I learned the true value of Notre Dame football during the Davie, Willingham and Weis eras.
My friends still came to the games, they still tailgated and still talked football and old times. They happily stood in line for student-grilled hotdogs, threaded their way through the bookstore, mashed forward to see the drum circle at Bond Hall.
They still paraded with the band when it stepped off on the God Quad and later went to Mass 30 minutes after the conclusion of the day’s game.
The game would be entertaining or frustrating or disappointing or uplifting. We still went out for pizza at Rocco’s and talked about football and our kids and Notre Dame and life passing.
The rituals endured, the ceremonial traditions persisted and the football games made all this happen — but it all continued to happen despite what happened on the field. Football brought us together for these communal celebrations. Teams and coaches came and went, but people still made their pilgrimages, still stopped by the Grotto, still toasted life and laughed and headed home on Sunday.
Football weekends are more than the game alone.
That’s what I was thinking this past Saturday when pulling on rain gear and layers of warmth for the Stanford game. The game could be seen at home on TV.
But this was my daughter’s turn for a game and, despite the cold winds and rain and bleak, ornery outlook, she wanted to go — this the 10-year-old who curls up on the couch to read a book while the rest of the family watches Fighting Irish football on TV. (And if there’s a particularly exciting climax and all the rest of us are cheering and jumping and exchanging high-fives, she might look up and one of us will yell, “Notre Dame won,” and she might say, “Oh. Well good.”)
But she wanted to take her turn on this dismal Saturday and the weather was no deterrent. While rain soaked the world, it did not dampen her mood.
She climbed a tree to get a squirrel’s eye view of the band marching by. She cooperated when I insisted on draping the poncho over her pink coat long before we headed to the stadium. She resisted most of the water puddles and soggy low spots in the sod, obediently keeping her fluorescent yellow-green sneakers with the hot pink shoelaces dry for as long as possible.
Despite the heavy gray ceiling of clouds over the stadium, the spitting rain and the whipping wind, there was a spirit in the air, a festive feeling, as there always is. Men were clad in rain suits, couples swathed in matching ponchos obviously bought earlier in the day. There were grim faces and grins, people bound together in a devotion that defied the elements and the forecast. Smiles came with looks of recognition: Can you believe we’re out here doing this?
Bob and Debbie Zerr have had seats next to my pair for 35 years. Still, as we were settling in for the afternoon’s cold soak, I said, “Don’t you wonder what you’re doing here?” Bob laughed and said yeah. But we knew.
Neal Kemp ’76, whom I’ve known since the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day 1971, was sitting somewhere, having brought a friend to her first Notre Dame game. Nice welcome — but also a reminder that for many folks this is their one game in a year, maybe a decade. And many have traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles to be here, on this particular day.
My seats are in the south endzone, last row of the old part of the stadium — the lower bowl — and on an aisle. So people arriving to the upper level emerge from the opening behind me and take in the view before heading up to their seats. Touchdown Jesus stands tall in the background.
One day last year — a sunny, blue sky afternoon, lush green grass below — I heard someone exclaim, “Oh, Margie, this is the most beautiful sight these old eyes have ever seen.” I turned and saw an older man, with twinkling blue eyes and sun-darkened skin deep-lined with the years, standing there and smiling with a radiance I’ll never forget.
I figured it to be his first time. He stood to take it all in — a view I’ve had five or six times a year for 35 years.
It was an eloquent statement of what the place means to so many — and a happy reminder to counter those feelings that do seep in among those of us who have trafficked the institutional corridors so long.
It’s a good antidote to such place-fatigue to watch the crowd, to see the enthusiasm on people’s faces, to live in the sharpness of the moment . . . and for three or four hours not think about ISIS or Ebola, Republicans or Democrats, the dreaded Monday meeting, the recalcitrant teenager or the well pump that needs replaced. Where the biggest problem may be a fumble or a missed field goal or getting stuffed yet again running right up the middle.
And it’s really good to be there with your daughter, who’s cheerful in the descending dark, whose grandparents are three sections over, whose thin woolen gloves are wet as sponges but who makes a second-quarter bathroom break its own fun-filled adventure.
It wasn’t just bathroom trip; it was the concession stand and the pretzel and warming her fingers on the foil-wrapped hotdogs when the very nice man said, “Here ya go, sweetie,” and gave her hand-warmers and showed her how to squeeze and rub them till they generated the warmth of campfire coals, making her smile and marvel, the man who had driven six hours from Madison, Indiana, and had tailgated in the front seat of his car for four hours, his one game of the year being this rain-drenched day.
And it was the second half when those who remained seemed elevated in spirit, not beaten down by the cold and rain and wind. And the eight soggy, foot-stamping friends standing around us, their one game of the year, all in their middle years, cheering, groaning, questioning play calls, yelling when receivers dropped passes. And my daughter’s toes going numb, in those yellow-green fluorescent sneakers, rubbing the hand-warmers deep in her pockets and on her cheeks and nose, but her not complaining or wanting to be anywhere but here, standing with all the grownups yelling and cheering, going dead silent when the Stanford halfback trotted untouched into the end zone to take the lead.
Her body had the shivers when Notre Dame took over at the 35, three minutes to play. So I held her tight and rubbed her shoulders and got us bouncing up and down. And I offered a play-by-play, giving her down and distance, telling her what hung in the balance on each anxious snap. Until . . . “Fourth down, this is it, we’re out of chances, win or lose on this play right here. We need 11 yards on this play right here. Or it’s over.”
She was jumping, too, when Koyack caught the pass, high-fiving and hugging me back. Everyone around us did, hugging and slapping gloved hands.
“Look around,” I told her. “Look at all the people. Look how happy they are.” And they were. We both scanned the raucous crowd. The cold, dark stadium had erupted in elation. Arms waved; the place was jubilantly, exuberantly wild. Spirits were soaring. All of us together, those who had stayed till the end.
A football game.
More than that really.
When I tucked her into bed that night, dry and cozy, I thanked her for the day together and asked her what her favorite part had been. Maybe the hand-warmers, I thought, or climbing the tree or the hot dogs or pretzel; maybe the heater in the bathroom.
“When he caught the ball,” she said, and I kissed her goodnight.
Kerry Temple is the editor of this magazine.