Anyone with any interest in college football has either watched or heard about some miracle comeback by some Notre Dame football team at one time or another. It is part of the mystique of the institution and the lore of American sports.
During the 2006 football game against UCLA, few fans in the stadium or watching at home on television could have had much hope that they would get to see another amazing finish. After all, the Irish were losing and after gaining the ball with seven minutes to go in the game had punted it away. Then they got it back a few moments later only to have a receiver fall out of bounds just short of a first down, and the Heisman-candidate quarterback fail on a fourth and one play. When Notre Dame got the ball back one more time with very few ticks left on the clock, fans nervously nodded that it would take a miracle.
The miracle happened. The quarterback who had failed on that earlier sneak threw a perfect pass to a flanker who almost went down as he hurtled toward the end zone, but somehow stayed on his feet and scored the winning touchdown. There was a momentary gasp and then a roar from the fans in the revered stadium and from viewers before television sets around the nation. Another one of those improbable Notre Dame finishes had occurred. One could almost hear the word “amazing!” repeated over and over wherever fans were congregated.
I was one of the 80,000 people in the stadium that afternoon. The touchdown was fantastic, but it was the rest of day on the campus that was even more special for me. It just had to be, actually. My wife and I were bringing our 9-year-old grandson to his first visit to Notre Dame. She, a Saint Mary’s girl, and I, a history master’s and doctoral graduate, wanted Will’s initial exposure to our campus to be perfect.
Like the football game, Saturday did not start out well. At 9 a.m., the weather was drizzly, and weathermen were predicting rain by the beginning of the fourth quarter. We had given Will his first camera, but there seemed little possibility of any good photos in that grim weather. He seemed disappointed, but not nearly as much as I was.
We walked past the practice fields toward the stadium, and when Will saw the smooth grass on a soccer field, he perked up. Soccer was his sport, and this field was a lot better than any place he had ever played on. In the distance between some trees, he could see the Golden Dome. “Where’s ‘Touchdown Jesus’?” he asked.
His father and uncle, non-Notre Dame grads, wanted to get to the bookstore early to avoid the crowds, but masses of people were already there when we arrived. “Look over there,” Will’s grandmother called out to him. “That’s Hannah Storm signing books. She’s on television in the morning.” He was mildly impressed, but he was more interested in getting an ND football jersey than watching a television personality he had never heard of. So his father weaved him around the store to find the right shirt, with the right number, at the best price. I tried to get him interested in the book section where the required readings for the history department were located, but there was too much else to see. Thick books could wait for another day.
After a lot of searching and a long wait in one of the winding cash register lines, Will came out of the bookstore proudly carrying a blue football jersey with the number “83” on it. “Whose number is that?” I asked. “That’s Jeff Samardzija,” he replied, as he tore off his jacket to don his uniform.
By this time, the campus was jammed with fans of all sizes and shapes. Everywhere we looked there was blue and gold and green on a variety of hats and shirts and skirts and sweaters, and even some kilts. It was not easy walking through the crowds, especially with a 9-year-old looking in all directions at the same time.
Priests today and yesterday
I had arranged to see an old friend, historian Father Wilson Miscamble, CSC, so we moved toward the Corby Hall porch where we were to gather. “Hey, Will,” I said, “we’ll get to see ‘Fair Catch’ Corby.” Civil War historian that I am, I then launched into my best lecture on the battle of Gettysburg and Father Corby’s blessing of the troops there. Will was mildly interested in that Civil War stuff, but he really wanted to hear more about the “fair catch” part of it. When he saw the statue, he understood.
We had made it to Corby Hall a little early, and while I waited for Father Bill, Jeanne and our sons took Will to the Grotto. They got as close as they could, but the crowd was so large that they were unable to light a candle. We had wanted Will to do that, but it was not to be. Still he felt the fervor of the people, many no doubt praying for a victory, but others revisiting a place where they had prayed for more personal needs in the past.
