Sometimes you get blindsided.
There I was, happily getting ready for the season opener. Notre Dame-Purdue. The launch of the Brian Kelly era. Beautiful day. The whole family — all five of us — getting dressed, packing food, stuffing the foam football into the backpack.
But then my wife reported the weather forecast. That’s when it happened. Because it made me think about my parents in Louisiana who religiously watch the games on TV. And how, as I watch the game from Notre Dame, I think of how it appears to them on a screen in Louisiana. “It looked cold,” my mom might say on some November Sunday. “Were you warm enough?”
Somehow seeing the same game from different vantage points sharpened the shared experience. I’d take in all the sights and sounds but also be thinking how it would appear to my parents on television, and a post-game phone call would bring the two into focus.
Except today my parents wouldn’t be watching. Neither is still alive.
And thus the blindside hit, the unexpected wave of emotion rolling through me, squeezing the throat.
For the first time neither my mom nor my dad would have their old, plush chairs pushed close to the TV, basking in the whole Notre Dame experience from a den 1,000 miles away. That room was empty. They were gone.
And so tears came. And I ducked into a room to be alone.
It’s interesting how this works — how some random thought, perhaps only a tenuous bridge to a lost loved one, alights on the psyche, igniting a surge of feeling. Fleeting thought. Physiological response.
Only then do the memories come, the conscious sense of loss. Leaving you to marvel: Whoa, where did that come from?
My parents loved Notre Dame, and they loved Notre Dame football. They were firm believers that the football team carried into gridiron battle all those lofty Notre Dame ideals.
It isn’t easy being a Notre Dame fan in north Louisiana. Catholics are a minority, and the LSU Tigers — clearly representing something different from Notre Dame — rule the roost. My mild-mannered father, who kept almost everything else inside, brazenly carried his Notre Dame flag into every football conversation, irritating his friends and embarrassing his wife.
Unfortunately, Notre Dame and LSU have met often on the football field, so the bragging rights get passed back and forth — no more so than in 1997 when my parents bravely joined a bus trip to Baton Rouge when Bob Davie took a 4-5 squad into the maw of Tiger Stadium to face 11th-ranked LSU.
Despite the fears, the Irish were not eaten alive that night, but won 24-6, sending all those “Geaux Tigers” fans home by the end of the third quarter. My mother said she would have been happy to have died and gone to heaven right then and there.
As it turned out, they lived another 13 years and got to see plenty of dismal Notre Dame performances, including a dreary 27-9 loss to LSU in their hometown’s Independence Bowl only a few months after that heavenly Baton Rouge triumph.
There’s now more than a half century of Notre Dame football memories tying me to my parents, from all those heartbreaking losses to USC ruining Thanksgiving weekends to a couple of pilgrimages they made to Notre Dame Stadium.
But one story stands tall in the family album. My freshman year, 1970, about a dozen friends gathered in Shreveport just prior to the New Year’s Day Cotton Bowl with No. 1 Texas.
So . . . New Year’s Eve in Shreveport, drinking age 18. The plan is to party but leave the next morning at 6 for the drive to Dallas. The reality? A dozen 18-year-olds trundling home from the bars about 1 a.m., all sacking out in my parents’ bedroom. Pillow fight. My dad telling us to get some sleep. Big pillow fight — feather pillows. Feathers flying everywhere, making the pillow fight even more fun than before. My dad at 3 a.m. handing me the vacuum sweeper. “I want every single feather picked up before we leave for Dallas in three hours.”
Notre Dame 24, Texas 11. Feathers persisting for years.
Sometimes people say it’s just a game, it’s only sports. But it’s not. It’s friends and family, and the traditions and memories and experiences that bring friends and families together. We don’t think the games are secondary to all that, and it’s best to pretend that the games are what really matter.
But this past Saturday, when I thought about Notre Dame football and my missing parents, and walked around campus, and watched the band step off, climbed into my seat with no parents watching from home, I knew better. And every time I thought of them? That damn clutch at the throat, that irksome threat of a tear.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.