it all, who had come upon this small, obscure Catholic college and its football team in the newspapers circa 1917, before radio, in the days when Rockne was still a student-athlete, in the days before the team was known as the Fighting Irish.
For the last ten years, Colton has been a sergeant in the First Precinct, which covers Lower Manhattan from Houston Street to the Battery, and the date of the 2004 Michigan game carried a significance that tended to make him a little less enthusiastic than he might normally be for a football Saturday. Had the calendar not been so vicious, he would have caught a flight to South Bend and been at the game right now, perhaps having a word with Fr. Edward "Monk" Malloy, a friend of Colton's. "I didn't wanna go out there for 9/11. I didn't wanna leave here...outta respect, you know?" So instead he tuned his television to NBC. He got up from his seat, walked into the bedroom, and moments before kickoff, as he always does, he laid his hands on a two-foot ceramic statue of the Blessed Mother. His grandmother had rescued it in the 1920s from the curbside of a house in her neighborhood. Someone had set it out with the garbage. He then touched a strand of rosary beads hanging from the statue and said a prayer of remembrance for his father, with whom Colton used to make his pilgrimages to Notre Dame and who had succumbed to heart disease eight days after 9/11. He blessed himself, and by the time he returned to his chair, the coin had been tossed. Michigan elected to defer.
Copyright © 2005 by Scott Eden
Excerpted from Touchdown Jesus by Scott Eden Copyright © 2005 by Scott Eden.
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