We settled on the Corby Hall porch rockers, and Father Bill, the slim Australian who had recently completed a term as superior of Moreau Seminary, came bounding out the door. He took us inside and handed me a brochure on the Holy Cross fathers, no doubt jogging me to do a little vocation work on Will.
He took us into a reception room, which I noted was named after the famous ND chemist Father Julius Nieuwland. As a teaching assistant to historian Phil Gleason in the early 1960s, I had helped teach an American history class in the old chemistry building named after the priest. Will looked around the room and watched the tall Holy Cross priest with his Australian accent. When I bragged about Will’s soccer prowess, Father Bill said: “We give soccer scholarships here, have a great women’s team, and now the men are doing very well, too. Will, keep working at it and get a scholarship.”
Will was obviously impressed. Just then, we could see through a window that the sun was starting to shine. The day was becoming bright. The leaves were shimmering on the trees. It was getting time for the football team to leave Mass to walk through the campus to the stadium and prepare for the game. Father Bill noticed Will’s attention begin to wander and told him where to go to see the players pass by. Will practically sprinted to the site. A few minutes later he came back beaming. He had high-fived quarterback Brady Quinn.
We took some pictures around Father Corby’s statue and began moving toward the Architecture Building to watch the band perform. In my first days on campus in 1961, that building had been the library, and I talked about all the hours I had spent there and later in the new library with the “Touchdown Jesus” mural on the front and the statue of “We’re Number 1 Moses” along one side.
We listened to the band and then got in position along a sidewalk to watch it march by toward the stadium. My wife maneuvered Will under and in between some tall football fans to the edge of the sidewalk. As she looked, Jeanne saw a former pastor and assistant from our church in Starkville, Mississippi: two Irish priests, no less, Father Mike O’Brien and Father Gerry Hurley. In that packed mass of humanity, we had somehow run into each other. Soon the band began marching by, and Will high-fived the leprechaun. He had made contact with two of the major figures on campus on a football Saturday and was wearing the number of still another.
We walked toward the basilica, and Will’s head began tilting back. “Wow, what a tall building,” he said. Once inside, he dutifully looked at everything, his mother having told him when he left her behind in Memphis that the church was her favorite building on campus. Will was especially impressed with the altar and the fact that we could walk around behind it. When we passed Washington Hall, Jeanne and I told him that this was the place where we had first begun dating more than 40 years ago. He smiled, realizing, I think, that it was in that building that his Papa and Memaw had begun the journey toward their now 41-year-long marriage.
We walked toward the library, past the memorial to veterans, and he came to see in a new way my service in Vietnam. He spotted Moses and agreed that he was saying “We’re No. 1.” We crossed in front of the library, past the reflecting pool, and looked back at “Touchdown Jesus” towering over us. I recalled the day the building had been dedicated and how it stood on part of what had once been the original football stadium and later practice fields. As we walked toward the stadium built because of Knute Rockne’s 1920s successes, I told Will how his great-grandmother had babysat for the legendary coach’s family, and how his great-uncle had played sandlot football in South Bend with some of the Rock’s sons, sometimes with the coach himself watching at a distance. Will thought of these relatives in a new way.
His eyes were glued on the stadium, and he stopped to take a picture of it and have his picture taken in front of it. We had three pairs of two tickets apiece, so we split them up and went to our sections, he and I sitting together. All the festivities were amazing, and the game went back and forth. Notre Dame led briefly but fell behind until the miracle finish. All during the game, I kept thinking: “We have to win; I want this boy to experience a perfect day.” Sure enough, it happened. Samardzja caught the pass thrown by Quinn: Will had high-fived the quarterback and was wearing the pass catcher’s jersey. He shared directly in the amazing victory, and he beamed.
It was a great football game, but, more important to all of us, it was a great day on the campus. Will had experienced Notre Dame, its beauty, its lore, its people and its legendary sports heroics. It was an exciting day for a grandson, and a satisfying day for a grandfather. There was magic that Saturday at Notre Dame, and not all of it took place on the football field.