Dad looks over one shoulder, then the other.
My mother is around somewhere, perhaps down the hall talking to friends or maybe in the kitchen putting appetizers on a small plate. She will be back soon. My father’s eyes, assuring and eager, suggest that if I follow him it will be worth it.
I take his hand. And I walk toward a lifelong love affair with Notre Dame.
It was January 1, 1991, and my parents had accepted a New Year’s party invitation. That day, that moment, the Irish were playing in the Orange Bowl. In those archaic, nerve-frazzling days before scoreboard updates vibrated in the palm of your hand, we’d listened to the car radio on the way over and knew the game was close.
Somewhere in the host’s house was a television sitting unused. Our mission was to find it.
We turned corners and opened doors, eventually discovering a spare room. Dad adjusted the rabbit ears on an ancient, bubble-screened Zenith. Party noise floated through the walls in a blurred echo, as if Charlie Brown’s teacher were narrating the proceedings taking place in the living room. As the picture crept into focus, Dad cranked the volume. Dick Enberg’s velvety baritone filled the room.
I was only 10, but my football acumen was advanced enough to understand Notre Dame, down 10-9 with a minute to go, was in trouble. Dad crossed his arms. I mimicked his anxiety.
The Irish needed a miracle.
Then they got it.
Facing fourth down from midfield, Colorado punter Tom Rouen inexplicably kicked to The Rocket. Ismail fielded the ball inside his own 10.
We watched Rocket pinballing off flummoxed tacklers, racing past a stunned Colorado sideline, being buried beneath a pile of teammates in the back of the end zone.
My father was hopping up and down, arms raised. I mimicked his excitement by jumping maniacally on the bed. We were laughing and screaming and doing an improvisational jig.
Suddenly Dad stopped. He saw the flag.
I was 8 when Notre Dame defeated West Virginia in the ’89 Fiesta Bowl. My father assures me I was beside him on the couch, but I don’t remember watching Tony Rice swivel-hip his way through the Mountaineer defense.
Rocket’s negated return is my first, traceable, Irish memory. My baseline was heartbreak.
I wept after that party, the first time I recall crying about anything not related to family or friends or report cards. While I hated that Notre Dame lost, I liked the way caring about something with such tenacity made me feel. Proud. Involved. Committed.
Undoubtedly, my dad was pleased his son had been afflicted with the fever that is Irish football. He knew then what I understand now: It has no cure.
Some families have recipes on old index cards or a lake cabin up north. The O’Brien’s have the Fighting Irish. I never met my grandfather, he died before I was born, but my dad and uncle tell stories about how on Sunday mornings before church he had them in front of the television watching Lindsey Nelson narrate black-and-white Notre Dame highlights.
One family religion then the other.
Did you go to Notre Dame?
I’ve been asked that everywhere from South Bend, where I travel each September with my Irish Brothers From Another Mother (IB’sFAM), to Ireland, where my wife and I honeymooned in 2011.
Truth is, I did not go to Notre Dame, and this confession often evokes a puzzled look.
The face-scrunchers wonder why I care so much. After all, I never lived in Dillon Hall, never crammed for a final in the Hesburgh Library. While it’s true I don’t know the school with the intimacy of an alumnus, I still harbor a burning passion for the Irish.
This is the magic of Notre Dame.
For 20 years I’ve kept a faded Ticketmaster stub from the first game Dad and I ever went to — Notre Dame/Northwestern, Soldier Field, 1992.
I’ve hugged an 82-year-old stranger in the Notre Dame Stadium stands as the clock dwindled down on a heart-pounding thriller.
I’ve thrown a football to a smiling child atop the well-worn grass of a campus quad.
I’ve seen a person seized by delight when the band, trombones flaring, goes marching by.
I’ve served as my wife’s tour guide the first time she visited campus.
I’ve prayed in the Grotto.
Sunday morning after the USC game, I sat down and watched the highlights.
I thought about my dad and his brother and my grandfather and my sister (she has become a pretty impressive fan herself). I thought about my IB’sFAM and the games we’ve watched over the years. I thought about Boston College not once, but twice. I thought about Willingham and Weis. (I started to think about O’Leary, but the notion disappeared as quickly as it came.) I thought about a decade of Trojan dominance. JaMarcus Russell picking apart the ND secondary with Superdome-scraping moon balls. The Bush Push. Navy in 2007. Air Force in 2007. All of 2007.
Then I thought about this year’s squad and what a magical, unexpected ride 2012 has been.
Is it silly for a 31-year-old who never attended a single class in South Bend to get emotional over a football team he never played for?
Maybe. Probably. But I can’t help it.
I will always be the boy who lives for Saturdays in the fall. The boy doing whatever is necessary to watch the Irish. The boy jumping up and down on the bed.
Brendan J. O’Brien is the Communications Director at St. Catherine’s High School in southeastern Wisconsin. His writing has been published in numerous places including Hint Fiction: An Anthology (W.W. Norton & Company), Stymie Magazine, Inside Wisconsin Sports, and “OnMilwaukee.com”: OnMilwaukee.com.