My first awareness of anti-Notre Dame sentiments came in 1966. It was especially puzzling because it came from classmates at my Catholic high school whose religious affiliation did not override their loyalty toward Southeastern Conference football.
My Louisiana friends hated that Notre Dame — having settled for a 10-10 tie with Michigan State — had finished first that season, and without going to a bowl game. Alabama had gone 11-0, outscoring its opponents 301-44, including whopping Nebraska 34-7 in the Orange Bowl.
So I endured lots of Notre Dame animosity from friends growing up. It was partly geographic, partly religious and largely the kind of ill will that gets directed toward those on top too long. I get it.
But my allegiances were fashioned early on — if not in the actual DNA, surely in the formation of my soul.
So, to me, the 1973 Sugar Bowl matchup against the Alabama Crimson Tide my senior year at Notre Dame was the Great Reckoning. Time to settle it on the field.
The game was in my home state. Eight or 10 Notre Dame friends together for a week in New Orleans (where the drinking age was 18). And all staying at a house in Metairie, Louisiana — actually the dance studio of the mother-in-law of my former high school basketball coach (one large room with plenty of floor space, some cots and floor-to-ceiling mirrors on every wall).
It was the mother-in-law who, the morning after our first foray on Bourbon Street, said the best way to beat a hangover was to start drinking all over again. She then handed me a beer for breakfast. It worked.
New Orleans is the best place in the world for a bowl game. The French Quarter is a wonderfully compact arena full of fun and festivities, food and drink and that Cajun spirit of laissez les bons temps roulez. Irish and ’Bama fans all rubbed together, and I saw no incidents of friction beyond the friendly, good-natured banter — and lots of “Roll, Tide, Roll!”
We took a streetcar to the game on a chilly, drizzly New Year’s Eve night, and what a game it was.
Two great teams, Ara Parseghian and Bear Bryant, lots of exciting plays, momentum swings, turnovers, rollicking highs and lows. Alabama scored on a halfback pass, Notre Dame on a 93-yard kickoff return. The Tide scored a touchdown to take the lead with 9:33 left, but missed the extra point — 23-21. With 4:26 remaining, Bob Thomas kicked an Irish field goal to reclaim the lead 24-23.
Then ‘Bama drove to midfield, faced with third down and short, and opted to punt. The kick pinned Irish to the goal line, backs to the wall. Two running plays got nothing, making it third and long. A fourth down punt seemed imminent. The Tide would get the ball in great field position; the game-winning field goal seemed inevitable.
I knew even then it was presumptuous of me to pray for a Notre Dame victory. I knew I wasn’t the only person in Tulane Stadium that night praying fervently for one team or the other. I knew the theological limitations of my thinking, knew how childish, misdirected and misguided it was. I knew for sure that God didn’t care. I prayed anyway.
Please, oh, please, I said. This is it. My senior year. My home state. Notre Dame and Alabama. Surrounded by my best friends. My sister, Kenton — SMC 1970 — is in the row behind me. The national championship is on the line. The stars have all aligned.
We were sitting in the end zone right behind the Notre Dame 11 as Tom Clements stepped under center. Clements dropped back to pass from the end zone. The ’Bama defensive end had him dead in his sights. As I fear a safety, Clements nimbly steps to the side and lofts a pass toward the sidelines.
I spy Robin Weber, a backup tight end. He is open, the ball is arcing toward him. It is so high. It feels like it will never come down.
But the catch is made. And we erupt in pandemonium. The game is over. The national championship is ours.
And we’re all running, jumping, leaping, dancing, hugging on the wet Sugar Bowl grass. People I don’t know . . . we’re all hugging joyously. Jubilantly. The human spirit soaring.
Then, I finally stop and look around and see no one I know. People have scattered, drifted away, taking the celebration to the French Quarter. It is raining harder.
Years later at a reunion we talked about that week, and how it took some days for us all to find each other again — who found floor space among strangers in a hotel room, who was spotted sleeping on a park bench, who was spied riding atop a Winnebago on Canal Street, how we all managed eventually to find each other or the dance studio out in Metairie.
That was the game of my life. The apex, a most exultant moment.
I hope this year — as ’Bama and the Irish meet again for the national championship — that another generation of Notre Dame fans get theirs.
Kerry Temple, editor of this magazine, also enjoyed the next season’s Orange Bowl when 11-0 Alabama lost to 9-2 Notre Dame in Ara Parseghian’s final game, 13-11.