The arrival call came at 3:15 on Thursday afternoon from the Walmart on Portage Avenue. My brother, Tom, wanted me to know that he and his friend were in town after a long day’s drive. They were nervous about his North Carolina license plate and they had a question: If they bought those little ND flags that attach to your car doors, would that be socially acceptable?
I told them they would fit right in.
An hour later, a second phone call. They’d followed my directions to campus and were parking at the Grotto. Come meet us, Tom said. We’re the Toyota Tundra pickup truck with the mountain bikes racked up on the tailgate and those little ND flags, brand new, that attach to your car doors. Then I heard Tim Fahey’s voice for the first time over speakerphone. He said, “I’ll be the one rolling around on the grass.”
Tim is a senior chief petty officer in the United States Navy. Born into a Maine family, he grew up Irish Catholic on Air Force bases all over the world and has spent his entire adult life as a Navy corpsman. For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, he’s a lifelong Notre Dame fan. This was his first trip to campus. And it so happened that the day of the football game against the North Carolina Tarheels was his 40th birthday.
Tim and Tom, also a Navy chief, have trained with and served the Marines at Camp Lejeune for more than half their respective careers. They’ve deployed together and they take care of each other’s families when one goes overseas and the other says behind. I’ve heard for years that they even look alike. It’s true.
They’d prepared their spouses and children for this pilgrimage birthday celebration for months. When I finally caught up with them, they were standing between the Basilica and the Main Building. Tim had finished his roll in the grass and was grinning up at the Golden Dome. My wife, Alicia, was already pointing at the statue of the Sacred Heart and telling him the “Jump” joke.
So began a long weekend of reverences, of working to balance Tim’s savant knowledge of Notre Dame football with more about the University itself than he’d have picked up from Saturday broadcasts.
We walked along God Quad while he explained the roots of his Notre Dame devotion. He could trace it as far back as his paternal grandmother’s uncle, a champion prep school football coach out east, who’d brought his team to Chicago to play a worthy opponent from the west. They found themselves sharing a leg of their train journey with the Notre Dame football team, and Knute Rockne generously holding coaches’ council in one of the cars. The young ND coach collegially sketched plays in a notebook and wrote out scripts for locker room speeches befitting all occasions.
That notebook is the undisputed centerpiece of the Fahey family’s collection of Notre Dame memorabilia. The ticket I handed him for Saturday’s contest against the Tarheels is its newest prized companion.
Like all pilgrimages, this one had a strong commercial component. Our first stop was the bookstore, where Tom and Tim spent their money like sailors on shore leave. On Friday they rode their bicycles to campus, stopped in at the Gug to marvel at the trophies, walked up the north tunnel into Notre Dame Stadium. We caught up for lunch at the new Bar Bici restaurant on Eddy Street. I explained how he’d come to Notre Dame just in time: Monday the orange fences would go up for the Campus Crossroads project and the stadium would never be the same.
A trip to see Father Corby was in order. It seemed fitting to me that these late-career enlisted men learn something about the unbroken chain of Holy Cross chaplains whose service began with the outbreak of the Civil War.
Tim never stopped smiling, not even Friday night when the hockey tickets we bought outside Compton minutes before the sold-out first home game of the season turned out to be for the game on Sunday afternoon. Strangely enough, when we returned to the parking lot to find the gentleman and correct the mistake, he was gone.
On Saturday, the sky a brilliant, Carolina blue, we paid a third visit to the bookstore. Tim led us to the Joyce Center where he had a pair of gold helmets signed by Tony Rice and Allen Pinkett. We hit the Alliance for Catholic Education’s generous tailgate party, savored the marching band at Bond Hall and then parted company. I went home with my family to watch the game, make dinner and prepare our gifts: a pair of Notre Dame Magazine football posters and a stadium brick removed during the 1997 expansion.
Meanwhile, our sailors walked to the stadium, where — with no shortage of drama — the 2014 Fighting Irish delivered Senior Chief Tim Fahey the best 40th birthday gift of all.
John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.