A month or so ago, as the Fighting Irish closed out their surprising but convincing road win over Oklahoma, and jubilant Domers danced, I cringed in dread. “Oh no,” I thought.
Surely I was not alone with my sense of impending doom, this sensation of foreboding and gloom.
The next three opponents looked pretty beatable. That put the potentially undefeated Irish on a collision course with USC. Final game of the season. In the Coliseum. Thanksgiving weekend. National title hopes.
“I can’t watch,” I said. My wife scoffed. “I’ll find something else to do that night,” I said, and I meant it.
I had been there before, and the heartbreak still pained me.
I remember 1964. It was my first season to follow the Irish, with all the open-hearted hopes of a 12-year-old. It was Ara’s first season, too. Notre Dame had risen from the ashes. Unbeaten going to L.A. Ranked No. 1. All too reminiscent of the 2012 version, the outlandish resurrection to the top of the polls. Trojan spoilers.
I can still feel the anguish of that 50-year-old, final, last-minute Trojan touchdown pass. Oh, the heartache.
The hurt may have been worse my freshman year at Notre Dame. Joe Theismann for Heisman. Notre Dame unbeaten going to L.A. The Saturday after Thanksgiving. In line for the national title. Theismann throws for 526 yards. And the Irish lose in the rain 38-28. I was crestfallen, crushed.
I cannot recall a loss in five decades of Notre Dame football that personally hurt more.
Oh, there have been other stinging defeats out there. The big halftime lead that evaporated, Anthony Davis’ six TDs, the Montana year when a referee converted a USC fumble into an incomplete pass (propelling the Trojans to a game winning field goal), the Faust game when the winning touchdown was scored as the USC running back vaulted over the goal-line pile-up — without the ball (sitting there, on the ground, behind the feet of the offensive linemen, the hand-off from the quarterback never completed).
There are bad memories as well from South Bend games — the Bush Push, the goal-line fumble returned by SC for a 99-yard touchdown.
When I think of old ND-USC games, I see the Irish grinding and battling inches at a time, painstakingly marching downfield to perhaps score, perhaps cut the margin to three or four, to maybe have a chance, only to have the Trojans throw about four of those deep crossing patterns to fleet, deer-like receivers leaping and bounding, hauling in 30-yard perfect spirals, taking about 90 seconds to undo what the plodding Irish struggled to accomplish, one first-down at a time.
When I recall games of the Pete Carroll era, I simply wilt with the embarrassment of futility.
I hardly remember the 11 consecutive seasons Notre Dame bested the Trojans, or the Tony Rice triumph, Eric Penick’s run, the green jerseys and Trojan Horse — all leading to national championships for Notre Dame.
So it was this history that accompanied me as the day grew close for yet another season-climactic encounter with the Trojans — out there, unbeaten, Thanksgiving weekend. And, of course, it wasn’t just the football — for football is so much more than the game itself.
Notre Dame-USC is a clash of cultures. You can count the ways.
In the end I couldn’t not watch.
For one thing, it occurred to me what ancient history I was bound by. And how the emotional distancing I had done in recent times to protect myself from disappointment and heartbreak had robbed me of joy and genuine celebration (although, let’s face it, there’s been quite the long dry spell since there’s been a win worth celebrating with much real joy).
Besides, this was a different Notre Dame team. You could feel it watching them play, what they bring to the games.
So there we were: a household that included three 8-year-olds who had never stayed up past 10, armed with homemade pennants and signs, prepared for any eventuality, primed for a shot at a national championship, experiencing their father’s and mother’s cries of frustration and delight, their hand slaps and hugs.
It was a good game. Fun.
The ghosts aren’t completely gone, of course, but now they’re a lot less haunting.
And now I take back what I’d been saying for a month: “If we can just beat USC and go through the regular season unbeaten, I don’t care about the 13th game, what bowl we’re in, who we play.”
No longer true, not completely — although I’m all for savoring what the team has accomplished already.
Kerry Temple is the editor of this magazine. Contact him at email@example.com.