You remember when you first heard about Fighting Irish football. It was the first time you’d ever heard of Notre Dame. The game served as an introduction to the institution, the sport the school’s emissary.
You were probably told that the teams used to be very good, the best in the land, a tradition of winning. And they often overcame incredible odds to be victorious, to triumph over more heralded opponents. An underdog past. Catholic boys proving their worth, fighting their way into mainstream America, capturing the imagination of a sports-addicted nation whose playing fields set the stage for morality plays of good versus evil.
Notre Dame did it the right way, the virtuous way. Its players were students who attended class and graduated. They lived in residence halls with other real students. They gave you reason to hope, to cheer, to attach your conceits to real-life heroes. They carried your dreams, your sense of justice into epic gridiron battles. And you cared so deeply that losing hurt, caused your heart to ache, your mood to be altered (maybe for days in a post-plummet funk).
Some of you have gone so far as to stop watching the team live, preferring the emotional distancing of watching replays — but only after victory has been assured in real time.
Most everyone else knows it is only a game. The players mere people, the school so much more than its football team — losing or winning. Still, when Domers get together, when alumni convene, when faculty and administrators gather round long tables for the serious business of making Notre Dame a first-rate research university and top-rank institution of higher learning, the talk eventually will turn to football (at least fleetingly). And most concede — when it’s pointed out — that the place’s self-esteem, its sense of well-being, rises and falls, ebbs and flows with the fortunes of the gold-helmeted Fighting Irish.
It can just make us feel good about ourselves.
And it is, along with everything else college football has become, a colossal enterprise, a multimillion-dollar industry, a complex machine of television deals and bowl revenue and international travel and ticket prices and scandal and feel-good stories and stunning contracts for coaches hailed and pressured to be the latest savior of Notre Dame football.
It all began 125 years ago, and over the next 12 decades Notre Dame football came to be one of America’s longest-running dramas. It made a mediocre Midwestern Catholic college one of the most celebrated institutions in the world, and the games and the band and the rituals and the traditions and the coming together have done as much as anything else — from Catholic character to academic excellence — to make the place what it is today.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.